UMHS Class of 2020 graduate Dr. Sarah Harbeck never thought she’d become a doctor. Growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, she was passionate about dance, spending 14 years of her life in dance class, and also had a great love for learning Spanish. She initially considered a career as a dancer or as a teacher working abroad. Ironically, it was her high school Spanish teacher, Mrs. Souder—also a psychologist—who inspired Dr. Harbeck’s interest in human behavior. Dr. Harbeck eventually studied psychology and biology as an undergraduate, went on to obtain a master’s in psychology and attended med school at UMHS. Now, more than a decade later, Dr. Sarah Harbeck is preparing to start a residency in psychiatry at Coliseum Medical Center in Macon, Georgia.
Dr. Harbeck’s journey from wanting to be a dancer or teacher to eventually becoming a psychiatrist is unusual and inspiring for someone who initially was more interested in the arts and foreign language than medicine. The UMHS Endeavour spoke to Dr. Sarah Harbeck about why she chose UMHS, her experiences in St. Kitts and Maine and clinical rotations, her thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing problem with mental health issues related to the crisis, and more.
Dr. Sarah Harbeck. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Harbeck
Early Dreams of Becoming a Dancer or Teacher
As a child, Dr. Sarah Harbeck was never someone who always wanted to become a doctor when she grew up.
“I cycled through different career aspirations like most kids,” she said. “I spent 14 years of my life in dance class, so I considered a career as a dancer, and while I loved dance, I just don’t think I had it in me to make it a full-time career. Spanish was my favorite class in high school, so at one time, I considered teaching abroad. There are no physicians in my family and thankfully, I was never pressured in one particular direction, so I had the freedom to explore my passions.”
One person from her high school years motivated her profoundly.
“I do not think I would be here today without my high school Spanish teacher, Mrs. Souder. As I mentioned, I liked Spanish class a lot, and Mrs. Souder kind of became a mentor to me. She was also a psychologist, and so she introduced me to the world of psychology. I remember thinking how interesting her job sounded as a psychologist, and how there was an entire field dedicated to understanding the mind. Without even realizing it, she had planted a seed that would lead me through a long and arduous journey to get where I am today.”
When she started college at Kent State University, she decided to “just go for it” and take psychology courses.
“I really enjoyed my psychology courses, but I also loved chemistry and biology, and I wanted to find a way to combine all my interests so I majored in psychology/pre-medicine and went on to get my master’s in psychology through Walden University,” she said. “I realized the best way for me to do what I loved was to become a psychiatrist, as it would allow me to combine medicine and psychology.”
Psychology deals primarily with the functions of the human mind and specifically how it all relates to behavior, but a psychiatrist is an actual M.D. and requires attending medical school. Psychiatrists diagnose mental illnesses and prescribe necessary medication for treatment.
“As time went on and I got more experiences in medicine, I became more and more confident that psychiatry was not just a career for me, but my life’s mission,” Dr. Harbeck said. “I know, I know that is so cliché, but it’s the truth! I really love this field.”
Why She Chose UMHS
When she decided to apply to medical schools, she applied to schools outside the U.S.
“I was really fortunate in that I was able to travel abroad as a teenager, and had the opportunity to study and live abroad in college. Travel brings me a lot of joy, so when I considered applying outside the country, my rationale was: I am young and healthy, so why not? I applied to UMHS and a few schools in the U.K.”
Why UMHS in St. Kitts?
“UMHS had visited one of the organizations I was involved in at my university, and one of my peers had gone there and had really positive things to say about it,” she said. “Additionally, I graduated from college early, and UMHS offered start dates throughout the year, meaning I did not have to wait a full school year before attending."Studying medicine in St. Kitts offered unique advantages and challenges.
