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 Young Alumna Award 2008

Sarah PSUTKA’99
At Branksome, Sarah always made a positive impact on everything she became involved with. As Head Girl, she was an extraordinary leader, with an in-depth understanding of her peers and a keen sense of fair play. “Sarah always pushed herself to do her best,” says her former teacher, Nanci Smith. “She was a focused student and an outstanding athlete.” In fact, it was her passion for rowing, along with her record of scholastic achievement, that took her to Harvard.
 
Sarah continued to excel, and graduated magna cum laude in Biology in 2003. By 2004, she had completed her first year at Harvard Medical School and had done in-depth work and research with pregnant adolescents who were victims of domestic violence. She co-facilitated support groups and spear-headed a lecture series teaching medical students how to screen for violence. 
 
In spite of her many academic demands, Sarah continued to row and, in 2003, was awarded the Harvard Radcliffe Foundation of Women’s Athletics Award for exemplifying excellent scholarship, character, leadership and athletic ability. And, since 2004, in spite of a demanding work and volunteer schedule, Sarah successfully completed full and half marathons in both Toronto and Boston.
In 2006, as a fourth-year medical student, Sarah received the prestigious Hollis Albright Award, an honour given to a student who exhibits excellence in the surgical sciences. This distinction had been very obvious when, as an undergraduate, Sarah spent one summer as a medical and emergency room assistant in a hospital in Honduras.
 
Sarah is currently a surgical resident, specializing in Urology, at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
 
Excerpts from Sarah's acceptance speech
“Receiving this award is truly a great honor. It is remarkable to walk through this school today and see how it has grown but also how it has upheld the traditions and values that were so formative in shaping my view of the world and my place in it. For me, Branksome was a place where I was challenged academically, physically, but also more broadly, philosophically.
 
Our school encouraged a broader framework of thinking and social awareness than those outside of our community are generally aware of. On a weekly basis, in our assemblies and classes we were exposed to alumnae and speakers from all professions who returned to open our eyes to seminal issues.  
 
I remember sitting in the PAC as a Grade 9, hearing an alumna speak about her experiences bringing sustainable energy to rural Pakistan. One of the topics she spoke about was the paucity of medical care, and the challenges the women faced in obtaining medical care, in a community where religious and cultural traditions prevented them from showing their faces to the male doctors who were available to care for them, let alone their bodies.
 
We were taught that there was potential in everything that we did to contribute to formative change in the small part of the world that we inhabited, and that we had the responsibility to take these opportunities to effect change. It is impossible to solve a problem that isn’t defined and my teachers and mentors helped me to learn how to ask the questions that led to the identification of the problem. These seminal experiences strongly influenced my path that lead towards medicine and ultimately surgery.
 
For one summer during college, I decided to take the challenge I had laid out for myself – I had been interested in international health, and providing medical care in communities that lacked resources. I moved from Boston to a rural village in Honduras where I lived in a community of single mothers and worked in a clinic. In my very short two months there I learned many important and often uncomfortable lessons. … The truth is, that one doesn’t need to travel to South America to provide medical care to the underserved, and in Boston we have a large community of the uninsured who do not have access to the kind of health care that I would like to this of as a basic right. We take small steps that we take in my hospital on a daily basis to provide equal access to care and basic health care to everyone that walks in our door.
 
I came to understand the power of the small victory over illness – not necessarily that we achieved a cure or a save, but that small gestures and actions that brought the most modest improvements in comfort and well-being, and that this was what we should strive toward and celebrate.
Branksome had imbued us all with more than a healthy dose of idealism, perhaps better described as an optimistic fervor, but amid exposures to the issues that lit a fire inside of me, I was also taught to be pragmatic, to be resilient, and to be tenacious in my approach to identifying and tackling problems. These attributes have served me well between crew practices, coursework, and research in high school and university and have become invaluable through my 36 hour shifts and marathon days in the operating room this year.
 
I am currently completing my general surgical intern year at the Massachusetts General Hospital and will be training in urologic surgery over the next 6 years with a goal of doing pediatric urologic surgery and transplant. I have delighted in my technical education, but also in the personal interactions that I have had with my patients and their families.
 
What is truly exciting is that every day there is the potential to make a difference – to comfort, to teach, to learn and to make ourselves better for the next day. Our days are full - of opportunities to identify problems, that deserve solutions, and to start taking small steps towards achieving them.
 
I have also tried to always recall the lesson that keeping a ready ear and an open door for others, being approachable, empathetic, and welcoming is as, if not more important. 
 
Many of the experiences I’ve had over the past 8 years have been merely different iterations the lessons I had learned years before when I was wearing plaid every day instead of scrubs. Back then my teachers modeled for me broad thinking, social awareness, and the power of determination to effect change. We were taught not only how to find solutions, but more importantly, how to identify the problems themselves. We were also taught the difficult lesson that to solve problems on a global scale, we need to look closer to home, and that that small discrete steps towards progress ultimately lead to change if one maintains a steady and determined course.
 
Branksome teaches its students to be responsible citizens who live thoughtfully and actively in their environment. I am grateful to my teachers who were such outstanding role models. I also want to thank my parents for their support, mentorship, and friendship and finally to thank the passionate and determined group of women whom I was fortunate to meet while at Branksome who continue to challenge this world to become a better place every day."

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