Campus & Community

Hip-hopping M.D. has just begun to dance

5 min read

Med School M.D., HSPH master Coleen Sabatini is way too busy to rest on her laurels

Coleen Sabatini has been helping people and improving places since she was 13 years old. After five years of medical school, she aims to change orthopedic surgery, as well as health care around the world. (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Listening to Coleen Sabatini is exhausting. You feel like you lead a sluggish life when the 28-year-old talks about all she’s done – besides earn a combination M.D. degree from Harvard Medical School and master’s from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Sabatini not only worked the past five years with the Student National Medical Association improving the health of minorities in Boston, she was elected the regional director of that organization and served on its board of directors. She not only mentored and tutored a Latina adolescent girl, she became a co-coordinator of the Martha Eliot Health Center Mentoring Program. One summer she volunteered to provide health care to impoverished people in the Dominican Republic. Before traveling for a month to study the health system of Cuba, she coordinated a book drive to bring public-health texts and children’s books to that country’s libraries. A former dancer, she organized a class and taught hip-hop to her fellow medical students.

What was the best part of her last five years? “My classmates … and the third year of med school when we left the classrooms and started seeing patients,” she answers. “Helping people is why I came to med school, and it was both an awesome responsibility and privilege to start doing it.

What was the worst part? “The third year,” she answers again. “The quality of life goes down with the number of hours you work, and some weeks you put in a hundred hours. I was running on adrenaline. You have to keep telling yourself, ‘This is why I’m here. You don’t need television and you can cut back on sleep.’”

The fire was always there

Tall, thin, blonde, and enthusiastic, Sabatini can’t remember when she didn’t have a passion to help others. “The fire was always there,” she says.

At age 13, Sabatini volunteered to aid the children of migrant farm workers in her native Colorado. “Checking them for lice and serving them breakfast because there was no food at home was a turning point for me,” she recalls. “Before, I took for granted all the advantages I enjoyed. The poverty, struggle for food, and the harsh working conditions raised issues in my mind that I’ve never forgotten.”

Besides helping people, Sabatini dreamed of being a dancer. “Dancing allows me to express my thoughts and emotions to other people without the restrictions of words,” she notes. “It also aids my concentration, determination, and the ability to remain calm and focused in adversity. But I realized quickly that it would never take the place of service.”

When she entered the University of California, San Diego, in 1993, Sabatini became intrigued with marine biology. “I get seasick easily so I decided to focus on preserving the ecology of the tidal zone,” she says.

But that was not enough. Sabatini plunged into community service. “I involved myself in a wealth of activities from environmental to civil rights causes, student government to grassroots organizing efforts, from student body president to membership in the African American Student Union and the Asian-Pacific Islander Student Alliance. With each activity I attempted to catalyze other students to become educated on political issues and involved in community service activities.”

After graduation, she bypassed the pleasures of wading in the warm tidal pools of southern California to take a job in public health. The position required working at both the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency and a local nonprofit organization that aids children. At the same time, she taught dance to children in poor communities, volunteered to provide fun activities for hospitalized kids, and helped organize youth to create positive social change in their communities.

As student-body president, she shared the commencement speakers’ platform with then-President Bill Clinton. When Dr. Robert Ross, a county medical official read about her speech in a local newspaper, he met with Sabatini and encouraged her to go to medical school.

“My work in public health and with Dr. Ross were pivotal experiences in my life,” she comments. “I had not considered medical school before, but it didn’t take much to sell me on the possibility. If I combined medicine with public health training, I’d be able to help a lot more people.”

Loves the operating room

Sabatini recalls applying to “about 20” medical schools, and feeling “absolutely ecstatic” over her acceptance to Harvard Medical School. She never envisioned becoming a surgeon, but found that, “I loved being in the operating room. The outcomes appealed to me – removing diseased tissues, restoring injured limbs, repairing birth defects. I was drawn to pediatric orthopedics.”

On June 20, Sabatini will report to Massachusetts General Hospital, the first step in a five-year program that will take her to different Harvard teaching hospitals.

Her goals are as big as her heart. “I want to be an outstanding orthopedic surgeon, to deliver the highest-quality care possible to my patients,” she says. “I also want to conduct research on how to raise the quality of that care. Finally, I hope to be active in improving the health care delivery system in the United States, as well as providing medical care and education abroad.”

You walk away from Coleen Sabatini feeling pretty sure she’ll do all those things and, possibly, more.