Typically, students at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School work extremely hard for four years and graduate as doctors of medicine. Leila Jean Mady is an exception. When the Class of 2014 receives its diplomas in May, instead of one degree Mady will get three.
Over seven years at the school, she has not only become a physician. She also has earned a doctorate in biomedical sciences as well as a master’s in public health. “I never imagined I would do a triple degree,” says Mady, who lives in Hillsdale, New Jersey. “It’s not something I came in with as a game plan.”
But that’s not all. At a time in her life when many students barely feel they have time to eat, sleep and study, Mady also began running marathons. That is something else she never expected to do. But in the end, she says, all those miles both shaped the course of her education and inspired her choice of medical specialty.
Mady arrived at New Jersey Medical School in 2007. With an undergraduate major in finance and a minor in chemistry, she had intended to combine med school with a master’s degree in business – but that plan didn’t last long. A passion for science took over.
Spending time in labs at the medical school, she saw how important basic research is to medical progress. Mady started having conversations at the school with “great people who believed in me,” who helped convince her to do what only a handful of students at the school had ever done before. She would stay for seven demanding years and earn the triple degree.
During year two, while immersed in learning the nuts and bolts of pathology and so much more that physicians need to know, Mady used a gym to try to stay in physical shape. One day she changed that routine after a fellow student who ran and rode bicycles told her to “get off the treadmill and go outside.” The classmate soon convinced her to enter the New York Half Marathon, and before long she was training for full marathons.
It was an extreme exercise in discipline and endurance, which she now realizes actually helped her as a student. “You can’t run a marathon without putting in time and training,” she points out. “Whether I liked it or not or whether I was tired at the end of a lab day, I still had to get my mileage in. It really taught me how to budget and manage my time.”
Mady also was able to train her mind to focus while her body ran. “I would actually go through planning experiments or what I wanted to write in my thesis,” she recalls. “I felt the kind of clarity I got when I was running really helped me.”In 2011, Mady applied to compete in the marathon she wanted most – New York City’s – but like many runners who pursue that race, she was told there was no room. She then learned of a different way to run the New York course. She could be part of a team assigned to guide Eddie Montanez, an accomplished marathoner who is blind. Mady signed on enthusiastically.
As Montanez ran the 26.2 miles, Team Eddie formed a cordon around him – with either Mady or one of her teammates always tethered to his wrist. They kept him moving at a good pace, telling him when to speed up or slow down. They also helped him avoid crashing into other runners and steered him past obstacles such as New York’s infamous potholes.
“It was the first time I had been able to be somebody else’s senses,” Mady says. “I saw how empowering it was for Eddie and it also was empowering for me.” A few months later, Mady began her sixth year at New Jersey Medical School, and it was time for her to decide on a medical specialty.
At first she couldn’t. But as she did her rotations, sampling everything from obstetrics to psychiatry to neurology, her New York marathon experience tugged Leila toward otolaryngology, more commonly known as “ear, nose and throat.”
She had felt great joy helping Eddie deal with the absence of one of his basic senses and believed she had found a specialty that would allow her to treat patients in comparable situations. “The potential to restore people’s ability to hear and to smell and to taste, which are so fundamental to our interaction with the world – the thing that makes us human – is what I found with otolaryngology,” says Mady. “I just knew. That was it.”
This summer Mady will begin a residency in otolaryngology. She plans to stay in academic medicine, where she hopes for a career that combines her passions for research and for mentoring medical students – and for helping her patients experience life to the fullest.
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