Selkrik Rural Pre-Medicine Program Student Rises Above Tragedy
Spencer Paolone is a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma and watched his father succumb to cancer, all before the age of 19. After taking a seven year hiatus from post-secondary, he is using the intimate introduction to the health care system from his past to fuel his desire to be a great doctor.
Rural Pre-Medicine Program student Spencer Paolone’s preparation for the long journey to becoming a physician is intimate, heartbreaking and inspiring all at the same time.
At 15, the Rossland native was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on the last day of Grade 9. Paolone bravely battled the cancer and won, but three years later watched his dad succumb to brain cancer at the age of 51.
Having survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 15 and then watching his father tragically lose his fight to cancer at a young age, Rossland’s Spencer Paolone is using his triumph and tragedy to fuel his desire to become the very best doctor he can be.
After taking a seven year break from post-secondary, this September Paolone joined Selkirk College’s first Rural Pre-Medicine Program cohort with hopes of turning his challenging past into a bright future.
“I struggled with the idea going into medicine because of all my experiences,” says Paolone. “I didn’t know whether it would be even more emotionally challenging, but I think I am stronger for what I have been through. I think it will make me a better doctor.”
A Heavy Burden for a Young Man
Adolescence is a struggle at the best of times, but when you are faced with a potentially life-threatening disease, the stakes are raised considerably. Not surprisingly, when Paolone’s family doctor gave him the news about his Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his life was turned upside-down.
“I feel I have always been relatively mature for my age, but I think it’s the same for anyone of any age,” he says. “The word or idea of cancer is terrifying, but as soon as it happened I went into the mindset of: what are you going to about it? I knew my chances were good, I knew I was healthy otherwise, and the support that I had made me feel comfortable that I was going to be okay.”
With a twin sister and the youngest of six children, Paolone had the support of a tightknit family and a tightknit community. Having a team of dedicated local doctors and top-notch care at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, Paolone underwent radical chemotherapy for eight months and then followed it up with two months of radiation treatment. By March the cancer was in remission and the most difficult hurdle of his young life was cleared.
As Paolone was completing his final year of high school in Rossland, the family was delivered the devastating news in January that his father had a brain tumor and an aggressive form of cancer. He passed away four months later.
Dealing With Loss and an Uncertain Future
Before their dad got sick, Paolone and his twin sister Carly were both planning on attending the University of Calgary where they would take Kinesiology. After the life-altering tragedy, both decided to stay close to home and enrolled at Selkirk College.
Though his sister went on to complete the Selkirk College Nursing Program, after one year of taking courses in the University Arts & Sciences Program, Paolone took a break. He spent time living in Toronto, Victoria and Calgary, working and figuring things out. This past spring, Palone found out about the new Rural Pre-Medicine Program at Selkirk College and his passion for learning was sparked.
“Medicine was always pretty important to me,” says Paolone. “But after high school I struggled a little bit with because it was too much of a conflict for me at that point. I planned on taking a year off and it turned into seven years. But when I heard about this program and the fact it was being offered at Selkirk College, it really was a great opportunity.”
Understanding Medicine on a Different Level
Though the class of 17 Rural Pre-Medicine Program students is early in their three-year journey of preparation for the MCAT exams, Palone already feels a strong connection to his studies.
“We’re all keen on medicine and that is why we are in the program,” he says. “But now that we’re actually in class, I realize how much knowledge I have gotten just from my experience alone.”
Having witnessed the medical system on such an intimate level, the 25-year-old feels he already has many tools in his kit.
“It will make me a better doctor,” says Paolone. “I have seen a lot of doctors and seen a lot of different doctor-patient interactions. It helps me understand what kind of doctor I want to be based on the better doctors I have been with. In terms of interaction with patients, I hope to be friendly because that’s who my heroes are. They became my friends and they helped me through it.”
He may be a long way from helping patients of his own, but Paolone is sure of what makes those on health care’s frontlines even more special.
“A great doctor is one who has compassion,” he says. “You have to turn off certain emotions when dealing with terminal patients, it’s hard to deal with people who are dying. I think a great doctor is one who can be sad for the situations they experience. When my dad died, the doctors felt sad for him and sad for us. I respected that and appreciated it.”