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By Baylee Materia

When Lorena Millo set foot on UNC’s campus as a first-generation English major, a career in the health professions was nothing more than a distant possibility. It was not until she found her way to UNC’s health humanities department that medicine became a serious career aspiration. Now going on her fourth year as a student at the UNC School of Medicine, Lorena owes her professional passion to her work with the HHIVE Lab and values the untraditional path she took to the healthcare world.

Lorena recalls getting involved with the health humanities early in her undergraduate career through the Falls Narrative Study. Through this intensive research course, taught by HHIVE Lab directors Kym Weed and Jane Thrailkill, Lorena interviewed individuals who had suffered physical falls and helped them compose their own illness narratives. The intimacy and hands-on nature of this work was nothing like she had ever experienced before, and it deepened her passion for the health humanities. Additionally, she emphasized the importance of journalism in medicine: doctors must write detailed patient histories and contextualize their patients’ illnesses, and her work with Dr. Weed and Dr. Thrailkill gave her the skills to succeed in this area of her profession.

With a newfound interest in medicine, Lorena applied to an Honors Carolina shadowing program in her junior year to further explore healthcare as a career possibility. The program focused on liver transplantation and inspired her senior honors thesis with Dr. Thrailkill. The thesis, which examined illness narratives of various organ transplant patients, earned the Whitfield Jr. Memorial Prize. Looking back on the experience, Lorena is “glad to have worked on a thesis that combined both of [her] interests” in such an intriguing and meaningful way.

After years of involvement with the HHIVE Lab and her honors shadowing program, Lorena made the official decision to pursue medical school in her senior year as an undergrad. After graduating with a double major in English and Comparative Literature and Business Administration with a minor in Chemistry, Lorena chose to complete a postbaccalaureate year to fulfill her remaining pre-med requirements. After completing her post-bacc year, she conducted research at the Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy where she closely examined the nuances of doctor-patient communication; she appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of this work, which lay at the crossroads between social sciences and medicine. During her time at Duke, Lorena worked with a mentor to write a piece about the high costs of applying to medical school and how they function as a barrier to diversity within medicine. The piece went on to be published by the New England Journal of Medicine. Today, Lorena feels more optimistic about the future of medical school accessibility; various university pipeline programs and an overall open dialogue surrounding inclusion in medicine make her hopeful.

As a soon-to-be fourth year medical student, Lorena’s typical day involves clinical rotations. While she is not entirely sure of the medical path she wishes to take yet, she particularly enjoyed her surgical and internal medicine rotations. Despite her busy schedule, Lorena still manages to find time to feed her humanities passion. She is a leader in the UNC Medical School’s Bullitt History of Medicine Club, which hosts interdisciplinary lectures that incorporate the sciences, history, and medicine to broaden perspectives on different relevant issues.

When reflecting on the health humanities as a whole, Lorena stressed the importance of the communication skills she absorbed through her humanities education to her medical future. As a physician, understanding what patients’ lives are like outside of the hospital is vital – as Lorena states, it is a “critical part of who they are,” and she hopes that careful consideration of patient narrative and perspectives becomes an “essential part of who [she is] as a provider.” Moreover, she is grateful for how the humanities have helped her understand the ambiguity of medicine: nothing in patient care is ever truly black and white, and tolerance is key to being a successful, empathetic physician. She cherishes her experiences in the HHIVE Lab, crediting it with teaching her how to “look at the human condition through a different lens.”

Black and white headshot of a curly-haired woman standing against a neutral background and folding her arms. She wears a suit and cocks her head right in a smirk.

Baylee Materia is a freshman studying neuroscience and pre-med. When she made the decision to enter college as a STEM major, she assumed that she would have to toss her love of humanities aside. Discovering the HHIVE lab taught her not only that she can merge these seemingly contrasting passions of hers, but that an interdisciplinary approach is essential in a pre-medical curriculum. The job of a physician goes beyond the concrete science and technical intellect; one must be emotionally intelligent and able to understand the complex socioeconomic and cultural determinants of health. With a background in the health humanities, Baylee hopes to become a member of a new generation of healthcare professionals that approaches their work with a more nuanced and compassionate perspective.


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