When Olivia Sacks ’19 was four years old she announced her professional intentions to her parents—she wanted to deliver babies. Though prescient, she fell in love with poetry and followed her heart, which eventually led her to Dartmouth and a degree in poetry and literary criticism.
After graduating in 2010 and unsure of what she wanted to do with her life, the adventurous Sacks set off for San Francisco. Though jobless, she headed to California sure of two things: “I didn’t want to live through another winter on the East Coast,” the New York City native laughingly recalls. “And I wasn’t ready for medical school.”
From a personal perspective, Sacks says, her decision to move to San Francisco was one of the best she has made—it allowed her to explore her interests, which ultimately guided her toward medicine.
Sustained by poetry while cycling through various jobs during her four years in the Bay City, Sacks learned something important about herself in the course of teaching yoga: helping people feel good in their bodies made her happy—she realized she was ready for medical school. “That was my moment, during yoga training, and it was a scary moment,” she says. “Because I identified myself as someone who was humanities-oriented, I wasn’t confident I could learn biology and memorize facts. But I was inspired to learn about the body.”
I realized every organ in the body has its own story, so I crafted a narrative for each one.”
- Olivia Sacks '19
With a clear goal in mind, Sacks enrolled in a post-baccalaureate program in biology. She knew it would be challenging, but drawing on her narrative skills she devised a novel approach to learning. “I remember studying the kidney and thinking how interesting it was—and how it has its own story,” she says. “I realized every organ in the body has its own story, so I crafted a narrative for each one.”
Influenced by the strong sense of community in San Francisco, which aligns with Sacks’ personal philosophy along with her interest in shared stories, she began working with the city’s most vulnerable populations.
At San Francisco General Hospital and Potrero Hill Health Center, where she was a medical scribe, she saw first-hand the role literacy plays in managing personal health. Because of patients’ varying levels of literacy and understanding, she observed how physicians rejected professional jargon and turned away from physician-dominated conversations with patients. She watched her mentors carefully choose their words when discussing illness, trying to use language that enabled patients to understand the ramifications of their disease. It’s no secret that health outcomes are tied to social problems related to poverty and poor access to education—this piqued Sacks’ interest in how literacy affects management of chronic diseases and overall health.
She recalls a personal experience: “On behalf of a doctor, I wrote a letter to a patient who needed blood work. But when the doctor read what I’d written, she said, ‘You can’t write like that—you need to get into the mind and reading level of the patient and write from there.’” Her comments revealed how important it is to be sensitive to how different people communicate and understand their illnesses.
The language of medicine is not everyday language and Sacks is well versed in the varied language we each use daily. Throughout our lives we oscillate regularly between the way we speak with work colleagues and strangers, to the way we talk with friends. “And that’s exactly what we need to be cognizant of with our patients regardless of their literacy level or their background,” she says. “We must meet them in the space between patient and doctor to find a shared language and common understanding.”
Because poetry is about connecting to the human condition, for Sacks that same connection is what is important about medicine. “There will always be patients who follow their own plan—it’s human nature. They either have too much going on in their lives or they don’t have a solid understanding of why they need to manage their diseases. The best thing we can do as doctors is to listen and make that connection so they see us as their ally, someone they can trust.”
Living a life of service is something that makes me feel complete and fulfilled. That’s what drives me now, helping people alleviate their suffering.”
- Olivia Sacks '19
Observing the same warmth and sense of community she felt in San Francisco, Sacks says people at the Geisel School of Medicine care about making a difference in the world, which she finds inspirational. And the school’s non-competitive atmosphere contributes to its supportive, altruistic community and spirit of cooperation. “We are willing to lift each other up if we are stumbling,” she notes.
Sacks still follows her heart, “I really love helping people feel better. Living a life of service is something that makes me feel complete and fulfilled. That’s what drives me now, helping people alleviate their suffering.”
But you never forget your first love—and at the end of a long day she says, “All I really want to do is to read a poem.”