Stories from the Road: The Trailblazer Who Never Gave Up – Interview with Sabri Zooper, OMS-III

February 11, 2021

Sabri Zooper is certainly someone you want to know—an osteopathic medical student at Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine (TCOM) who is paving the way for fellow minorities on their Road to DO Licensure.

Sabri Zooper is certainly someone you want to know—an osteopathic medical student at Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine (TCOM) who is paving the way for fellow minorities on their Road to DO Licensure. Her passion and eloquence is a door-opener for other medical students of color following in her footsteps. She has her hands in many jars, acting as a Representative on the Advisory Council of the National Center for Pre-Faculty Development SNMA- BNGAP, National Osteopathic Affairs Chair of the Student National Medical Association, President of the Black Graduate Student Association - UNTHSC at Fort Worth, and as a Chapter Liaison for the Academic Medicine Career Development TCOM – BNGAP. We were honored to have the opportunity to hear her story with advice for other osteopathic medical students.

What inspired you to become a DO, specifically? Tell us your story.

My grandmother was unfortunately sick most of my life with type 1 diabetes and hypertension, and I found out from my mom when I was older that many of her doctors were osteopathic physicians. I’m from Michigan, and Michigan is a mecca for DOs.

I spent so much time in the hospital growing up. I have to give my respect to the nurses and doctors—one even sat down with me after my mother had donated a kidney to my grandmother to draw me a diagram and explain what was happening. At eight years old, it eased my soul when I was so scared in the middle of the hospital. I remember feeling alone, and I’m so grateful he took the time to go over it with me. It was a huge moment to be able to connect with someone beyond the world of medicine just as a person.

I’m a first generation medical school student—a trailblazer trying to figure it all out myself. So that moment when I was a little girl helped me do that. The decision to become a DO is rooted in my background, and is why I wanted to take this path. It’s not just something I found online that I thought was cool; it’s integrated into my history.

The DO approach I feel is what a physician should be. I always talk about this one time I had hurt my neck, and I went to see a doctor who happened to be an MD. He didn’t even touch me! He just looked at me, asked a question, and gave me some painkillers. And they were heavy painkillers—even during this opioid crisis we’re having. That wasn’t what I needed. He could have just touched it to try and see what was going on, but he didn’t even want to engage with me.

One of the best things about starting off at a DO school is how physical you are immediately. I was taught how to be comfortable with touching—how to palpate—how to engage in a permissible way. We’re taught to ask the patient, “Is this comfortable for you? If it’s okay, I’m going to palpate real quick and see some of the tense areas.” There’s even a double board certified doctor at my school in Neuromusculoskeletal medicine and also in OB/GYN, and she uses both to treat her patients! Who wouldn’t want to be a DO?

We often hear the phrase ‘osteopathic distinctiveness’ used across the profession. What does that phrase mean to you personally?

I can talk about that all day! I’ve rounded with some MD students and we are equally capable. However, I do think there are some benefits that DOs have that MDs may not. We know more about lymphatics and nervous systems; we know more about how things are connected—how the body’s systems work together as a unit. I feel as though DOs are distinctive in that we have a deeper background in the body: how it moves, how it works, how it doesn’t work, what we can do to help it flow better, how we can assist it in its own healing process, and how we can help it, period.

I feel MDs focus more on problem solving. They are the first ones to say: “Here’s the problem and here’s the solution.” I love that, but that’s not always the right approach to patient care. Sometimes, you need to be able to connect with the patient and understand why they have these issues—look at their stress levels, look at their support system, and look at what they’re eating. What other histories do they have that contribute to their issues? Being a DO has taught me how to look at the person as a whole picture instead of a problem. I feel that’s what osteopathic distinctiveness is. I don’t want to go into a patient room having read and judged their chart and that be my whole understanding of the patient. How do I gain their trust? How do I understand where they’re coming from? You can tell them all day what to do until you’re blue in the face, but if they don’t trust you, they’re not going to do it.

I just finished my OB/GYN rotation, and I was working with high risk pregnancies when a lady who was having twins came in. The MD had done a urinary drug screen on her and it came back positive for cocaine. I asked the doctor before we went in if we were going to talk about it, since she was already high-risk. The doctor said we weren’t. I was very disappointed that we did not address her screening; we needed to understand why she was positive and what was going on. Why is she doing cocaine? Is someone trying to put cocaine in her system? There are so many questions whose answers could potentially help her. This was the opportunity for us to partner with her. That’s another big thing about osteopathic distinctiveness—we partner with our patients. Just as much as I’m trying to help you in here, you have to help me out there.

I’m grateful for the training I’ve had about empathy. A lot of physicians don’t have it at all. It’s just a job sometimes, and it’s become almost robotic. I could never look at my patients like that. I could never see a positive cocaine drug screen and not talk about it. As a person, I can’t do that, and as an osteopathic physician, I definitely can’t do that.

In your speech to COCA, you mentioned how high your stress levels were when preparing for COMLEX-USA during both a pandemic and civil unrest. Tell us about the major challenges you’ve faced and how you overcame them.

