Lowry High junior Alejandra Ibarra donned the white lab coat of a doctor in Mrs. Doyle’s science classroom. She had to roll up the sleeves. It was a perfect image for a future doctor.
Ibarra attended the 2017 Congress of Future Medical Leaders in June. The program brought 5,000 medically-inclined teens to the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Lowell for three days of mentoring from world-class scientists and physicians.
She received a letter in February telling her that she had been nominated for the congress. “The day I got the letter, I was so confused,” Ibarra said. “The flap on the envelope said ‘Harvard Square’ and I was surprised and excited at the same time.”
“When I read it, I was ecstatic,” she continued. “I was like, ‘how did this happen? This is crazy!’ But then I thought, it doesn’t matter. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m taking it.”
Her parents weren’t ecstatic about the price tag, though, about $4,000 including travel expenses and meals. “But they wanted me to experience that kind of event. They were proud of me and that was more than I could ask for.”
The congress itself blew her away. “It was amazing,” Ibarra said. “I got to meet Nobel Prize winners, and I got to ask questions face-to-face with professors from Harvard and Georgetown.”
“I got to meet a lot of others who want to be doctors, like I do,” she said. As part of the overnight program, Ibarra stayed in the dorms on UMass Lowell campus with other congress delegates. Her roommate came from Zimbabwe and lived in Arizona. They ate breakfast together with other delegates in the dorm.
“I liked staying in the dorms because it made me feel independent,” she said. “It felt surreal that I was so far from home.” She experienced a twinge of homesickness when she called her mom to let her know she had arrived safely.
“Besides the first emotional minutes, I felt honored to have the privilege of being part of this event,” she said.
Activities peppered the schedule each day, including observation of an esophagus surgery. “It was great. The surgeons were explaining every step of the surgery,” she said.
During meal times, the day’s speakers would circulate and talk to the delegates.
Some speakers stood out in her memory, like Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, the first surgeon in the US to perform a full-face transplant. One of his patients, Carmen Tarleton, also spoke. Tarleton was the fifth person in the US to receive a full-face transplant after her husband beat her and doused her with industrial-strength lye.
“[Dr. Pomahac] saved her life. Everything her husband did to her, she was able to come back.”
During the course of the congress, delegates were inducted into the Society of Torch and Laurel, an honors society for high-achieving high school students. They also took the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm,” a tradition in the medical field that dates back to ancient Greece.
She also remembered therapist and motivational speaker Sean Stephenson. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, he has incredibly fragile bones and is confined to a wheelchair. While getting dressed one day, fell out of his wheelchair, shattering his leg. He screamed, “Why does this happen to me?”
His mom told him that his condition could be either a curse or a blessing, Ibarra continued. “He was a funny guy,” she said. “He asked, ‘Why would she tell me this is a blessing?’” He explained that “it’s not about how you look, but your attitude toward your problems.”
“You have to be positive,” she said. “You can overcome even the biggest problem. Even when you’re in the hardest test of your life, don’t stop.”
Ibarra’s inspiration to become a doctor came from her family. Two family members, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, currently practice in Dallas, Texas. She said she finds medicine “fascinating,” and she knows there is a “great need for caring doctors.”
Regarding college, the 16-year-old AP student said she plans to go where the scholarships take her. Until then, she keeps busy as the managing editor of Lowry’s newspaper, The Brand, swim team, Leadership and National Honor Society.
When asked if the congress changed the way she looked at school or her future plans, she replied, “It changed the way I look at life. All the time, things are thrown at us, and opportunities are shown. And it’s up to us to take them, or acknowledge them, because time flies by.”