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Voices of HMSOM: The Medical Student Who is Writer and Observer

The woman was having an episode, emotional outbursts in the emergency room. She was in agony, and many around were wary to interact with her.

Enter Allison Zuckerberg, a student at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. She, found herself transfixed by the woman’s plight. She ended up sitting right there on the hospital floor with the woman, calming her. One images from the encounter that was seared in her memory was the woman’s colorful headdress. And the colorful swirls of that fabric made the medical student think.

“I like to say that patient communication is an art. Each person is like a portrait, composed of many colors and creating a complicated yet complete masterpiece of a human being. Patients are best understood when considering each color that makes up the picture and, in this narrative, I cannot exclude how one patient’s colors blended with my own. For the rest of my career, I will remember the woman with the flowered headwrap.”

Zuckerberg is a thinker – and a writer – in addition to a doctor-in-training. The art of noticing people is what inspires both her education and her training, as she tells it. The above excerpt is from an essay called the “Flowered Headwrap,” pending publication, which retells the encounter during her rotations in the emergency room. To hear her tell it, there are many more of these kinds of “slices of life” in the years to come.

“Allison is a wonderful student, and she is the kind of doctor – thoughtful and creative – who will help many people along her career,” said Bonita Stanton, founding dean of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine.

Zuckerberg was raised in Hawthorne, N.J. – a small town just a half hour from the Interprofessional Health Sciences Campus in Nutley where she has been pursuing her degree since 2019. She grew up with the oldest of three sisters.

During her undergraduate years Zuckerberg majored in Behavioral Biology at BU, and took many anthropology and psychology courses. She especially became interested in addiction and gratification studies along the way.

“I’ve always been interested in behavior,” she said, adding that being an extrovert means she retains her fascination with people.

Like many other medical students, she is also exceptionally driven. Zuckerberg has been part of a number of volunteer groups through the School – like co-leading the Psychiatry Interest Group (PsychSIGN), the Pride Alliance, co-founding the Evolutionary Medicine group, Diversity and Equity, and Peer Mentoring, among others. For her community health project, the Human Dimension course leaders at the School helped her create a project with healthcare workers within our own hospital team known as the COVID-19 Care Team (Link). It’s a kind of duty to get involved as much as one can, as she explained.

“I’ve always done a lot. Since high school, I’ve learned how to balance many things including work, school, and volunteering. Those who know me, know that doing a million things is my baseline,” she said.

“What drives me? I think it’s the changes that I’ve made in real time. Being an advocate for those in need is one of my highest values. I know that I am modelling for younger generations after me and think that there is so much to improve upon in medicine.”

But whether she will graduate next year – on the three-year track – remains to be seen. The learning involved in a medical education has been extremely fulfilling – and she’s trying to decide where her career will ultimately lead.

“I’m interested in Emergency Medicine and Psychiatry, as both specialties see high numbers of people with acute psychiatric exacerbations,” said Zuckerberg. “The most vulnerable populations in society may only interact with healthcare in the ED. In general I like the acute care setting and the challenge of quickly establishing rapport.”

What little free time she has are occupied with hobbies like include traveling, late night dancing, stargazing, and doing Tarot card readings, she said. Magical realism in books and movies is another interest.

And of course, there is the writing. She plans on continuing that while she makes her medical career – and the two may overlap occasionally, like they did for other doctor-writers of the past. Take a poem she recently wrote, “When You Touch Me, You Tend to Me” in which she mixes romantic longing with some of the language she learned during my Neurology and Psychiatry course – comparing feelings of love to what she’s learned about Parkinson’s Disease.

I’ve gone in every direction, but without localization,
I’m empty-handed, parkinsonian;
I cannot move but want to.
This black and white world is dystopian,
And there is nothing to do.
Blank is the state
Of a mind full of locations, but without destination,
I’m empty-headed, parkinsonian;
I cannot feel but want to.”