Friendship is the best medicine

Best friends shared a journey of eight years to become MD graduates together at the U of A.

Laura Vega - 06 June 2019

For most MD students, medical school can be a daily grind of education, unfamiliar situations and new challenges that few others can understand. Many wish they were lucky enough to have an old friend around, let alone their best friend. Looking back on their past eight years together as classmates and friends, Paulina Podgorny and Umair Sajid know they hit the jackpot.

The two Class of 2019 grads have practically been tied at the hip since 2011 when they first met as undergrads in Calgary. While their recollection of how they met is fuzzy, the connection was immediate.

"It's like we weren't friends, and then suddenly we were best friends. There's no in-between on how it happened," said Podgorny.

The pair bonded quickly over research projects, experiments and a shared interest in health care. Some of their happiest memories are completing applications for medical school together and prepping for interviews.

"Whereas other people were doing hours on end at the library, Paulina and I took a more casual approach," said Sajid. "We would go for long walks in minus-30-degree weather along the river, talking about interview topics, and 'How would you answer this?' And then when we couldn't feel our fingers anymore, we would head back to school, or set up an experiment in the lab, and then do it all over again. That was pretty much our interview prepping and I think it's what helped us get into medical school together."

Starting a new chapter at the U of A

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Podgorny. "Not only getting into medical school, but getting into med school with your absolute best friend. It was nice to have each other because we shared a lot of the same experiences that maybe our parents or other friends didn't really understand."

During their MD program, each developed their own research and professional interests-Podgorny focused on global health, a pediatrics club and work with children from marginalized populations, while Sajid helped to incorporate a simulation exercise into the medical curriculum to learn more about the World Health Organization-but they always looked for opportunities to work and volunteer together on mentorship programs. At times the pair competed against each other for leadership positions, but it didn't stop them from supporting and celebrating each other's accomplishments.

From watching episodes of Grey's Anatomy together and discussing a tough day, to visiting the other's relative in the hospital while they were out of town, to connecting over the phone during their clerkship months away, Podgorny and Sajid leaned on each other through every year of medical school. While they also developed close friendships with many colleagues in their class, they ultimately saw each other as their family in Edmonton.

As their time in med school came to an end, they decided to surprise each other with a "reveal" on Match Day, when they discovered to what program and what city they were assigned for their residency programs. Instead of calling each other immediately, they wrote their new destinations on paper and made their own event to show them to each other. "We called it a 'Match Day first look' like they do in weddings, because all our friends are getting married and engaged," explained Podgorny.

They found out they would be going to different cities.

After graduation, Podgorny will pursue pediatrics in Calgary, while Sajid will start his internal medicine residency program in Winnipeg.

"It was a very emotional day," remembered Sajid. "And I think that's something I would tell a third-year class right now: Match Day is a lot of things, but I think the number one thing is that it's emotional. Even if you get your top choice, you're going to see your friends being dispersed all over the country and you get a lot of mixed emotions."

"We were celebrating our individual success, while also thinking about our friendship taking a different turn going forward, so it was kind of a blow at the same time."

An exciting future and a long-distance friendship

Even though they will be more than 1,300 kilometers away from each other, Sajid and Podgorny are not worried about how they will stay in touch. Staying connected is a priority for the pair who agree they always have each other in mind.

Podgorny and Sajid during their Match Day 'first look.'

"I think Paulina is one of the most rational people I know," said Sajid. "If I ever need to make any kind of important decisions, I always review them with her. And I value how genuinely compassionate and warm she is. That's one of the things that will help her be an amazing pediatrician."

"Anyone who knows Umair absolutely adores him. He's so easy to get along with, and so supportive. I think he's probably the first person I call for anything… Unless it's car troubles," said Podgorny with a laugh. "And he's very authentic. If he likes something, he makes it known. So anything that he's passionate about, he pursues full-throttle."

While their journey together in medical school may be at an end, Podgorny and Sajid say they will continue to lean on each other throughout their lives. While the pair learned countless lessons about health care and science in their years together, their greatest takeaway was the importance of good friends.

"There are amazing people in your classes, no matter what year you're in," said Sajid. Use that support as an advantage for them to help you get through it and don't take that group of friends for granted. They understand what you're going through and having people you can reach out to is really important."

"Having my best friend to do medical school with is best described as a blessing."