Park City High School alumnus wins Fulbright
June 16, 2007
When Justin Sanders rushed home from school as a child and told his mom that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up, she had no doubt about his sincerity.
"I used to call him an ‘old foal’ wise beyond his years," says Carole Sanders. "He had such focus from an early age. I knew he had thought about it, and that’s really what he wanted to do."
When his father, Jerry, pointed out the lucrative benefits of his son’s choice, the 10-year-old shook his head.
"He said he wanted to do what grabs his heart," Carol remembers.
Nearly 20 years have passed since Justin first made up his mind, and while his path to becoming a doctor has meandered with unexpected adventures, the former Park City High School Salutatorian has accumulated enough life experiences along the way to make the title of "doctor" worth the wait.
Having left Park City’s mountains after graduating in 1996 for the bustle of the East Coast and beyond, Sanders sat down Wednesday in a rare trip home finding time between a haircut and packing for his next voyage to New York to discuss what he has done and how growing up in Park City shaped his experiences.
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Sanders’ unpretentious manner and often self-deprecating humor do nothing to reveal that he just graduated with honors this month from the University of Vermont’s medical college, where he also won the Family Medicine Leadership Award, a clinical excellence award, and a memorial grant award for "best exemplifying compassion, humor, humility, devotion to family and friends and intellectual curiosity."
And his lack of arrogance certainly doesn’t hint that he also won a fellowship in the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship Program, beating 480 other applicants for one of fewer than 10 grants to study in the United Kingdom, the program’s most competitive country.
Indeed, Sanders is nearly apologetic about the accomplishment, which has allowed him to postpone "the real world" of his residency at Montefoire Hospital in New York City to complete a Master’s in medical anthropology at University College in London. He will study the cultural differences surrounding end-of-life, care.
"I feel a bit of a delinquent," he says. "My classmates are all starting 80-hour weeks at hospitals, and I have the summer free before going to London to do more studying."
Sanders partly "blames" Park City High School for the academic success that has allowed him to prolong his education.
"Park City gave me some enormous privileges. My teachers really encouraged me academically and that has allowed me to do what I’ve done further entrench myself in the world of the overeducated and underemployed," he jokes.
Sanders has hardly spent all his time in classrooms, however.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in art history from Haverford College in Pennsylvania, feeding his passion for contemporary art, he took a year and a half to travel the world, spending a good deal of that time in Southeast Asia. He describes one of his most significant experiences as volunteering at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta, India, which helped shape his views on palliative care.
"The people there had no other family," he said. "We tried to make their last days comfortable by giving them food, by bathing them, by providing company. And they were happy. I thought, ‘this is so cool. We have the potential to make people’s lives better.’"
His travels also led to a serendipitous and long-lasting romance.
"I was walking on a dirt road with two guys from England I had met while crossing the border from China to Laos," he remembers. "A girl was sitting by herself, having just crossed from Thailand. As world travelers do when we meet people, I invited her to join us for fruit shakes."
The girl, an English medical student named Caroline, intrigued Sanders. The two began spending time together in Laos, remaining in the country long after their companions had left.
"She was supposed to go home after three weeks, then after a month. But I said, ‘No, you can’t leave while we’re just starting to fall in love." The traveling pair was inseparable over the next six months and continued to keep in touch after parting continents.
Six years later, the couple will reunite for their first full year together in London after weathering some long periods apart with few visits.
"We got very lucky," he said of his opportunity to study in the UK. Sanders didn’t mention Caroline to the Fulbright committee in his finalists’ interview, unsure of how they would view his motivation. He instead relied on the serendipity that brought them together and (perhaps more ardently) the merit of his proposal.
"I just tried to be really prepared and told them why I thought London was so important to studying palliative care," he said. He pitched a convincing argument, pointing out that the UK is the home of the first hospice center and has a nationalized health care scheme that readily lends itself to cultural research. Sanders also promoted his intention to focus on the UK’s strong populations of Southeast Asian Muslims, which he hopes will help find commonalities between their cultures and America’s.
"A lot of people say that this war is about the ideological struggle about how to live our lives," he says.
Sanders’ personal enthusiasm for researching end-of-life care may also have been a factor as well. The project was not an idea he conceived merely to win a Fulbright or to spend time with his girl. Sanders believes that soothing the process of dying can improve quality of life.
"The whole history of Western medicine has approached death by curing symptoms, rather than addressing the issue of dying," he says. "It’s a subtle difference, but if we don’t focus on quality of life, what are we really doing?"
Sanders roots his interest in palliative care to the loss of his oldest childhood friend to ovarian cancer at the age of 21, which left him the feeling that the way Americans care for the dying needed to change.
"I held her hand as she died," he said. "And it really struck me then that dying can be healing to an individual. Death becomes like a birth." But, Sanders noted, doctors did not handle the process as well as they could have.
"Allowing the dying to go peacefully isn’t part of our culture," he said. "There’s a lot of pressure on people to keep fighting."
Sanders hopes to apply his research to a career in family medicine, where he hopes he can connect with individuals and help them address end-of-life issues more personally.
And while his medical practice may end up on the East Coast, he will always remember the folks and the mountains back home.
"I learned my sense of community from Park City," he said. "I was lucky to have grown up with the opportunities here."
Favorite hobbies: Writing, cooking, collecting contemporary art
Favorite books: "Small is Beautiful" by E.F. Shumaker, "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver
Favorite PCHS teacher: John Krenkel
Last vacation: Two weeks in a motor home with his parents to British Columbia (a pretty cool, he insists)
Quote: "A country is only as good as its weakest link"