Faces of Temerty Medicine: Leighton Schreyer
For Leighton Schreyer, experiences with the health care system haven’t always been positive. But instead of turning them away from pursuing medicine, they cemented their desire to become the kind of doctor they needed. Now an MD student at Temerty Medicine, Schreyer talked about the human side of medicine, pursuing medical school as someone with a mental illness diagnosis, and their passion for writing and poetry.
What made you want to become a doctor?
I have always loved science and been incredibly fascinated with the human body—the more I learned about it, the more appreciation and awe I had for what is truly one of the most intricate systems ever created. It wasn’t until my own experiences in the hospital though that I began to understand the importance of the human side of medicine and knew that I wanted to be a doctor.
Unfortunately, I initially had some very negative healthcare encounters that left me feeling stereotyped, stigmatized, unseen, and unheard. On many occasions, I felt as though my life and personhood were being reduced to the diagnostic criteria of my disease and like I was nothing more than a case to check off the to-do list. Rather than turning me away from medicine, these experiences motivated me to enter medicine and become the kind of doctor I needed in those moments—someone who truly cared about their patients as people with rich lives and complex stories filled with hopes and dreams and fears about the future.
I wanted to help empower patients and be a source of light in what is typically a very dark time for patients and their families. When I was able to experience these kinds of positive physician-patient interactions later in my journey through the healthcare system my desire to be a doctor was only reinforced because I was able to experience the difference it made to have a doctor who truly cared about my health and wellbeing.
One of your essays – “Is there anything else I can do for you?” – speaks to your experience preparing for medical school interviews as someone with a mental illness diagnosis. Can you talk about that?
In preparing for medical school interviews, one of the questions everyone tells you to prepare an answer for is exactly the question you just asked—the question of “why medicine?”. As I mentioned, my passion for medicine and wanting to be a doctor was fundamentally shaped by my experience as a patient and my experience as a patient was, in turn, greatly influenced by the fact that my hospitalizations were for mental, rather than physical, illnesses.
For much of my life, I have struggled with mental health challenges and, for all their trials and tribulations, they have also shaped me into the person I am today and gifted me with some of my most meaningful qualities; being reflective, resilient, empathetic, and open-minded.
That being said, mental illness is still so heavily stigmatized. To this day, people tend to associate mental illness with being “crazy” (even if only subconsciously) and, at the very least, there is a perception of people with mental illness as being emotionally unstable, fragile, or weak. I knew that medical school and being a doctor is very emotionally and psychologically demanding and I had heard stories of doctors facing barriers and sometimes even professional consequences in the wake of a mental illness diagnosis. I was worried that telling the truth about why I wanted to practice medicine (which would have required disclosing my mental illness diagnoses) would get in the way of being accepted into medical school. Surely, I thought, I would not be accepted if the admissions committee knew my history of mental illness; I thought they would think I wouldn’t be able to handle the pressures of learning and practicing medicine.
I wrote “Is there anything I can do for you?” hoping to challenge readers to reflect on the stigma and stereotypes that people with mental illness experience every day and the ways in which the physician superhero trope, which characterizes doctors as physically and emotionally invincible, is incredibly dangerous.
Do you think your experience with mental health struggles will inform the kind of medicine you’d like to practice? And if so, how?
I am still not sure what kind of medicine I would like to practice. My interests are very broad, and I feel like my mind changes every week as we learn new things and I have more opportunities to shadow other physicians or gain clinical experience. That said, no matter what area of medicine I go into—be it psychiatry, surgery, pediatrics, or public health—I am certain that advocacy, activism, and equity work will be central to the work I do and that I will do everything in my power to honour and uplift patients and their stories.
In that sense, yes, I think my personal experience with mental illness will inform my medical practice. I have been the stigmatized patient, the stereotyped patient, the patient who didn’t receive care because assumptions were made, and the person who suffered from being overlooked in society—sometimes I still am. These experiences have not only helped me gain perspective and become more empathetic, they have also left me very attuned to social determinants of health and health inequity. My experiences have helped me more fully appreciate the complexity of people's lives and challenge my own biases. I hope they will lead me to be a more empathetic, thoughtful, open-minded and open-hearted practitioner.
