If she wanted to be hooded by her most important mentor, University of Colorado School of Medicine student Sara Delenn Graves knew she couldn’t wait until graduation.
Graves, a fourth-year medical student who spent a three-month clerkship in tiny Haxtun, Colorado, during her third and fourth years, says her entire career direction changed when she arrived in Haxtun to work at a rural family medicine clinic overseen by Breck McCarty, MD, and her husband, Craig McCarty, MD, both senior clinical instructors at the CU School of Medicine. Graves had always planned on being in family medicine, but she hadn’t considered practicing in a rural setting. Working with the McCartys in Haxtun and getting to really know her patients opened her eyes to how small-town doctors become integral parts of their communities.
“I am a social person. I love relationships and people’s stories and knowing who they are and how I can help them get back to what matters to them,” she says. “That’s what sustains me in medicine. In Haxtun, I mattered and I was able to help.”
That help ranged from learning to prescribe opioids and treat addiction to training in the use liquid nitrogen to freeze off precancerous lesions. She attended hospital board meetings and even helped a patient whose wife had died at the hospital find a new clinic when she learned how sad it made him to come in for care. By the end of her clerkship, patients were calling her to talk through medication side effects and even stopping by the clinic to bring her recipes. Throughout it all, she was inspired by the McCartys.
“It was enjoyable to me because they did everything,” Graves says. “They worked in the clinic, but they also took care of hospitalized patients. They took care of emergency patients and nursing home patients. My first patient who died I saw with Dr. Breck, and she walked me through how to do the exam and checked with me to make sure I was OK and told me it was our honor to take care of people in their final days and it’s our job to give them dignity. That is something that has definitely changed how I practice and what I want to do.”
A different timeline and honoring a mentor
The most difficult part of Graves’ time with the McCartys had nothing to do with patients — it had to do with Dr. Breck, who had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. It changed graduation plans for Graves, who is now preparing for a career in rural medicine and will soon start her residency at the University of Texas at Austin. For the hooding ceremony, where a student is symbolically welcomed into the profession by a valued mentor, Graves knew she wanted Dr. Breck to be the one to do the honors.
“If I could grow up to be half the doctor that Dr. Breck is, I would be so happy,” Graves says. “She has taught me compassion and good practice and good clinical skills, and she has shown me you can be an amazing mom and an amazing doctor at the same time.”
In October 2020, knowing that Dr. Breck might not make it until May, Graves emailed her deans about an early hooding ceremony. With their blessing, she borrowed a hood and graduation gown from faculty members and set out for Haxtun, where with the help of two local women who had befriended her during her clerkship, she put together a small ceremony that meant the world to her and her mentors.
“The McCartys had a copy of the official hooding oath that all the students say at the University of Colorado,” Graves says. “Dr. Breck read that, and I said it back, and once I agreed to serve and ask for help when I needed to, and practice to the best of my abilities, and care for my patients, I ducked down and Breck put the doctoral hood over my head. We hugged, and I started crying, and then Craig said, ‘Congratulations, Dr. Graves,’” and we went inside and had a nice dinner. It was perfect.”
Guiding hand and looking toward the future
Graves knows she will return to Haxtun after her residency — whether that’s as a provider or a tourist remains to be seen. For now, she feels fortunate to have had her unofficial graduation ceremony with the mentor who changed her professional life.
“It was really wonderful to see everything come together. Just to see all these people who understood how much this matters and were willing to do what it takes,” she says. “Because of that, I got to have this milestone with my mentor. And I know it was equally a milestone for her. When Breck and Craig said yes to having a student, they not only changed my life, but theirs and those of the community members as well.”
Dr. Breck worked through her treatments and side effects until 2020. She had to medically retire from the practice because her cancer progression required multiple treatment changes that increased intolerable side effects.
“I continue to be as active as I am able; I am more involved in my son’s classroom activities than I was when I was working, and I am in the process of creating/leaving my legacy for my son and my family,” Breck says. “I also continue to mentor CU School of Medicine students who rotate with my husband.”
The human connection
Looking back on her time in medical school, Graves says one of the most valuable things she learned working with staff and faculty was not only what type of physician she wants to be, but the person she wants to become.
“I have been so inspired by Dr. Breck, specifically, because she was the first physician mother I knew well,” she says. “I learned so much about living with grace and humbleness, and how to balance work, life, and all the joys and stressors of both. I think the biggest lesson I learned is that one of our greatest strengths as doctors is that we are human, and how important is it to really see your patients for who they are.”
She has a message for incoming students as well: “Yes, med school is hard, but it’s a worthwhile journey. Take time to remember why you chose medicine, and to enjoy the little adventures along the way.”