Gasping, the boy had arrived at the hospital with his mother, suffering from an acute asthma exacerbation. Carly Swenson, the medical student who was doing a night-shift rotation as a pediatrics sub-intern, quickly noticed in the conversation there was more going on than just the difficulty breathing. He was quiet, talking just enough to answer the questions posed to him, but nothing more than that.
The mother pulled the attentive medical student outside and confided in her, saying the boy had been struggling, and depressed.
The Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine student quickly figured out that the boy didn’t have many friends – and didn’t use his inhaler because he was embarrassed by it. She quickly relayed the information to the physicians in charge – with a recommendation to get the boy some mental health help. They boy got the care he needed. And the encounter helped set Swenson on her current path, toward a career in psychiatry.
“I was just so drawn to that side of the boy,” recalled Swenson. “Yes, we needed to treat his asthma, but getting him some help for the root cause of what was ailing him fulfilled me more than anything. It was one moment where I was like, ‘I think this is what I want to do. What I need to do.’”
“Carly Swenson brings an empathy that is vital in medicine,” said Jeffrey Boscamp, M.D., dean of the medical school. “She will make a difference in the lives of many people in her career to come.”
FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE
Swenson was always drawn to science in her education, from her earliest school days and through her undergraduate years majoring in neuroscience.
The inspiration for medicine – that came from experiences close to home. Her brother was diagnosed early on with an autoimmune condition, so Swenson got to witness an extended narrative of care involving pediatric rheumatologists and other specialized doctors at a hospital near the family home – Hackensack University Medical Center.
But later on, as she became an adult she also was diagnosed with her own chronic condition: Crohn’s Disease. The years of trying to figure out what her condition was, and how best to treat her, left her with a fuller understanding of what it’s like to be a patient.
“Living with a chronic disease has definitely given me the empathy and compassion towards others who may have long-term illnesses,” she said.
Her experiences went into prompting her work with the Colitis and Crohn’s Foundation. For years she has volunteered to help with fundraisers and other events to benefit the non-profit. It’s something that has enriched her burgeoning career as a healer.
“I relate so strongly with that community,” said Swenson. “I see myself at some point in my career working with kids with chronic illness, whether it’s purely in a GI realm like Crohn’s and Colitis, or just other general chronic illnesses. I definitely connect to that population specifically.”
CAREER BEGINNINGS TO MEDICAL SCHOOL
She always knew she wanted to do something working to help children – she wanted to have an impact on their lives, after seeing what doctors had done for her brother and even herself at young ages.
But it was a series of organic life experiences which brought her to psychiatry – and likely child and adolescent psychiatry here, at the cusp of her graduation from medical school.
Right after her freshman year of college, she was accepted into a Summer Scholars Program at Hackensack University Medical Center – the hospital she had become very familiar with via her brother’s care. She got to rotate with a bunch of different pediatric specialists. It was almost a dream, even at that stage.
But there were other experiences too: doing a study-abroad program in Copenhagen which involved traveling to other parts of Europe, and seeing what medicine is like beyond the United States. She also spent a short stint working at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indiana one summer, as part of work with young spina bifida patients.
But the work which really brought it all together came right before medical school, when she worked with the Brain Injury Research Center at Mount Sinai. For two years, she worked with patients with traumatic brain injury, and she spent time coordinating a research study that involved patients’ consent to donating their brains after their death. It was demanding work, and there were communication and neurocognitive challenges aplenty, but she found the work ultimately rewarding.
Each of these experiences in their way pushed toward medical school – where she started off focusing in the direction of pediatrics. But it was experiences with the human side of medicine – like that boy in the hospital one night who was embarrassed to use his inhaler – which pushed her further into the curiosity around the human brain and its workings.
The Human Dimension (part of the core curriculum at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine) experience she had was also formative in her blossoming career as a clinician. Her VP (patient paired with out in the community) was a man experiencing heart failure who was in need of an organ transplant. But just to be eligible on the list, he needed to lose some weight. So Swenson and her academic partner (Jordan Intrator, who was the subject of another Voices of HMSOM profile here) found him recipes which could help keep him healthier and shed the pounds. The man also managed depression and some other healthcare access issues. They also helped with these more immediate needs, as well: after being denied Social Security Disability benefits several times running, the two students helped the man receive the critical support for the first time; and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they helped the VP get a vaccine when he found himself stuck on a list, waiting.
“He told us how much we helped him,” recalled Swenson. “But it really opened my eyes to the reality of the social determinants of health. It became clear: you really have to tackle the patient’s life outside of them sitting in your office or the hospital – to understand what’s really going on.”
Swenson grew up in a loving family in Livingston, with two brothers and lots of activity. Her father manages power plants and her mother works as an educator. Early on, her passion for soccer drove to play tournaments across the country, where she and others were recruited for college. She ultimately played Division III at Wesleyan, and she was the captain. It was a long formative experience, she recalled.
“It was very intense. But it taught me so much about sacrifice, working together, time management,” she said.
Her time now is spent cooking, exercising, occasionally skiing, and keeping a healthy work-life balance, considering the copious amount of studying over the course of medical school. She spends as much time with family as possible, and a large extended family includes about a dozen cousins on each side who get together for holidays.
She prioritizes. Her grandfather who passed away recently had always given the family a mantra, which she hopes to live by, even as she makes her way as a physician:
“He always said, ‘Family first, no matter what,’” she recalled.