After being paired up at Massachusetts General Hospital for a curricular component during their first year of medical school, second-year Harvard Medical School students Samantha J. Sadler and Jennifer E. Rowley discovered that they each lived with serious medical conditions.
When the two opened up to each other about their conditions, according to Sadler, they began looking into the prevalence of medical school students with chronic illnesses, health conditions, or disabilities, searching for a community of individuals who shared similar experiences to their own.
They also began discussing the idea of a creative project to highlight the narratives and experiences of these students.
Those early conversations led to the formation of UNCONDITIONAL Publishing, a digital platform dedicated to increasing visibility, representation, and advocacy for students who have experienced or are currently living with illnesses, health conditions, or disabilities.
“In addition to just empowering the students who live with these narratives, we also want to draw attention to the importance of inclusion of these students as a component of diversity, and as a very special, important, and valuable part of our patient care experiences, rather than things that we should be implicitly or explicitly encouraged to keep quiet,” Sadler said.
King T. Fok, a classmate of Sadler and Rowley who is also involved with the project, said the UNCONDITIONAL Publishing team hopes to shift the narrative that having health conditions or disabilities prevents individuals from pursuing medical careers. In fact, these experiences can serve as assets, according to Fok.
“What brought us to medicine is having experienced these conditions, having met the people that really understood us and treated us well like human beings first,” Fok said. “It drew us closer towards medicine in that we think that it helps us connect with patients more.”
Fok said the leaders of the project hope to create a community of trust where students can be vulnerable and “offer all of ourselves to medicine” without conditions.
“The name UNCONDITIONAL is the idea that we’re not defined by our health conditions, that we live unafraid, without condition, and we’re unconditionally ourselves and unapologetically ourselves,” Fok said.
Sadler said their classmates and instructors at the Medical School have been “incredibly supportive” of UNCONDITIONAL’s first volume, which features Rowley’s own personal experiences managing a chronic condition as a medical student.
The project’s faculty advisor — Dorothy W. Tolchin ’01, a disability educator at the Medical School — said the team has helped “increase the visibility” of students living with chronic illnesses, health conditions, and disabilities.
“UNCONDITIONAL is really helping to deepen students’ connections to considerations around disability, illnesses, and health conditions,” Tolchin said. “I feel very strongly that their work will really help to reinforce the other curricular and advocacy work going on at Harvard Medical School right now, so it’s just a really exciting time.”
The UNCONDITIONAL project has also garnered national attention in the past month. The student leaders were invited to head a ten-day discussion forum by the New England Journal of Medicine, a leading journal in medical research.
“We covered different topics every day, ranging from accommodations to disclosure to different ways that we can engage,” Fok said. “Experts, faculty, and other people, like other students as well as those interested in this work, were able to do that online.”
With the growing media attention and support from faculty members and classmates at the Medical School, Sadler said the team is excited to continue pushing forward new ideas and engage with a broader audience.
“The momentum we have is very humbling and quite unexpected,” Sadler said. “We are looking forward to seeing more and more people engaged in the platform.”
—Staff writer Virginia L. Ma can be reached at email@example.com.