In addition to being a medical student, you’re also a writer and a poet. How do you find balance between the two disciplines, and where do you feel like they intersect?
Writing and poetry is something that I have recently started to pursue more intentionally and have found so much freedom and joy in. When I was little, I loved writing stories and doing art. I still remember the first “real” story I wrote about a polar bear cub named Eee Eee who sailed across the ocean on an ice raft searching for his family. I went through phases where I kept detailed diaries about everything that happened in my life, pouring my emotions out on the page, finding comfort in their quiet reception. As I got older, however, I started believing the things I heard about science and art being at odds with each other; that people pursued either science or art; that scientists were logical, organized, studious, and smart while artists were creative, spontaneous, and free-willed, their careers somewhat frivolous. This is mostly how science and art continue to be portrayed in society. Because I wanted to pursue a career in the sciences, I felt art couldn’t, or shouldn’t, have a place in my life and I stopped doing any kind of creative or personal writing for a long time.
It was in writing the CMAJ article (“Is there anything I can do for you?”) that I actually rediscovered writing and its incredible power. Now I see art and science as being fundamentally intertwined, each discipline being influenced and enriched by the other. For medicine in particular, I am very interested in understanding how narratives shape physician-patient interactions and patients’ illness experience, and how stories and storytelling can be used as a powerful tool for healing and connection.
For myself, writing (and art in general) provides a breath of fresh air. It’s like pulling up the blinds and opening the window in a stuffy room (the room being medical school); it gives me a new perspective and serves to re-energize me.
When I started medical school, I realized right away how easy it is to get lost in the nitty gritty scientific details and “rules'' of medicine—the diagnostic criteria of diseases, the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of different medications, the OPQRSTU’s and AAA’s and FIFE’s we’re taught to use to take a patient’s history. Writing and poetry helps me hang onto the humanities, which is ultimately why I entered medicine and is just as important, if not more important to medical practice than basic science.
Is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to talk about?
One of my pieces of creative nonfiction was recently published in JAMA, which I am really excited about, and some of my poetry and prose has been accepted in other academic medical journals with forthcoming publications, so keep an eye out for those!
Apart from publishing in medical journals, I am currently trying to get more established in the literary community, which has been an incredibly humbling experience—I have probably received more rejections and had more “failures” in the last six months than I previously had in my entire life! I found it hard to have my work rejected at first, but now I try to see it as an opportunity to continue developing my craft and growing as a writer. When I look back on pieces I previously wrote now, I often find myself cringing, but I suppose that’s a good thing because if you don’t cringe even a little when you look back on your past self, then that means you haven’t grown. All these rejections have also helped me step away from the prestige and recognition associated with publication. Rather, writing has become something I simply do for myself. If someone wants to publish it, that’s great; but if it doesn’t get published, then that’s okay too and doesn’t make it any less valuable. That said, it still is very motivating and exciting to have pieces accepted for publication and I am especially excited about some recent successes I’ve had in literary (not medical) journals and magazines!
I guess the last thing I would say is that I am currently completing a Certificate in the Foundations of Narrative-Based Medicine through the University of Toronto’s Narrative-Based Medicine Lab and am looking forward to integrating what I am learning into both the clinical and research setting.
When you’re not focused on academics or writing, what do you like to do?
It probably goes without saying that I love reading—reading and writing being like two peas in a pod. I don’t have much time to read during the school year, but I make up for it in the summer months and by listening to audiobooks all the time (I probably listen to at least a book a week!). I love being outdoors, going for long walks or runs and hiking, and I bike everywhere (yes, even in the winter, my classmates can attest to that). I also enjoy doing crafts like knitting and crocheting, and I love baking.
With regards to causes I am passionate about, I do a lot of mental health and 2SLGBTQIA+ advocacy work, both of which I come to from a place of lived experience, which makes the work that much more meaningful. In general, I am always eager to get involved in equity and social justice work, and am grateful for opportunities to learn from, work with, and help amplify the voices of underrepresented communities