For the latest installment of our 2023 Residency Match series, we spoke to Dr. Kirthana (“Kerthy”) Sugunathevan about her medical education at UMHS and her upcoming general surgery residency Match at Detroit Medical Center Sinai Grace in Michigan. Those who follow UMHS social media may have seen the many Instagram posts Dr. Kerthy has done because she has worked as a UMHS Media Ambassador for several years, writing posts and shooting short videos about things happening in St. Kitts and during her clinical rotations.
The UMHS Endeavour spoke to Dr. Kerthy about growing up in a small town in Canada as the daughter of immigrants, how she didn’t initially plan on becoming a doctor, why she chose UMHS over other medical schools as a Canadian studying medicine abroad, why she decided to apply for a general surgery Match, and more.
General Surgery Match in Michigan
UMHS Endeavour: Congratulations on your Match. Could you tell us about your upcoming Match and how awesome that must feel to be starting a Match this summer in general surgery at Detroit Medical Center Sinai Grace in Michigan?
Dr. Kerthy Sugunathevan: Thank you, Scott. Yes, it still feels very surreal. I think until I actually start, I won't believe it, but I'm very excited to be returning to Detroit. I did my third year and a few of my fourth-year rotations in Michigan, so I am familiar with the area. I’m very excited to be going back and yes, you're right; I will be starting a DMC Sinai Grace this coming July for general surgery there in their categorical program.
For our current and prospective students that may be a little unfamiliar with general surgery, can you explain what a general surgery residency entails?
Sure. There are a few different programs; they span from about five to seven years. With that you can have one to two years of research built into the curriculum. My program is a five-year program. Research, I do enjoy, however, it wasn't a priority to have that built in into my curriculum. I was looking more for a five- or six-year program and DMC Sinai Grace is a five-year program. Aside from that, there are different types of surgery residencies. You can do a prelim, which is to say you're not a hundred percent sure if surgery is what you want to do or you did not match in a categorical surgical program, you can take a one-year preliminary year residency position in general surgery. And then if surgery is definitely what you want to do, you can reapply for a categorical position in the next Match cycle.
What I also like about surgery is that there are a variety of sub-specialties. You could complete a fellowship in vascular surgery, plastic surgery, you can stay in general. There is also trauma and critical care, which is probably my biggest passion. I love the surgical ICU. I think it's the best of both worlds, medicine and surgery. That is kind of what interests me the most and what I like about where I'm going to be doing a residency is that it is very trauma heavy.
What do you hope to accomplish during your residency?
Good question. Short term, I guess surviving is my number one goal. It is definitely a tedious residency, but I'm excited. One thing about DMC Sinai Grace is the culture is so great and I think that's definitely something when you're looking for a residency program that's important. It's the culture. You're going to be spending a lot of time, several hours with your co-residents so having a place where your co-residents are supportive and want you to be the best version of yourself is important. And that's what really drew me to this program. In terms of long-term goals, I always wanted to do a fellowship in trauma critical care. But because DMC Sinai Grace is such a trauma-heavy center already, I'm not sure if that's something that I'll still end up doing. I think for sure I'll do a fellowship, but I'm just not particularly sure what as of yet. But I have five years to figure that out.
I also definitely want to do something in the medical education realm after I just had four months here at UMHS being able to teach anatomy, and I love teaching and I've been a teaching assistant for about 11 semesters. Teaching is something that interests me. So, in some format, I'd love to maybe pursue a Master's in medical education or just somehow incorporate that in my future career.
Dr. Kerthy Sugunathevan when she was a med student in St. Kitts. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Sugunathevan.
Why general surgery?
What interests you the most about general surgery? What were some of the things that made you want to go into general surgery?
To be honest, I didn't know I wanted to do general surgery right off the bat. I did all my third-year rotations and I went into each rotation with a very open mind. After my third year when I was starting to look into my fourth year and what electives I wanted to do, even at that point I still didn't know that general surgery was what I wanted to do.
I was trying to think about what I enjoyed and I knew I liked the inpatient and outpatient settings and I knew that I liked procedures. I thought maybe, okay, let me try GI and I loved it. Then I tried an internal medicine sub-internship and after that I knew, no, it's surgery that I wanted to do. So, it took me a while to get there, but I knew that I wanted to be able to do sterile procedures every day;I wanted to scrub in; the idea of not putting on sterile gloves every day I couldn't do it. I was just itching to do procedures. So, from going through those experiences, I realized that surgery was what I wanted.
How UMHS Academic Affairs helped her Match
Let’s talk briefly about the guidance that you received from UMHS to Match. I know everybody raves about Patrick McCormick and the Academic Affairs department. And without getting too specific, what are some of the ways that Patrick and his team helped you when it came time to apply for residency?
I definitely think having mock interviews was such a beneficial aspect. Just being able to prepare a little bit with him before actually going on to my first interview definitely helped relieve some of the nerves. I was always very nervous about the idea of having a Zoom interview, not really understanding the importance of light and having a good background and staring at the camera. So having him just practice with him once, and listening to his feedback—he really did help me.
Dr. Kerthy Sugunathevan (left) with Adrian Feliciano (right). Kerthy won both the H.E.A.L Award and the Peer Award at the Fall 2019 Student Clinicians Ceremony. Photo: GVision Photography.
