Alumni in Action: Sarah Holdren ’18 pursues career in medicine to ‘elevate the stories of those experiencing illness’

Early on in her Elon career, Sarah Holdren '18 found a passion for maternal and child health. In these unprecedented times, she is striving to understand how COVID-19 will affect future generations.

As a Fulbright Scholar, Sarah Holdren ’18 spent a year in Finland before completing her master’s degree in narrative medicine at Columbia University.

Holdren has spent this past summer conducting qualitative research to understand the experiences of individuals who were pregnant and gave birth during COVID. With this study she hopes to understand how to better support new families in a variety of healthcare and birthing settings during times of crisis, now and in the future.

Today, as a second-year medical student and Loyalty Fund Scholar at UNC Chapel Hill, she continues to work toward her vision of a healthier society by improving the health of mothers and children.

Sarah Holdren '18

As a medical student at UNC Chapel Hill, what motived you to study maternal and child health in particular?

Maternal and child health has been a passion of mine since my first year at Elon due to a combination of personal experiences with family members and scholarly discussions I had with mentors like Dr. Cindy Fair and Dr. Aunchalee Palmquist. It is a field that I believe can have a profound ripple effect on public health. If we can create a culture of healthy pregnancy, birth and childhood, we can build a healthier population overall.

The global pandemic has further emphasized the importance of grounding my work in social justice and structural violence and has given me a desire to find better ways of translating research to policy. My original motivation for entering healthcare was to help elevate the stories of those experiencing illness, and this mission feels even more important now. The stories of all patients, but particularly marginalized patients, truly matter and have the power to spark change, and so I believe it is my duty as a future physician to make sure these voices are heard as we begin to re-envision healthcare for a post-COVID world.

After Elon, you spent a year in Finland as a Fulbright Scholar. What did you study there, and what did you learn?

I studied the infant feeding experiences of mothers with infants in the NICU with the goal of comparing these experiences with the narratives I had collected from U.S. mothers for my honors thesis while at Elon. I wanted to understand how clinicians in Finnish NICUs were supporting families to provide human milk to their neonates in the hope of furthering these efforts in the U.S.

My experience in Finland not only gave me a new perspective on a scholarly question I had been working on for the four years while I was at Elon, but also helped me think through some of the strengths and weaknesses of our current healthcare system and the structural changes that need to be made to ensure that new families get a healthy start.

How has Elon made an impact on you?

Since I graduated, the world has changed quite a bit, and in this turbulent time, a day doesn’t pass that I don’t think about the mentorship I received from Elon and the lessons these mentors taught me. Elon taught me how to make profound meaning out of change, something that resonates now in this moment of pause that COVID-19 has created for us, and something that I know will continue to resonate in my career as a physician.

As I think toward the future healthcare system I hope to work in one day, I use the skills Elon gave me to begin enacting that vision with curiosity, collaboration, and purpose. The ability to translate theory to practice, grapple with big questions in the classroom and on the ground, and mentor others along the way has continued to serve me in each community I have had the honor to engage with since graduating, and that is something I will never be able to thank Elon for enough.

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work in their careers and their communities. To share the names of alumni you think should be considered for this series, please fill out the Alumni in Action nomination form.