“It was such a blessing to get that email,” Sasha Perez said. She remembered sitting in a Chick-fil-A studying, and wondering how she would pay for her medical license with no job and no paycheck. She needed it to start residency in just a few short months.
“I had no idea that it was coming, so that was just huge,” Sasha said.
The email was from the MUSC College of Medicine, telling Sasha she was the first recipient of The Celia K. and Howard J. Barnhard, M.D., FACR Endowed Scholarship in Family Medicine.
Dr. Barnhard and his wife started the scholarship in 2013 with a $100,000 gift from an IRA rollover. Barnhard, who had recently retired from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, wanted to give back to his alma mater. He graduated from MUSC almost 70 years ago, when he was 24 years old.
Today most students start medical school at that age. Barnhard got an earlier start – he was 16 when he enrolled at the University of Florida in 1941. Just a few months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Barnhard took advantage of a wartime program that allowed him to graduate in two years, and then applied to be a military officer.
He took the qualifying exam in UF’s auditorium. “We walked in and we’re given a clipboard with paper on it,” Barnhard explained. “And if we walked to the right side, we were applying for the Navy. And if we walked to the left side we’re applying to the Army.”
Barnhard wound up in Charleston because he walked to the right. The Navy shipped him to the “Medical College of South Carolina” to finish his medical training.
“Not only did I finish medical school there, I trained further in radiology at Roper Hospital, which was a teaching hospital for the Medical College of South Carolina,” Barnhard said.
While Barnhard specialized in radiology, his scholarship is exclusively for students pursuing family medicine – an area he says is looked down on by other specialties. The “best students” are often told they’re too smart for primary care.
“I think the problem is we have a bunch of proselytizers in other fields who look down their noses at family practice and don’t recognize its true value,” Barnhard said. “It's a very, very important part of our system. And I think it deserves more support and credit.”
Sasha’s professors at the College of Medicine warned her she would face pressure to switch specialties. She remembers being asked at work and in med school, ‘Why would you want to do family medicine?’ Variety is a big reason. “I remember thinking, ‘This is family medicine,’” Sasha recalls. “I saw a 99-year-old and the next visit was a 2-day-old. That was just the coolest thing. You can’t do that in anything else.”
Because family doctors treat all ages and such a variety of conditions, they must also be committed to lifelong learning, as medicine is constantly changing.
“If you’re interested in a challenge, then family medicine’s definitely the right one,” Sasha said.
Sasha has discovered another perk now that she’s out of residency and running a practice in West Ashley. “Being able to get out in a reasonable time and enjoy my life afterwards, go to the gym, cook dinner – which is harder to do during residency.”
More than anything, Sasha loves making a connection with her patients and a difference to the families in her community. “I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else,” she said.
She’s grateful to the Barnhards for helping her start her medical career with less stress and less debt. In addition to covering her licensing fees, the Barnhard scholarship also helped pay down the interest on Sasha’s six-figure education.
“Thank you so much your support and for focusing on family medicine,” Sasha said. “It means a lot, especially from somebody who’s not a family medicine doctor to recognize our work.”