In today’s age of advanced medicine, high-tech equipment and cutting-edge facilities, healthcare professionals might not always remember that their patients are people, too, with life stories that matter to them and to those who love them. But Capt. Sarah Imam, M.D., a past Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner, hasn’t forgotten. And as a professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at Sullivan Foundation partner school The Citadel, she doesn’t let her students forget either.
When personal narratives become engulfed in a medical worker’s rapid-fire shuttle from one patient to the next, an important part of the healthcare equation gets lost. Dr. Imam wants to make healthcare more personal. In 2018 she started a study-abroad program in Lithuania to give students an opportunity to gain shadowing experience with healthcare professionals for four weeks. But Dr. Imam required her students to do more than just observe. They had to reflect on what they’d seen and write case studies.
“A student shadowing a neurosurgeon may see a case of a hemorrhage, for example,” she said. “And that student may see a surgical repair. We want them to learn more than that. We want to know what brought the patient to the point of treatment that the student witnesses and what the treatment plan is beyond that point. Students need to understand the whole picture and realize that they’re dealing with a living, breathing person, not just a case. And that requires compassion.”
Due to COVID-19, The Citadel was forced to suspend its Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 study-abroad programming. But prior to the pandemic, students took full advantage of the opportunity to experience a different kind of healthcare system in action. Lithuania, which offers universal healthcare, ranks in the top 20 percent of healthcare systems worldwide. Dr. Imam wanted to expose students to this system, where they could observe its strengths and weaknesses while also learning the importance of empathy in medical care.
According to Dr. Imam, the study-abroad program allowed students greater access to patients than they might get in the U.S., where patient privacy laws restrict access. With admission to healthcare graduate programs becoming increasingly competitive, private companies that offer medical shadowing experience abroad have become commonplace, she noted. “What makes The Citadel program different is that we give them academic credit hours and we give them much more than just a superficial shadowing experience. We teach them to ask questions and to study what they are seeing. They get to know the patient and put a history with the medical case.”
Dr. Imam joined The Citadel faculty in 2015. While pursuing her M.D. at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), she came in second place for the school’s Resident/Fellow Research Award in 2005 and won the Junior Investigators Award from the American Academy of Neurology that same year.
She added the Sullivan Award to her list of accolades in 2019. The award is given to Citadel faculty members and students “in recognition of high thought and noble endeavor.” Examples of her service and compassion can be found in her work at the Lowcountry Food Bank, Random Acts of Kindness, the Special Olympics Buddy Dance, a free medical clinic, and MUSC volunteer programs.
And that’s just scratching the surface of Dr. Imam’s accomplishments. As the pandemic began to worsen last spring, she led an initiative to address a critical shortage of personal protective equipment for South Carolina’s healthcare workers. Teaming up with The Citadel’s James Bezjian, Ph.D., and Daniel Hawkins, Dr. Imam began to manufacture N95 medical masks using 3D printers in The Citadel Makerspace, an innovative lab in the Daniel Library.
Together, the three colleagues have expertise in 3D scanning, 3D printing and medicine. Bezjian is a professor of entrepreneurship and the director of the Innovation Lab in the Baker School of Business. Hawkins is an academic technology librarian who also serves as the faculty advisor for the student Makerspace Club.
“At a time when there were so many people on the front line risking their lives and there was panic about the unknown, it was gratifying to be able to do something to help,” said Dr. Imam.
The Citadel team began printing the MUSC-designed masks, which are made out of a firm plastic material, at the end of March and continued through the first week of August. With the help of a couple of cadets and some volunteers, the trio produced 1,000 masks during that four-month period. The parts for each mask took nine hours to print, but the really labor-intensive challenge, according to Imam, was the assembly, which included putting together a filtration cartridge and attaching a rubber tubing seal and a piece of elastic.
Fortunately, a team of volunteers from the Rotary Club of Charleston and the Corps of Cadets pitched in to get the work done. “There was a lot of momentum, and it spread like wildfire,” said Dr. Imam. “We had people volunteering to help us from all over. Even kids were mailing in parts that they manufactured from home on their own 3D printers.”
Before long, the initiative had spread across the state. Coastal Carolina University also agreed to use its 3D printers to create masks, and the entire South Carolina Commission of Higher Education joined the effort, committing all of the state’s public universities to the project.
Communities in Charlotte, Chicago and New York also followed The Citadel’s lead and began producing masks for local use.
As faculty administrator for The Citadel Health Careers Society, Dr. Imam also oversaw a project last fall for Soldiers’ Angels, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that provides aid, comfort and resources to active-duty service members and veterans. Students in the society, joined by others from The Citadel, spent a Friday morning in early October volunteering with Soldiers’ Angels and supplied food assistance to low-income veteran families in the Charleston area. About 250 veterans were served, and each received about 70 pounds of food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, grains, frozen chicken, many varieties of frozen meals, canned goods and drinks.
“We simply have the best at The Citadel,” Dr. Imam noted. “Not only did this group of cadets and students volunteer, they did so wholeheartedly and with enthusiasm. They interacted with the veterans, addressed them with courtesy, asked them about their branch and thanked them for their service.”
In total, 25 cadets, one veteran graduate student and three members of the faculty and staff turned out to help veterans in need. “I had students from across the school, from all majors—not just those that are pursuing a health career—who joined in with [the event],” Imam said. “These students genuinely care about our community and our veterans.”
Dr. Imam cares just as much. She “embodies the richest qualities that define the Sullivan Award,” according to a statement from The Citadel, and “for the spirit of love and helpfulness that she has exhibited.” But she’s happiest in the classroom. “I found my calling in teaching,” she notes on her LinkedIn page, “and I love what I do.”