Sarah Kerr, winner of the $1,000 Erickson Merkel Foundation scholarship

Sarah Kerr, winner of the $1,000 Erickson Merkel Foundation scholarship

Sarah Kerr has a passion for medicine that she’s been cultivating since she was a child. Growing up Bellingham, Washington, gave her a unique perspective on helping others. She and her siblings Emily, Marissa and Dakota shared their home with even more siblings thanks to her mother Julie’s foster efforts. Her grandmother, Nadine Williams, also made a large part in shaping Sarah’s outlook. Living in that caring environment had a major impact on her.

“My family dynamic was always unique,” Sarah said. “My mother was a single parent who also fostered children. There were times where she would be caring for six kids by herself. As the oldest child, I often took on the responsibility of second parent and played a large role in not only making financial contributions to the family, but also helping to mentor my younger siblings.

“I loved the challenge of balancing school with work, family time and extracurriculars; I gained a lot of valuable skills that I think will be hugely important in medical school,” she added, noting that helping care for foster siblings helped see how positive daily impacts could influence a person’s health and well-being.

“I had foster siblings who came to us so sick from neglect that anything from playing in the park to attending school was a challenge for them,” she noted. “It was powerful for me to see the impact that our health has on our ability to succeed in life. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in leading others to be their healthiest selves.”

Sarah said that it was during these formative years she learned the importance of taking control of one’s own life, and the realizations came in how she was helping others.

“There was a period of time when I resented the responsibilities that my family situation required of me. I often had to miss out on the lighter, more enjoyable aspects of growing up in favor of picking my siblings up from school, working to contribute financially and just generally fulfilling the role of second parent at home,” Sarah said, noting that she became envious of others who weren’t quite so impacted. “I came to realize that your attitude shapes your perception of your life and only you are responsible for your attitude. Learning to maintain a positive mindset allowed me to not be overwhelmed by my daily to-do list or how many things I needed to achieve before applying to medical school. I focus on one task at a time and try to take things day by day (sometimes hour by hour).”

That positive mindset and take-charge attitude was bolstered by granny Nadine. Sarah said her grandmother’s independence and drive carried her through many difficult times.

“She has always taken full responsibility for her future and has instilled in me a ‘no excuses’ attitude,” Sarah said. “I continue to be inspired and motivated by her ability to maintain a positive and ‘can do’ attitude even as she currently battles her second bout of cancer.”

Like many hard workers applying themselves diligently through an academic program, she found it hard to find strong relationships with professors or advisors. In that, she had to find strength in herself on her pre-med path.

“During times of self-doubt I had to be my own cheerleader and push myself to continue moving forward on my path,” she stated. “My efforts were validated when I was accepted to my dream medical school this year. I want to encourage others who maybe feel overwhelmed by the pre-medicine path or don’t have a true mentor and say you CAN accomplish your goals. It’s important to be an active participant in your future and seek out resources available to you.”

That active participation could really have said to start when she was 12 years old and took her first job, like many others her age: babysitting. Her mother’s struggles prompted her to seek a way to lessen the household’s financial burdens.

“I remember feeling so proud when I was able to pay for my own field trip fees or buy my sister a new pair of jeans,” Sarah recalled. “Becoming financially aware at a young age allowed me to establish a strong work ethic that has carried me through some very busy times in my life. I continue to strive to be as financially aware as possible, especially as I begin medical school. I am so thankful to have learned important money-saving skills early on.”

That awareness and spirit of dedication to others has continued into her adult life. She began volunteering with Planned Parenthood in high school and has been doing so ever since.

“Having foster siblings exposed me to the heartbreak that is caused when a child is not wanted and is not properly cared for,” she said. “I think Planned Parenthood does important work in ensuring young people are able to make mature decisions about their future.”

Her desire to help others with their health is what she says maintains her motivation through long hours of work and study.

“Whenever I would feel overwhelmed by a biochemistry exam or question my ability to balance work and school, I always remembered the transformations that took place with my foster siblings and how our health is so vital to our ability to achieve our goals,” she noted. “I want to play a role in transformations like that for the rest of my life. Looking at the bigger picture reminded me that each test and challenging day brought me one step closer to my goal of serving my patients.”

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Board member Betsy Johnson

Forward thinking like that was one of the reasons that Erickson Merkel Foundation Director Betsy Johnson gave on why Sarah embodied the type of person the foundation seeks to reward.

“Sarah’s diligence, her positive outlook and embrace of her work and study really made her stand out from this year’s other applicants,” Johnson said. “Attitudes like hers really speak to positive impacts that a person like Sarah can make, and we were happy to help that along.”

For Sarah, keeping an eye toward that bigger picture pushes her forward to her ultimate goal: becoming a physician who listens to her patients’ concerns and cares for the entirety of their being, not just what ails them.

“I also hope to continue to be a life-long learner and ensure I am always seeking new knowledge in order to better serve others,” she said. Sarah noted that looking to the future can help a person more easily plan for it. “Planning before the fact allows you to focus more energy on achieving your academic and professional goals, rather than worrying about the financial aspects of obtaining an education.”

Now, with a scholarship in hand, Sarah is one step closer to completing her M.D. and her goal of someday teaching new medical students about successful patient care.

“Receiving this scholarship allows me to focus a little less on the logistics of planning for medical school and more on my goal of becoming a physician who prioritizes and cares for their patients,” she concluded.