Student Spotlight: Sabrina Lue Tam

The Student Spotlight is a glimpse into the lives of McMaster medical students through portraits and storytelling. The goal is to highlight the wonderful diversity of our student body.

Meet Sabrina, a 23-year-old Canadian Jamaican-Chinese (Hakka) from Markham, Ontario.

Photographer: Darwin Chan; Editor: Selina Zeng

Here are some of Sabrina’s favourite things…

Hobby: Trying to guess babies’ ages based on their developmental milestones. Can get kinda awkward in public. I also enjoy dancing and reading.

Book/Piece of Literature: The Lord of the Rings trilogy

Movie: All Disney all the time! (I also really love “How to Train Your Dragon”)

Song/album/artist: The Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Super Smash Brothers Grand Medley”

Character/superhero: Nightwing


Shocking Secrets

I wrote an embarrassing amount of fan fiction before and during high school. My boyfriend is now offering a reward to anyone who manages to find the skeletons in my closet. In our “spare time”, we also like to play League of Legends and yell loudly and creatively at our screens while we sit in the same room (it is one of my main means of communication with my sister nowadays…). I talk to other cars on the road as if I am having a conversation with them. My best character impressions are of Ke$ha, Janice from “Friends”, and Fluttershy from “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”. My sister and I like to bake at 2AM when I visit home.

Not so shocking: I get asked, “Are you old enough to be a doctor?” or some variation thereof at least three times every rotation. I was once asked if it was my preceptor’s Take-Your-Kid-to-Work Day while doing a horizontal elective…

Inspiration to Medicine

I had a teacher in high school that often said, “You’re going to get into medical school, I know it”. It seemed like it was just flattery at the time, but she always said it with such conviction that I started to hope for it once I began to consider post-secondary programs. One day we had an alumnus come speak to us while I was in Grade 11, and he talked about his experience as a second year medical student at U of T. Everything he experienced and described made me feel like medicine was the only thing I could ever want to do with my life, and he made it seem feasible. The research opportunities and the idea of learning something new every day—that really appealed to me. He told us a story about a patient encounter he had with an elderly lady. He talked to us about taking a sexual history as part of his full assessment (even though he felt awkward about it). The patient (well into her 70’s) laughed when he asked if she was sexually active, and replied, “Not as much as I would like!” He said they had a really good laugh together and I thought that was beautiful. I wanted to make those kinds of connections. At the time, I wondered if that really could be me someday! My philosophy about trying to achieve my goals has been to at least try.

Once I was in Grade 12, I was still willing to try but not as optimistic about the outcome. In retrospect, I think I was just starting to react to stress — I was juggling several extracurricular commitments with my schoolwork and felt like I was starting to drop the ball. In a moment of panic, I submitted a couple extra university program applications thinking I wouldn’t be accepted to my top three choices. In the end, I was very fortunate to get accepted to my top choice of undergraduate program.

By second year of undergrad, I thought I would “at least try” to prep for and write my MCAT, and “at least try” to apply to medical school. When I received an offer to interview for Mac Med, I was both extremely excited and anxious. The dance team competed the weekend I was interviewing — the night before the MMI, I was celebrating the completion of the competitive season with my teammates. I couldn’t sleep that night from a mixture of apprehension and happiness. One of my biggest fears was not waking up in time to get to the interview!

Looking back, I’m so grateful that I never let my moments of doubt prevent me from trying, because that is how I ended up here. There were many points along the way where I was so close to thinking, “maybe I’ll just try next time”, but whenever my faith in myself wavered, I thought about all the people in my support network who believed in me and that was what kept me on track. There will always be a next time, but “this time” only comes once. I think it’s definitely worthwhile to take as many “this times” as you possibly can!

