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An Excellent Match

Future pediatrician Matthew Alfarano traces his desire to become a physician to a visit more than a decade ago with a young patient who was battling the same rare cancer that nearly killed Matt in his early teens.

“I walked into his hospital room and I asked ‘How are you doing?’ and he said ‘Great!’ and gave me a big smile,” Matt said. “When I saw that smile, I saw myself — the kid who wanted to be strong, who didn’t want to show his pain and his fear, who didn’t want to let his doctors down. So I asked, ‘How are you really doing?’ and he started crying. We had such a strong connection. That feeling, in that moment, is why I decided to pursue medicine and why I decided pediatrics.”

Matt is one of 174 M4s who participated in Chicago Medical School’s annual Match Day event on March 15. He and fellow CMS M4 Elyse Fults matched as a couple through the National Resident Matching Program. Surrounded by family on Friday, they learned they are headed to highly regarded programs on the east coast: Matt to the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City and Elyse to Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.

Elyse, who will specialize in emergency medicine, grew up outside Santa Barbara, CA. She earned a degree in anthropology at UC Berkeley then completed a post baccalaureate program and worked in an urgent care clinic.

“You see the diversity of the human experience in the emergency room and you get to be a part of that,” Elyse said. “You encounter people who are scared and vulnerable and you have to establish trust in very short amount of time.”

Matt and Elyse agree that communication hinges on human connection.

“For me, medicine is two-fold,” Matt said. “It’s treating the patient and treating the disease. You can’t treat one without the other. If you can form a connection with your patients that goes beyond treatment, you will have more positive outcomes.”

Diagnosed at age 13 with esthesioneuroblastoma, a malignant tumor or the upper nasal cavity, Matt, who grew up in Westchester County, NY, was treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He and his pediatric oncologist formed a strong bond.

One night, as Matt suffered an intense bout of chemotherapy-induced neutropenia — his temperature climbing to 106 degrees — his distraught mother asked his oncologist how she could do such work knowing that she could save so few. The physician answered that she focused on the difference she could make in the lives of her patients, in Matt’s life, and the difference that they made in her life.”

“I could not have survived on treatment alone or if I had, my attitude might not be the same,” Matt said. “I might not have gotten serious about school or been able to cope with the PTSD I experienced after I was treated and cured. Cancer was the worst thing in my life and also the best thing in my life. It completely changed my life.”

Matt applied to CMS through the master’s in biomedical sciences program. He also earned a master’s in health professions education in 2018. He and Elyse locked eyes across a crowded room on the first day of new student orientation. Two weeks later they were studying together.

“Matt is a complete person,” Elyse said. “He’s the most optimistic, life-loving person I know.”

“Elyse is driven and ambitious and so am I,” Matt said. “We’ve worked really hard to get where we are. We’re focused on our goals, but also on supporting each other. That’s the challenge of two people in medicine.”

Both have volunteered as CMS student ambassadors, academic tutors and student interviewers in the CMS admissions process.

“I am indebted to this school,” said Matt, who spent two years in a research lab and garnered a publication before applying to CMS. “I was told every step of the way that I couldn’t be a doctor. So many smart, dedicated people who would make excellent physicians don’t get the chance. CMS gave me the chance.”

“From my first visit, I felt at home on the RFU campus,” Elyse said. “I felt a sense of community. I felt like people cared about me and I’ve felt like that every day since. That’s why I’ve been so involved. I care about this school, about its students and about its future.”

Posted March 15, 2019
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