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Sarah Stella, MD, Has a Heart for Safety-Net Hospital Medicine


The best advice Sarah Stella, MD, ever received was simple: “You can’t cure everyone, but you can help everyone.” Why has the adage stuck with her?

Sarah Stella, MD

Sarah Stella, MD

Because the advice came from her dad, “and he’s been right about a lot of things before,” she says with a smile.

Dr. Stella got into medicine—clearly with her father’s blessing—to satisfy her “intense curiosity about my fellow human beings and to try to ease suffering.” She has risen to be an academic hospitalist at Denver Health and is one of eight new members of Team Hospitalist, The Hospitalist’s volunteer editorial advisory board.

Question: Tell us about your training. What did you like most/dislike during the process?

Answer: I attended medical school at Michigan State College of Human Medicine. I appreciated their humanistic approach to medical education. I chose the University of Colorado for my internal medicine residency because I love the sunshine and the mountains and because I thought the large academic program would complement my community-based medical school training. I loved being able to easily access nature on my days off.

Q: What do you like most about working as a hospitalist?

A: Spending time with incredible patients and working to solve difficult problems alongside amazing colleagues. I also love the diversity of the work, being involved in direct patient care, teaching students and residents, being a part of committees, performing quality improvement research. I love the flexibility of the job, which allows me to spend time with my family and travel fairly frequently to far-flung places.

Q: Did you have a mentor during your training or early career?

A: My earliest mentor was my father, also a physician [an oncologist]. Some of my earliest medical memories are of going to the hospital with my dad, who also brought home petri dishes from the lab, which my brother and I then used to perform household science experiments. My dad taught me my first lessons about the scientific method and about the importance of a strong work ethic and mentorship. Since then, I have had many outstanding mentors and role models for various aspects of my training/career. During my time at Denver Health, Drs. Richard K. Albert and Marisha Burden have provided me with invaluable mentorship in my scholarly pursuits.

Q: Have you tried to mentor others? Why or why not?

A: I have really loved mentoring students and residents. It is among the most meaningful experiences of my career. Presently, I am a mentor for undergraduate students from underrepresented minority groups. The maturity, passion, and drive these students possess inspires me.

Q: Why is your mentoring focused on minorities? What is the appeal of that to you?

A: I mentor students and residents from all backgrounds. However, mentoring students from underrepresented minority groups is especially important to me. Ethnic minorities continue to have decreased access to healthcare and disproportionately high morbidity and mortality. In order to improve these disparities, we need to have more healthcare providers from these groups. Yet such students, while they may initially be attracted to a career in medicine, are much less likely to maintain their interest. The reasons for this are complicated but may be explained by differences in access to mentors to help guide and inspire them, write letters, etc.

Q: As a hospitalist, seeing most of your patients for the very first time, what aspect of patient care is most challenging?

A: Developing a rapport with patients. I try to use some techniques from social psychology to help me more easily. The hospital is a particularly depersonalizing place, so trying to see the person behind the patient does help.

Q: What aspect of patient care is most rewarding?

A: Really connecting with patients and seeing them thrive. Working at a safety-net hospital, I have the privilege of caring for some of the most underserved but some of the most gracious and beautiful people.

Q: Are you on teaching service? If so, what aspect of teaching in the 21st century is most difficult? And what is most enjoyable?

A: I do enjoy supervising medical students and residents at all levels and attend frequently on the medical wards. I particularly love teaching medical students because of their enthusiasm and curiosity. I love being reminded of basic pathophysiology by a thoughtfully asked question from a medical student. I am a big advocate of bedside rounding. Finding a way to do this efficiently and while teaching to all the levels on the team is challenging. Also, I still enjoy my own direct patient care activities and feel that they challenge me in a different way and make me a better teacher.

Q: Outside of patient care, tell us about your career interests.

A: My research has focused on understanding problems experienced by patients following hospital discharge and designing systems to help ameliorate them. On an institutional level, I serve on several committees, including the Utilization Review Committee, and a group aiming to improve collaboration between hospitalists and primary care physicians and improve discharge transitions. I have participated in several LEAN events aimed at understanding and improving various systems issues.

Q: When you aren’t working, what is important to you?

A: My family and friends, sunshine, and travel. My husband grew up in Papua, New Guinea, and Australia, and both of his parents are physicians, so he is very understanding and not the least bit grossed out when I regale him with stories involving bodily fluids. We have a beautiful, inquisitive 3-year-old daughter and her furry older sister, Ginger Wasabi Ninja. As the oldest of seven, I also love hanging out with my siblings.

Q: What SHM event has made the most lasting impression on you?

A: I really enjoyed HM16, particularly the keynote address by our U.S. Surgeon General and fellow hospitalist, Vivek Murthy, MD, who discussed the role hospitalists can play in public health. His message that we hospitalists should put as much of an effort into trying to improve health outside the walls of the hospital as we do within the walls really resonated with me and has encouraged me to get more involved in the community. TH

Richard Quinn is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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