Renaissance woman Caroline Osborne could have done anything with her life.
“Her interests were eclectic, varying from learning how to ride horses, shooting guns, fixing phones, being an EMT. She was very well-read and loved music, singing, and dance. Whatever she put her mind to, she excelled at, and she put her mind to a lot of things,” said her father, Carl Osborne.
When she came to Virginia Tech as an undergraduate, she was still wrestling with her career aspirations, but gravitated toward science. Both science and Hokie history were in the family. Her mother, Ellen Osborne, graduated with a degree in biological sciences in 1978 and her father earned a veterinary medicine doctorate in 1988.
Caroline majored in biochemistry and chemistry, finding a passion in the balance between the fragility and resilience of life. She wanted to see that give and take firsthand, so Caroline dove into several undergraduate research projects, working in the lab of David Bevan, professor of biochemistry, for three years. She completed an honors baccalaureate in biochemistry on molecular dynamics in May 2007, just a month after the April 16 tragedy.
“Caroline and so many other students were deeply affected by this tragedy. Her strength of character was evident as she took her thesis to completion and defended it, even as she was grieving for friends who were lost,” Bevan said.
After graduation, Caroline was still unsure about her career path. She came to work for her parents’ health care product development company and volunteered as an EMT for her local rescue squad, both giving her a view into the world of medicine.
“She was constantly trying to bring her background together into what she wanted to do. It all came to fruition with her realizing she could bring all her strengths together and be a doctor,” Ellen said.
In one of her personal statements to medical school, Caroline described herself as a “quilt of many colors” because of all of her interests and strengths.
“I am a painter, a volunteer, a hiker, a farmer, an actress, a seamstress, and a chemist. I try to learn something new every day, and I pride myself on my ability to adapt to any situation. But, I am focused. I no longer pine for a theatrical career or even a life playing in tidal mud: I want to be a doctor. It is the purpose in my life I have been looking for and everything else simply adds to the quilted portrait of myself.”
“Being in the school’s first class put her in a position to guide,” said Ellen. “It was challenging and exciting to her. She very much liked the research aspect to the curriculum.”
“She was also attracted by the small class size. She felt it was unique for a medical school and that the spirit of the place was special,” said Carl.
In the middle of her second year of study, Caroline had a spot removed from her arm. It was something that concerned her, but it tested benign. Out of an abundance of caution a few months later, she had more of the spot removed. Doctors said it was melanoma, but after additional tests, there was no evidence it had spread. She barely missed a beat at school and passed the first round of her board exams, moving onto clerkship rotations in her third year. In January 2013, about six months into her clerkships, however, she began to have visual defects.
“Then we found out she had many lesions in her brain,” Carl Osborne said. “It was basically everywhere and very aggressive. Doctors told us she had just months to live.”
While devastating for her family, the news was also upsetting to her classmates, faculty, staff, and friends at the medical school. “We all knew each other, were close, and often had worked for an extensive number of hours together on teams with Caroline through the first two years. You feel like someone in your own family has been given this diagnosis,” said Matt Joy, president of the charter class and current plastic surgery resident in the Carilion Clinic - Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine program in Roanoke, Virginia.
“My first thought was they didn’t train me for this. It wasn’t something I was expecting to hear,” said Aubrey Knight, who had just taken on the role of associate dean for student affairs a month prior to Caroline’s diagnosis.
Knight discussed Caroline’s wishes in regards to her studies. “Her mindset from that point forward was that she was going to come back, finish medical school, and become a doctor.”
“She went through some incredible things where most people wouldn’t survive one of them, and she just popped right up. I remember taking her down to visit Dr. Knight after she had major brain surgery to find out what she needed to do to get back on track and finish up school,” Ellen said.
“She never gave up,” Carl added.
Her family decided to seek treatments across the U.S. and abroad. Before she left, her classmates organized a send-off party.
“It certainly wasn’t a celebration, but a show of support that we were here for her, and we wanted her to do whatever she needed to do to get well and hopefully come back. That was our goal,” Joy said.
The support didn’t stop there. The class sent cards and flowers and, perhaps most memorable, a quilt made from their white coats.
“The quilter was able to work it into a beautiful quilt and got it back to us just in time for graduation so the class could see it in person before we sent it to Caroline where she was undergoing treatment,” Joy said.
“We opened the package up and saw the quilt and a yearbook from the class in there, with no note and no explanation,” Ellen said. “We know how precious those white coats are. The yearbook that was sent along with the quilt was full of references of good times together but, most of all, messages of love for her. For Caroline, it brightened the day because she knew what it meant that they did that for her.”
The school offered Caroline the opportunity to come to graduation with her class and receive an honorary degree, but she declined. She didn’t want to close any doors that would prevent her from earning a real M.D. with the school one day.
“The easy thing may have been to tell her this isn’t going to happen. Get it out of your mind. There are other things you need to worry about and focus on,” Knight said. “But I saw that her dream of becoming a doctor was part of her fight. I came to know that she was an incredible woman, and if anyone was going to overcome this and get to that goal despite those odds, it would be her.”
“She touched so many people, and I know that I was riding their waves of support going through it,” Ellen said. “It never crossed my mind that we weren’t going to get through this. Even up until the day we lost her, I still felt that way and so did she.”
Just a few months after her class graduated, Caroline passed away. Her family and friends are trying to use their grief to honor her memory.
“Caroline’s spirit of striving, working hard, and being everything you can be – exemplified in her commitment until the very end that she was coming back to medical school – lived on in her classmates. They worked hard, and not only for their own success, but because Caroline would have been disappointed in them if they had done anything other than that,” Knight said.
Her classmates are now residents. While they are trained not to practice medicine based on their own personal anecdotes, Caroline’s life and death still resonates.
“It makes you think even more about what’s really important, which goes beyond just medicine to how you want to spend your life, make it worthwhile, and take advantage of every opportunity you have,” Joy said.
Her family began a scholarship in her name.
“Caroline felt the school was very, very special,” Carl said. “Starting a scholarship in her memory was the one thing we could think of that would capture her spirit and what a special place this was for her. What she was unable to accomplish in life, the scholarship can help others achieve.”
To honor her life and raise awareness about the scholarship in her name, Caroline’s family donated the quilt made by the charter class and other mementos to display on a remembrance wall.
“The quilt was something that should be shared,” Ellen said. “I can still hear Dean Johnson say she has never seen anything like this – how the whole class came together and supported her.”
The wall will be dedicated on Oct. 21, at 4:30 p.m. at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine located at 2 Riverside Circle, Roanoke, Virginia. The public is welcome to attend to honor the life of Caroline. Parking is available in the garage in front of the school.