Being a Canadian Studying Medicine Abroad at UMHS
Tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up and did you always want to be a doctor?
I am a first-generation Canadian. My mom is from Malaysia, my dad is from Sri Lanka and I grew up in Canada. I was born and raised there and now I live in a small city called Guelph, Ontario. And did I always want to be a doctor? Definitely not. My parents obviously always had that wish, ‘Hey, go into medicine and go into engineering and go into law.’ Something along those realms. I actually always wanted to go into the hotel industry. I don't know if that's because of my love for the show “The Gilmore Girls” or for what. But after my undergrad, I actually took three, or four years to work. And it wasn't until working and traveling that I decided, okay, I'm ready to commit and go to medical school.
So, you're a real non-traditional student. You actually took some time off. That's great to know. I didn't realize that.
Yeah, I took three years. I worked at a hotel and in the food-science industry. I made all the whipped cream in North America and I got to taste test it. It was great. And then I actually went on a trip across Canada. I traveled to 10 provinces for six weeks and it was a great trip. But after that I did not want to go back to work. And I applied to medical school. I applied in November, started in January.
Where did you get your undergrad and what was your major?
The University of Guelph with a major in human kinetics.
What made you choose UMHS over other med schools whenever you were looking to apply?
The truth is it was the first, at that time, it was the first thing that came up on Google.
Wow. That's good to know.
That's the truth. I tell Marie McGillycuddy [UMHS VP of Admissions] that all the time because she asked me and I'm like, "Oh, it was actually the first one that appeared on Google when I searched in Canadian med schools in the Caribbean." But aside from that, I liked that it was small class sizes, and the anatomy lab. Because I went to the University of Guelph and we dissected human cadavers there. So having a lab that had that dissection aspect was important.
Since you’re originally from Canada, can you tell us a little bit about what you like the most about being a Canadian studying medicine abroad at UMHS?
What can I say? In Canada, we have four seasons and a very gloomy winter. And here I get to wake up every day and look at the sun. It's definitely surreal going to medical school on an island. But I loved it. I loved being at UMHS and I loved meeting the people that I met. I definitely met some lifelong friends, whether from Puerto Rico, from the US, from Nigeria, Zimbabwe—I've made a lot of good friends here. And the camaraderie here, I think it's just been such a supportive community though it's a small community, I loved being at UMHS.
The UMHS experience
Is there anything else that you'd like to tell current and prospective students or alumni about being at UMHS that we haven't covered?
Another good question. I guess I'd like to say that being somewhere where the teachers really believe in you and want you to succeed is amazing. It's a small school and it's a small community, but having your teachers notice you and know your name and whether you missed the day of class they notice. I think having that relationship with your teachers is such a unique, and amazing thing to have. So, I think that is definitely one of the advantages of UMHS aside from its small class sizes, is that relationship you can truly form with your teachers. It’s really nice because when you get to your rotation, sometimes it can be intimidating talking to attendings, but you're familiar talking to teachers on the island, so you're a little less nervous to talk to your attendings during rotations.
You really get that personalized attention at UMHS and the small classes, the one-on-one with the professors and the other faculty. And also, I know the Ross family—President Warren Ross in particular—is very involved and visits the island often.
For sure. During orientation, President Ross comes on our catamaran trip. And I mean, where else would you ever have that happen?
I know that anytime there's a problem or whatever, you can reach out to President Warren Ross or somebody else in the Ross family and they will respond immediately, or so I've heard.
For sure, one hundred percent.
Let’s switch gears. Can you think of any professors or staff members who really made a difference for you whether at UMHS whether that could be in St. Kitts, in Maine, in the New York office and also during clinical rotations?
That's a very good question. I think all the teachers that I've had have made me in some way who I am today. Whether it was teaching me a little bit of professionalism, a little bit about how I want to act as a future physician. Everyone I've met at UMHS has somehow left a little mark on me. So, I can't really say one particular person. That's too tricky for me.
Okay. No problem. And you've been very involved with clubs at UMHS and also helping us out with the marketing department. You were one of the first UMHS media ambassadors. Would you like to share with current and prospective students why getting involved with clubs in St. Kitts, and with the school in general, is so important?
Yeah, I think the best way to learn about myself, what my interests are and who I am as a person is through service. I think service is so important. Whether it's volunteering in a community, volunteering in a club on campus, it's just being a part of that, being a part of a community is always important. And I learned so much of what I liked and what I didn't like through my volunteering experiences.
Is there anything else that you'd like to add that we haven't covered?
To everyone who's looking to Match next year, good luck. If you ever have any questions, don't hesitate to reach out. At UMHS, we're definitely a family and that doesn't mean when we graduate, we're not a part of that family anymore. So, I think just there's that network out there and you're not alone. You have a support system.
Contact Dr. Kerthy Sugunathevan via email at email@example.com
(Top photo). Dr. Kerthy Sugunathevan. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Sugunathevan.
UMHS YouTube interview with Dr. Kerthy Sugunathevan
Scott is Director of Digital Content & Alumni Communications Liaison at UMHS and editor of the UMHS Endeavour blog. When he's not writing about UMHS students, faculty, events, public health, alumni and UMHS research, he writes and edits Broadway theater reviews for a website he publishes in New York City, StageZine.com.