Passion for Global Health Drives Medical Student
Tracy Cassagnol almost chose a career in journalism, but an undergraduate trip to report on farm workers in the Bahamas sparked a change of heart.
"I became very invested in the story and frustrated by it because these farm workers had a lot of health needs," she explained. "They were undocumented and lacked access to clinics. I realized I wanted to hear people's stories but also to do something to help them. Health care is a good way to do that, and the more I looked into it, it seemed like a perfect fit."
Cassagnol, a University of Florida at Gainesville student at the time, ended up with a double major in journalism and biology. She credits a high school teacher with igniting her love for biology. As the daughter of a nurse, she had volunteered as a candy striper at a hospital.
While walking through the Coy C. Carpenter Library on her first campus visit, a poster about an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship project in a local elementary school caught her attention.
"I spent part of my childhood in Haiti, so that name really meant something to me," she said. "The Carnegie-Mellon Foundation built and named a hospital there in honor of Albert Schweitzer. I went to it once after getting sick, and my father credited doctors there with saving his life after an axe fell on his foot while working in the fields."
During her first year, she and classmate Brianna Crosby won a Schweitzer grant to operate a camp for ninth- through 12th-graders at Winston Lake Family YMCA, where they invited health professionals to talk to the teenagers about medical careers.
Cassagnol learned about international fellowships at Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon, and applied for an annual fellowship. Candidates must speak fluent French, and she met that requirement, having learned the language during her childhood in Haiti. After an in-person interview conducted in French, Cassagnol became the first Wake Forest School of Medicine student awarded a Lambaréné Fellowship.
"After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I had a strong belief that I needed to go back at some point and work in the medical field there, but I didn't know if I could do it," she said. "For me, the fellowship was a test. Could I live up to my ideals? Could I meet the challenges that come with working globally? Going to Lambaréné, I learned that I could work in that setting."
She found West African culture not that different from Haitian culture. The difficult adjustment came in the hospital, where resources were vastly different and many patients were at the end stages of their illness, having never seen a physician.
A Perfect Match
Cassagnol will graduate from Wake Forest School of Medicine in May 2013. During the annual Match Day held in March, she learned where she would spend her residency training. She was thrilled to be matched with her top choice, the Family Medicine residency program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
"I looked for residency opportunities with strong family medicine programs that would train me in obstetrics, pediatrics and adult medicine," she said. When I was abroad, I realized the need to be as versatile as possible. I also focused on programs that had some global health focus, so if I want to do an elective abroad in my third year, that will be a possibility."
Whether she ends up in Haiti, returns to Gabon as many Lambaréné Fellows do, or ventures to new territory, Cassagnol is committed to helping those most in need. Her counsel to younger medical students is simple.
"You have to figure out who you are, what makes you tick, and what you value," she advises. "Once you do, you have to be true to that. If you're really invested in something, it shows in the results."