From Cameroon to Marquette, Dr. Sonia Geschwindt feels at home with UP Health System

For once, Sonia Geschwindt felt powerless.

This is a young woman from Cameroon who overcame cultural and language barriers in the United States to earn her undergrad degree in three years; completed the rigors of medical school; a neurosurgery resident in her final year of training, where the easiest days were 12 hours long. She could fend off mental and physical exhaustion to navigate the complex wirings of the human brain when life or death was on the line.

However, none of that mattered as she waited and watched her two premature twins battle for their lives. They were born at 28 weeks — three months early — and the doubt and sense of helplessness would last during the twins’ fourth-month hospital stay.

“The first two weeks were extremely difficult, I didn’t think they were going to live,” Geschwindt said. “I felt so inadequate. I had failed them and couldn’t even care for them.”

She relied heavily on the support of her husband, Wayne, during those difficult days. He had just come off active duty with the United States Marines. He stood by her every step of the way.

Fast forward to four years later, you can’t tell the twins were born prematurely. Geschwindt keeps photographs of the twins, along with her third child, and husband on the window sill in her office. They are her “pride and joy.” Wayne is now a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines Corps Reserve and serves his country proudly.

In addition to the philosophical changes a new parent must face when welcoming new life into the world, the jarring experience of watching her twins’ battle for their life changed Geschwindt’s professional perspective. She learned to see things from the patient’s point of view. Instead of constantly thinking in the medical sense — wondering what tests or procedures to try, or pushing the boundaries in order to find a solution — she began giving more credence to the human element.

“I realized I wasn’t really chasing the right goals; always pushing, always wanting to do more,” she said. “I learned that what really matters was to help people and take care of them when they were most vulnerable.”

That change in philosophy is what led Geschwindt to UP Health System — Marquette.

After completing her fellowship, Geschwindt interviewed for positions in various cities. UPHS was the only hospital the sent a clear message: We need you. Dr. Craig Coccia explained how UPHS just lost a surgeon. If Geschwindt didn’t accept the position, people might die. There was no one in the Upper Peninsula who could do the surgeries she did.

Finding her passion

Geschwindt was about 7-years old when a career fair came to her school; in Cameroon elementary through high school, the fairs are usually on the same campus. One of the questions posed during the fair concerned surgeons and what they do. The straightforward answer given was that they cut people open and fix them. That sounded good enough for Geschwindt, who is a self-proclaimed science nerd that would look forward to dissecting animals at school.

The passion to be a surgeon stayed with her as Geschwindt grew older. She started reading about surgeries. One book stood out to her; a young girl with heart failure was saved by a heart transplant. “I was like, ‘Wow,’ you can actually save people. I want to do that,” Geschwindt said of her reaction to the story. “I want to save lives, too.”

Geschwindt finished high school in Cameroon at 16 and completed her undergrad degree with a major in Biology in three years at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Becoming a surgeon was a foregone conclusion at this point; it’s what she wanted.

Overcoming educational obstacles

Before we go on, it’s important to understand the obstacles an international student like Geschwindt faces in the United States’ educational system.

First, there’s the application process. The grading system in Cameroon varies significantly from the United States. In Cameroon, tests are intentionally rigorous and a top student can score a 13/20. They also have different standardized tests. These variations in systems make it difficult for American schools to properly evaluate how intelligent an international student is. There is also an issue with low quotas for admission of international students. Since many schools are state or federally funded, naturally, they would admit a majority of tax-paying American students.

Next is the visa application process. Then, providing proof of funds to cover the cost of education and living; financial aid is not available to international students.

“It’s a big headache,” Geschwindt said of the application process.

Striving for success

Geschwindt admits there were many moments where her path to becoming a neurosurgeon could have been derailed. As an undergrad, she had to assimilate herself to a new country and learn a new language while dealing with the demands of school.

When it came time to get into medical school, Geschwindt applied to 20 colleges. She was only offered three interviews despite her outstanding track record highlighted in part by her transcript. Saint Louis University eventually extended a letter of acceptance under the condition she came up with the four years of tuition up-front. She was fortunate in that she had a very supportive family; they made sacrifices to provide the necessary funds to sponsor her medical school.

“There are so many points where things could have gone wrong,” Geschwindt explained. “But I’ve been blessed with the right family, the right support system and the right mentors.”

Once in medical school, she wasn’t about to let her family down. Geschwindt’s drive to succeed was birthed by her dad’s pushing when she was a child in Cameroon. If she was second in her class, he would ask who was smarter than her. If she was first, he would ask why she didn’t get a perfect score.

“I grew up always trying to get 100%, trying to be first,” she said. “I feel like to do certain things, you have to love the details, just love continuing to learn, discover and ameliorate, and I think that’s what neurosurgery is about.”

That kind of inquisitive thinking led to Geschwindt pursuing neurosurgery. As a first-year student at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, she signed up for a neurosurgery shadowing rotation to challenge herself. It was the least attended rotation, with long hours and a reputation for having difficult surgeons to work with. She loved it. The neurosurgeons were truly dedicated and busy physicians who did not like to waste time; hence the reputation of being difficult. Geschwindt got to observe her first brain surgery.

“I remember when they opened up the patient’s head and you could see the brain pulsating,” Geschwindt said, “This is it. This is what I want to do.’ That was the initial “love at first sight” moment.”

Staying true to her passions

With medical school coming to a close, Geschwindt had more roadblocks to overcome. During residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, a typical day began at 5 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m. Geschwindt also had a chip on the shoulder pertaining to her being a woman in the male-dominated world.

“I always felt like I had to prove myself… that I deserved to be there. So tried to always do more or better than my colleagues” Geschwindt said.

Neurosurgery residency is very stressful for several reasons.

“In neurosurgery, you cannot make a mistake. If you do, someone dies,” Geschwindt said. “You have to be absolutely meticulous with everything … The rigorous training teaches you to handle stressful situations, teaches you to go beyond your physical abilities”

Making Marquette her home

You wouldn’t think it, but according to Geschwindt, there are some similarities between Cameroon and Marquette. Walk by someone on the street in either location, and they’re prone to smile, say hello and perhaps even ask how your day is going.

Those small-talk conversations have the potential to carry a ton of weight and meaning for Geschwindt, the kind that makes 14 years of schooling and her difficult path from Cameroon to the U.P. all worth it. Especially since those conversations are with people whose lives she saved or family members of those she saved.

“Seeing my patients after they had surgery is the most rewarding part of my job,” she said. ‘I will never get sick of hearing ‘Thank you for giving me my life back’ ”.

Geschwindt always makes sure the patients and their family know how much she cares about them as a person and always gives 100 percent of herself every time.

“The beautiful thing about the U.P. is that we are one community and we all take care of each of each other,” she said. “This is now my home.”

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