Sabrina in Alternate Dimension

As you might know, I spent some time as the Saffron City Pokemon Gym Leader, which was somewhat exhausting and I resigned once I heard about all the recent emergency room visits associated with catching Drowzees. Otherwise, I might still be there, ordering Marsh Badges by the crateful to battle all the hopeful young trainers out and about. Hogwarts never actually got back to those owls I sent throughout my teenagehood. I wasn’t tall enough to sit at the Sailor Scout table, and joining the Power Rangers was considered social suicide (although I still thought they could use a Teal Ranger…). I was working really hard on harnessing the magic to transform into a bunch of different mythical creatures, like a dragon, unicorn, phoenix, or mermaid, but then there was this man who kept trying to hunt me for my heartstrings and hair and feathers and scales and it was just creepy. Ms. Frizzle offered me a job as her assistant but she forgot to un-shrink me once and I spent all day stuck in her bloodstream. She nearly flushed me down the toilet at the end of the day and I gotta say, I was a little traumatized. My eyes weren’t quite gigantic enough to be Disney princess material, and I couldn’t keep up with the physical comedy well enough to be cast as an anime character (they also require that you are fluent in Japanese and subtitles). I applied to Winchester Bros. Demon Hunters Inc., but I jump at loud noises so I wasn’t offered an interview.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, or an actor like the dude from “The Hangover” and “Community” who is actually a cardiologist. His parents told him that he could be an actor after becoming a doctor. Maybe I should give him a call…

Thankful Words

I would never be able to adequately express my gratitude to everyone that has been a part of my life thus far. Every person who has encouraged me and supported me in any capacity has played a vital role in my journey.

Low Lights/High Lights

My internal medicine core was really difficult for me. It was definitely a hard rotation for everyone because there is a lot of work to be done and expectations are high. The learning was phenomenal, but the clinical encounters, for me, were extremely depressing. There were some patients I truly dreaded seeing, because nothing I said or did would make anything less painful for them. Nothing would change. Some of those patients came in from nursing homes with advanced dementia, and would return to those nursing homes without any change in their quality of life. Most of them never had any visitors for the weeks they spent in hospital. It felt like a cycle of futility and it was hard to get out of bed in the morning feeling like there was no difference to be made. People would be just as sick and sad and lonely today as they were yesterday, and the day before that. They would be just as sick and sad and lonely tomorrow, or maybe worse. I think the constant feeling of uselessness and hopelessness made me feel almost numb. I spent forty minutes administering CPR in a code blue before we pronounced death, and I realized that I wasn’t shaken in the least. A patient died under my hands and I didn’t feel the devastation I thought I would, that I thought I should have. I was intellectually sad — it was very sad to see the patient’s spouse later that day, and to observe my SMR breaking the bad news – but I didn’t feel anything. During my first week of the rotation, I felt my throat progressively tighten with every chest compression I gave, feeling bones and flesh shift under my weight. My fingers continued to shake for hours after we regained a pulse that night. Only a few weeks later, that pulse didn’t return, yet my voice was steady when we debriefed. I was somehow unfeeling, and I was more unnerved at my lack of emotion toward the event than the event itself. I wondered if I had lost my sense of empathy, and I questioned whether or not I was really fit to become a physician. It wasn’t until my very last day of my rotation when I talked to some friends about it that I felt like I could breathe again. I hadn’t lost myself after all—I wasn’t the only one feeling some effects of burnout, and my empathy hadn’t been completely incinerated as a result. I teared up thinking about my patient’s spouse asking, “Is he gone?”, and then the experience caught up with me.

I think it’s important for us to talk about these low points, because everyone will hit them. Everyone goes through struggles, and pretending they don’t exist will not make them go away and we won’t be any stronger for it. I’m really grateful that I had so much support and that my friends were open about talking about their own difficulties, since we forget sometimes that we’re allowed to be human and we will have moments of weakness that do not define us as weak people. We’re just people, and we will only be miserable and exhausted if we don’t allow ourselves to be just that. We will fail, we will be defeated, and we will be overwhelmed, but there must be something driving us to get through and that is what makes the journey worth every stumble. Find your something and don’t settle for anything less.

Conversely, I’ve had many highlights during my time in medical school. One of my favourite stories to tell is about a toddler I met during an elective: he came in with persistent fevers over the last three or four days, and as soon as I walked into the room he slid off his father’s lap and asked me to pick him up. I gathered the history with him hugging me around the neck. My preceptor and I completed the physical exam together, and in true toddler fashion, he was crying and screaming once my preceptor lay him down on the examination table. Once the exam was finished, he reached out for me and settled as soon as I picked him up. It was such a cute, heartwarming moment I didn’t even mind when he wiped his teary, snotty face in my sweater while I held him. (I still didn’t mind even when I got sick a few days later…)

Future Goals

I love children, and I want to go into pediatrics so I can make children smile. As a doctor, I want to help nurture healthy, happy kids. Above all, I want to develop strong lifelong relationships with my patients and their families. I want to see my patients grow up and do things they enjoy. It would be great to see some of them get married and have kids of their own.

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