A full-circle moment

Nearly 40 years after Gail Plecash graduated from the University of Calgary’s medical school, she gets to watch her daughter enjoy the same experience.

Sitting outside the Tom Baker Cancer Centre on a spring morning in 2013, 28-year-old PhD student Lauren Capozzi (MD/PhD’18) received an email that would change her life forever.

“Congratulations!” it said, “We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Medicine.”

Overwhelmed with excitement, Lauren immediately called her closest confidante and mentor — her mother, Dr. Barbara Gail Plecash (MD’75), who graduated from the same Undergraduate Medical Education (UME) program nearly 40 years earlier.

“I think we both cried for 10 minutes,” says Lauren. “Acceptance was huge for me because I had applied to medical school before and didn’t get in. It was crushing. Mom had always been so supportive of me, so it was a really big deal and a very exciting moment.”

Inspired by her mother’s passion for medicine, Lauren always knew she wanted to pursue a career as a doctor. As a young child, she often saw how her mother, who ran an active family practice in Kelowna, made a difference in the lives of patients.

“We would be in the grocery store and patients would come up to my mom with gratitude in their hearts,” says Lauren. “They would share with us how much they valued her role in their lives. I just thought, ‘How lucky, to have a job where you have that honour and feel so rewarded.’”

Although Lauren and her mom always had a close relationship, having this shared experience of attending the same medical school deepened their relationship even more.

On difficult days, Lauren calls her mom to share her experiences and ask for advice. On rewarding days, she can hardly contain her excitement, telling her mom about her successes and breakthroughs.

“It’s a very enriching experience to have these wonderful calls,” says Lauren’s mother Gail. “She’ll say, ‘Mom guess what?!’ and I’ll have to hold the phone three inches away from my ear. We’ve always had this mature mother-daughter relationship, but now we have a whole new language.”

For Gail, hearing stories of her daughter’s medical school experience often brings back a lot of her own memories.

Some of her cherished memories include the camaraderie she developed with fellow classmates as the pressure and demands of school grew, and having a glass of sherry on Friday afternoons with her teachers and peers as they discussed their cases that week.

In 2015, Gail returned to UCalgary for her 40-year reunion to reconnect with her classmates and recount these experiences. During the celebrations, she had the opportunity to participate in a school tour — led by her daughter.

“It was so nice to take her through after all that time and have that full-circle moment,” says Lauren. “I got to tour her around the medical school and show her how much things have changed. Many of the now interior walls were once exterior walls and I was able to show her the labs, which now have all this high-tech equipment.”

Gail adds that the buildings aren’t the only things that have changed. The program itself has also evolved significantly as her class was only the third group of students to be admitted into the medical program, which started in 1970.

“When we were going through the school, we felt like we were almost helping write the course,” says Gail. “Now I see a sophisticated building with a well-tried program that’s so well equipped. It has a maturity about it that’s incredible.”

Both Lauren and her mother credit the UME program for giving them the tools and knowledge necessary to prepare for a lifelong career in medicine.

“UCalgary’s medical school has given us the opportunity to understand all that a career in medicine has to offer,” says Lauren, who participates in the Leaders in Medicine program — a joint degree program designed to give highly motivated students the opportunity to complete a graduate degree and a medical degree.

“I really want to be a clinician-scientist and am grateful for the training we get around that in the Leaders in Medicine program,” she adds.

As Lauren finishes her last year of medical school and prepares to enter residency, she says she’ll continue to carry the lessons she has learned from her mother.

“Some may think that in order to prevent burnout in medicine, you shouldn’t engage and keep your distance,” says Lauren. “What my mom taught me is, to prevent burnout, you need to get engaged and learn about people. That’s what keeps you curious and feeling rewarded. Lean in.”

Meanwhile, as Gail enjoys her first year of retirement, she says she’s looking forward to her daughter’s graduation day.

“I’m extremely proud of this girl,” she says. “I’m so grateful to have her as my daughter. She’s going to have an MD/PhD and graduation is going to be a fantastic experience because she has worked so hard for so long. This will be the party of the decade for me.”

Lauren & Gail

Lauren & Gail