In my second year, I really struggled with some aspects of medical school academically. I hit roadblocks with some classes, and I struggled to believe that I could make it. I didn’t open up about it. I was depressed. I didn’t know I was depressed. Thankfully, I got the help I needed to get through that, but then 2020 happened! And it just changed everything. My COMLEX-USA kept getting pushed back, and then my study schedule was off. Then, in the middle of that, civil unrest. We were struggling as a group of URMs (underrepresented minorities). Alongside studying for my exam, trying to figure out when I was going to take it, people were dying. There was protesting everywhere—the election; it was a mess. There were moments I didn’t even feel safe going outside of my house. I didn’t know if I was going to be a target. I know a lot of my friends truly struggled. We were afraid, and that fear was heavy.

A few students, including myself, were working with our school to increase our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. We reached out to our school to get support so we could feel safer. We wrote a petition of asks, similar to what the SNMA sent to COCA. We had over 400 signatures on it. I think that changed a lot of things not just at my college, but at our whole campus. How can we make TCOM better? It’s a great school, and we are working to make everybody feel like they have a space here.

All throughout that, my test kept getting pushed back, pushed back, pushed back. I finally was able to take my exam in October after I was originally supposed to take it in August. With everything going on, I still had to dig down and figure out what I needed to know to pass COMLEX-USA. What I ended up doing was hiring a board prep program. My tutor helped me so much, and I needed somebody to be with me through this because I knew I couldn’t do it alone.

Did you also take USMLE, and if not, why didn’t you?

All throughout my time in medical school, I was told over and over again that if I wanted to be an OB/GYN, I needed to take USMLE. But I’m not going to school for Step! I’m going to school for COMLEX-USA—for osteopathic medicine, and I’m very proud of that. I don’t feel the need to prove myself to another branch of physicians in order to be able to serve.

I don’t think it’s fair to ask students who work just as hard, if not harder than MDs (because we have an extra 300 hours of training) to take two separate exams in addition to medical school. I’m not taking another exam. I am a DO through and through, and that’s how I want to be received in a program. For me, there’s a reason I came to this school—there’s a reason I’m going to be a DO. I personally feel that I’m confident in my score, I’m confident in my application, and I’m going to be confident in my letters of recommendation.

What advice would you give to other COM students preparing for COMLEX-USA?

Reach out for help when you need it, and figure out what works for you. Even the best of the best students need a resource to help them. But because a lot of people come from backgrounds like me: single parent home, first person to do this, nobody around me knows what to do—they may not have the resources or the know-how to get those resources because they’re the first person trying to figure it out.

For me, I am a talkative person and I needed to interact with someone. I need someone to look at me through the screen and ask me: “What do you think about this?” and “Let’s do some practice questions together!” And then I’d teach the material back to them so I’d know I knew it.

What are you looking forward to the most in the next stage of your journey?

The thing I’m looking forward to the most is having ‘Dr. Zooper’ on a piece of paper. The last thing my grandmother told me when I was a sophomore in college—she was dying and didn’t have a lot of strength left, but she wanted to make sure her only grandbaby finished. She told me to finish. I knew exactly what that meant. She didn’t have to say anymore—just, “Sabri, I want you to finish.” So, I’m finishing! I’m going to finish and I’m going to go through this.

Being a doctor is an opportunity for me to be able to be the inspiration that so many others were for me. I couldn’t have gotten through undergrad had I not seen other black women graduate in biology and go forward. I wouldn’t have been able to even think about medicine had it not been for my mom. They opened all these doors. I want to be that for others too and pass the torch—to keep that going. I don’t want to stop at being a doctor. I want to keep going and give back in medical education.

As an African American, one of the biggest reasons for our success and our progression has been our ability to educate ourselves—being able to read, go to school, have professions, and build lives for ourselves. It’s very important to continue that legacy—of going on to be an educator at the highest level. I want to be a dean. It’s important for all students to see different colors in leadership—different types of people and different perspectives. I want to be a part of the next generation of physician educators. That’s what I look forward to, and I’m excited!

I think the biggest power that I have is understanding that my life just isn’t about me. Yes, I’m the leading lady in my life, but, at the end of the day, it just isn’t about me. I think when you take the focus off yourself, there is so much more joy and wholesomeness in that. It’s about the impact you leave.

I heard a quote earlier this week: “When you’re born, you look like your parents, but when you die, you look like your choices.” What kind of choices am I going to make? I want to make the right ones! The most influential people are those who made you feel something—that made you believe something—that made you believe in yourself. I’ve been through so many things in my life where I didn’t feel good enough, strong enough, and I didn’t feel like I would ever be enough. I know what that feels like, and I know what it’s like to feel unseen, unheard, and unimportant. I want to make sure the people I come in contact with—no matter if they are doctors or not—that those people know I see them. You’re a human; I’m a human. Let’s be humans together! And let’s help each other because that’s what it’s about.

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