“Getting to study medicine in an economically developing country taught me the importance of relying on my own knowledge base,” she said. “In a country like St. Kitts and Nevis, you don’t have the crutch of referring to fancy machinery that we are so accustomed to in the U.S. So, that really leaves you to your own knowledge base of the sciences, and you have to be really strong in them. I remember we had this patient who we suspected of having sarcoidosis. Finding the proper treatment in this disease is really important, because while it may present like an infection, giving antibiotics would worsen it, but steroids would help it. If we were wrong, however, and the patient had an infection, giving steroids would worsen it. There was no x-ray machine that would have assisted in confirming the diagnosis. So, our treatment plan relied entirely on our knowledge base. Practicing medicine this way made you really feel like a true physician. I hope to go on medical mission trips in the future, so I know learning medicine this way first will be very beneficial.”
Dr. Sarah Harbeck found the clinical rotations at UMHS especially helpful because she had the opportunity to work in different regions of the United States.
“Getting to travel to different states to complete my rotations during my third and fourth years of medical school was great because it allowed me to work with different patient demographics and in rural and urban settings.”
Psychiatry Residency in Georgia
Dr. Harbeck is excited about her upcoming psychiatry residency at Coliseum Medical Center in Macon, GA.
“I had several considerations in mind when ranking residency programs. My top two considerations included my desire to work in a diverse patient population and my desire to stay in Georgia. Furthermore, I wanted to get a feel from the faculty that they were truly passionate about education and that they would be receptive to feedback provided by residents. I also wanted to work in an environment where it felt like the residents were supportive of each other rather than cutthroat. Coliseum checked all those boxes.”
First-Rate Faculty & Staff Made a Difference
Dr. Harbeck said many UMHS professors were especially helpful and inspiring.
“The best thing about UMHS were the professors. Dr. Roy, Dr. Jalan, Dr. Mungli, and Dr. Nagappa were not only gifted professors, but they actually cared about how I was doing inside and outside of the classroom. Whenever I get asked about my medical school, I always talk about these professors. I credit them for helping me get to where I am today.”
She also found staff in Maine and New York City to be caring and great at guidance.
“During Step 1 preparation and OSCE’s, Mia Jaworski [in Maine] was enormously supportive, helpful, and encouraging. When it came to the clinical years and applying to residency, Patrick McCormick [in New York] was immensely helpful at guiding me and my classmates through the daunting process of applying and getting into residency.”
Prospective students are always asking for tips on the Match process. Dr. Harbeck’s advice is simple and straightforward.
“Try to have fun and enjoy the process,” she said. “It is a long process, and you don’t want to spend all those years living in a state of perpetual anticipation and forgetting to be present in the moment. There will be hardships, so remember to celebrate the small stuff. Also, take care of yourself! You cannot be at your best as a student if you are burnt out. Lastly, when the time comes for you to apply for residency in your 4th year, you will most likely have a serious case of senioritis. You have to give 100% all the way to the end.
Diversity Enriches Education at Caribbean Medical Schools
Studying medicine abroad at Caribbean medical schools has many advantages.
“I am grateful that I had the opportunity to attend a medical school with classmates from all different countries, cultures, and religions” Dr. Harbeck said. “Diversity is an interesting thing. It opens you up to a world that is so much bigger than yourself, teaches you how similar we really are as human beings, and also gives you this deep respect for the hardships and struggles other people have had to face that otherwise, I would have been completely ignorant about. It also gives you this sense of pride in your own culture and belief system. Your world expands beautifully when you surround yourself with people who look and think differently from you.”
Dr. Harbeck was initially drawn to psychiatry for numerous reasons, but she said she believes this area of medicine is still misunderstood by many because of the many myths about mental illness and behavioral health.
“By nature, I always need to have a cause,” she said. “In the field of psychiatry, there are so many fundamental changes that need to be made. I really struggle with the notion that someone who has a dysfunctional brain is deemed crazy, but someone with a dysfunctional pancreas has a socially-accepted medical condition called diabetes. I want our society to get to a place where people are not shamed for having a mental illness. From the pervasive stigma, the ever-decreasing federal funding to mental health services, the lack of insurance coverage for these services, the disparities that exist among minority populations, and the dwindling access to these services give me plenty of causes to be passionate about. This field needs strong, confident voices willing to speak out and make changes, and I am up for the challenge.”
