Art by Ryan Bose Roy.
Shara Yurkiewicz (left) with Stanford co-resident (right) on a hike at El Diablo State Park. Photo courtesy of Shara Yurkiewicz.
Dr. Shara Yurkiewicz (MCDB ’09) is a woman of many talents. She received her MD from Harvard Medical School, completed her residency at Stanford, has written about science for publications from the Los Angeles Times to Scientific American, and is currently a medical director for the Northern California Home Care Network at Providence St. Joseph Health. Before she did any of that, however, she was a Yalie, walking through Sterling Memorial Library and attending Improv shows on the weekends. Despite having a heavy workload, Yurkiewicz made the most of her time at Yale.
Among the many things she did as an undergraduate, she was a writer for the Yale Scientific Magazine. Most of the articles she wrote featured distinguished alumni and Yale affiliates. “I really enjoyed my time at YSM because it allowed me to interview people who I found compelling and talk about their stories,” Yurkiewicz said.
Yurkiewicz yearned to do more with her experience writing for the YSM. In the hopes of connecting the general population to science while also helping others improve their writing, Yurkiewicz and her friends formed their own writing publication, the Yale Undergraduate Magazine. “[This magazine] was about training writers, having workshops, and being open and accessible [to everyone],” she said. “I met people who, like me, didn’t always have the confidence to do writing, so the idea was to inspire anyone to write.”
Outside the academic year, Yurkiewicz continued to pursue her love for writing and publications through summer internships. In the summer after her junior year, she interned at Discover Magazine as a fact-checker. In this role, she became exposed to the intricacies of scientific writing. “Blogs were still new back then, and I was able to do that in addition to writing for the print magazine,” Yurkiewicz said. “After doing that, I knew I loved science journalism.”
After graduation, Yurkiewicz started working for the LA Times where she interviewed scientists about their research. “I got to interview people who just wanted me to understand their work,” she said. Despite having experience in science writing, the learning curve in this role was still steep. “It was definitely a different feel because the deadlines were daily. Letting go of stories was very hard because I was used to research writing; I was used to monthlies,” Yurkiewicz said.
Complementary to her interest in communicating science was another deep-seated interest—Yurkiewicz had wanted to be a doctor for as long as she could remember. So, after a stint at the LA Times, she enrolled at Harvard Medical School. “At the very heart of medicine, there is you using your knowledge and compassion to help the body and spirit of someone else,” Yurkiewicz said. “My most meaningful moments have always come out of these raw and emotional circumstances when I can walk away knowing that I did something good today.”
At Harvard, Yurkiewicz started a blog called “This May Hurt a Bit.” She wanted to document her personal growth and explorations so that her future self would not forget how she used to feel. “In a way, I was more cavalier,” Yurkiewicz said. “When I was younger, I was unafraid to put my voice out there. ” She quickly found a home in the science blogging community, who provided her an escape from the echo chamber of medicine and provide a larger lens of medicine to the outside world. The journalistic streak cultivated by Yurkiewicz’s experiences from her undergraduate days still remained—unlike other physician-writers, she strove to connect with the general population; in doing so, her in dispelling the misconceptions of medicine has impacted many readers.
“I wanted to write for lay people,” Yurkiewicz said. “I think society has a perception of medicine, for better or for worse. I wanted to humanize the profession. I wanted them to connect to someone who practices it in a way that could be relatable, in a way that could be empathetic, in a way that could start a conversation.”
As a medical student, Yurkiewicz wanted to share her experiences at the bedside. Two of her articles, “Post-Operative Check” and “Asymmetry,” are structured around a one-sided conversation with patients who have passed away. Not until the end does the reader realize that the writer’s counterpart in the dialogue is no longer living.
“I like the slow reveal of things,” she said. “Both of those were about deaths and both of those had huge emotional underpinning[s] for someone who is witnessing this and doesn’t have much control. I wanted the audience to feel what I was feeling. I like creating scenes where someone can really empathize with the observer. I tried to make it observational because it was so powerful just to be there.”
At the same time, Yurkiewicz developed a frustration with the existing medical system. She did not like the culture and expressed her feelings in some of the articles she wrote. “I was cynical. I was burnt out. I had the same frustrations [as the patients] with the system and the way people were moving through the system, the way the focus was not always on the patient,” she said.
Writing was more than just a pastime, however. It was an integral part of her identity. “I saw myself as a writer who enjoyed medicine, and medicine gave me something to write about,” she said. Yurkiewicz recognized the importance of living a life of multiple passions rather than seeing herself only as a doctor. As such, she has made a concerted effort to actively participate in her community.
“Being smart is great, but being kind is the most important thing and that’s what drives me,” she said. “The idea of being more embedded in your community is why I chose to practice in a community setting and not in an academic setting.”
Currently, Yurkiewicz is working in palliative and hospice medicine, a career that has interested her since reading Ira Byock’s Dying Well and volunteering as an undergraduate at the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, where she was exposed to a model of care that astounded her. “[I chose palliative care and hospice] because it was focusing on symptoms, focusing on quality of life,” she said. “I liked it because it was slow medicine [and] required patience.”
Less than a year out of her fellowship, she is now a medical director in the Northern California Home Care Network. Although what she loves most is treating patients, she has not forgotten about some of the frustrations she developed with the culture of medicine in medical school; she understands that in order to change this culture, she needs to be able to make decisions. “If it’s not you, it’s going to be someone else. So it might as well be you,” she said.
As for writing, she hopes to return to it in the near future, though she does not have a timeline laid out. Rather than continue with articles, she wishes to eventually publish a book, which to her is the best way to make a lasting impression on a general audience.
Yurkiewicz’s path in medicine shows that one passion does not have to be sacrificed for another, that a harmonious overlap between the two is possible. “Medicine,” she said, “inspired me to do the writing that I had always loved to do.”
About the Authors:
Matthew Fan is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin College and a prospective Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Major. In his free time, he enjoys making music with the Yale Bands, going for hikes with friends and listening to podcasts.
Dhruv (SM’23), a Neuroscience major, is from New York City. When he’s not writing for the Yale Scientific, he likes to play basketball and play video games.
We would like to thank Dr. Shara Yurkiewicz for graciously taking time out of her busy schedule to do an interview. We thoroughly enjoyed learning about her unique path in medicine.