During her residency, Dr. Harbeck is committed to making a difference in psychiatry. She said she will “continue the fight of normalizing seeking help for mental illness, get involved in research, and lend my voice to policy changes that are necessary to bring more resources to the field of behavioral health.”
COVID-19 & Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has created numerous crises, but one few mention is what the public health emergency has done to the mental health of many Americans. Now is a point in history that Dr. Harbeck feels is crucial for doctors.
“These are unprecedented times,” she said. “As a physician, I have to lead by example and with factual, evidenced-based science and reassurance. One of the biggest issues people don’t talk a lot about are the mental health issues related to COVID-19, such as anxiety and depression. The social isolation and separation from loved ones can be especially difficult.”
These are dark, challenging days in 2020, and Dr. Harbeck has seen an alarming need for mental health treatment.
“As I await residency training, I have been working as a counselor in a mental health hospital, and I have seen many patients coming in due to depression and anxiety related to job loss, financial concerns, and some even losing their homes,” she said. “I have a coworker who lost a family member to COVID-19.”
Dr. Harbeck outlines the ways students and their families can cope with the stress of the pandemic.
“There are two elements that we crave as human beings and bring us happiness: purpose and hope,” she said. “One of the best things individuals can do for themselves during this difficult time is to write a schedule and to-do list of things they want to accomplish each day, but it has to be realistic. Make it the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning, as it gives a sense of purpose and direction.
“It is essential that physical exercise and healthy eating be included on the list. Additionally, limit news consumption as this can lead to unnecessary fear and anxiety. I also suggest keeping a daily gratitude journal. I believe that no matter how dark a situation is, there is always something good that can be found. Sometimes you have to work harder to find that brightness, but if you look hard enough, you will find it. On a more personal note, I have faith that God has a plan for everything, so I take great comfort in knowing this. With that being said, I do not negate the anxious tendencies that individuals naturally possess and are understandably feeling during this time. If it is necessary and within one’s means, I highly recommend therapy and psychiatry via telehealth. Remember, everything is going to be okay. It might not be today, but it will be. Cling to that hope.”
She said she believes doctors are obligated to assuage patients’ fears and also debunk much of the misinformation circulating in social media and society in general, “Physicians must lead by example with factual, evidence-based science, not with fear, and most importantly, treat every patient as if they are your own family.”
Dr. Harbeck will be starting her residency in Georgia, the state that is the headquarters for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Georgia has been criticized by some politicians and media pundits because it was one of the first states to end lockdowns and open up businesses without what some felt was not enough testing or contact tracing.
What are her thoughts on the often-divisive politics of the pandemic?
“It is important to trust the scientists and medical experts on this,” she said. “Human life should always come before money. There is no economy if there are no human beings. This is not a matter of politics, but rather morality. When future generations look back on this time period, I want them to see that we prioritized human life over getting a haircut. I am proud of the citizens of Georgia as many businesses and consumers are choosing to stay home despite the stay-at-home order being lifted.”
Dr. Harbeck also said young people under 40 need to take COVID-19 seriously, especially those who feel they need not worry about it, particularly when they might be asymptomatic but could be unknowingly COVID-19 positive and possibly infecting older and more vulnerable people around them.
“This is extremely disconcerting. How each individual chooses to behave will answer the question: Do I care about the lives of other human beings?”
Coming Full Circle
As Dr. Harbeck prepares to start her residency, she is proud of her roots and just how far she has come.
“By chance, I ran into Mrs. Souder when I was last home visiting during Christmas break,” she said. “I finally had a chance to tell her about my journey and how she had been the initiating factor that led me to become a doctor. It was such a special moment for me. It felt like everything had come full circle.”
(Top photo) : UMHS Class of 2020 grad Dr. Sarah Harbeck starts a psychiatry residency at Coliseum Medical Center in Macon, GA this summer. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Harbeck.
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Scott is Director of Digital Content 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.