Alyssa Savelli has wanted to be a doctor for as long as she can remember. “When I was 5, I would just sit and watch Discovery Health Channel and watch open heart surgery.”
A learning disability as a child made Savelli second-guess her dreams. “As I worked with special tutors, I got over it, but it wore on my confidence for a long time. I still worried that medicine would be too hard for me.”
A life-altering illness in her family caused her to refocus on her early dream. During her freshman year at Virginia Tech, Savelli’s father was diagnosed with acoustic neuroma, a brain tumor that impacts a nerve that runs from the ear to the brain. Along with numerous doctors’ appointments, he had to undergo complicated surgery to remove the tumor.
“Through that period, I noticed what makes a good doctor,” Savelli said, in particular noting the work of Rafael Tarmargo, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Medicine who performed her dad’s surgery. “Despite the fact that Dr. Tamargo was a brilliant surgeon and he is really busy, he was also very empathetic. Whenever my dad came in, he would ask how everyone else in the family was doing by name.”
That level of care stuck with Savelli. “At the time, I thought, 'I may not be as smart as everyone else - though I realize I am now - but I do care enough.' I’m very empathetic. I know I would really care for my patients and go the extra mile for them. That’s what makes a good doctor - both the skill and care. At that point, I made the decision that I would pursue medicine and push myself to develop a résumé that was competitive for medical school.”
After graduating with a degree in biological sciences from Virginia Tech, Savelli went back home and worked at a small physician’s office in downtown Washington, D.C. “I was a medical secretary, but it was unique because the way the practice worked was it was just me and the doctor. I got to interact with all of the patients, and they really get to know you. It was a rewarding experience. It taught me about the benefits of continuity of care.”
The job further solidified her desire to become a doctor, so Savelli strengthened her medical school application by getting a master’s degree in physiology from Georgetown University.
Soon after, she chose to attend the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke, Virginia. Among other reasons, Savelli was attracted by the school’s small class size. “You can really thrive in a school of 42. That is much more difficult to do in a class of 200. It’s the best thing about this school.”
Currently, Savelli is in her third year of study, rotating through clerkships in various medical specialties. So far this year, she has experienced immersions in obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, neurology, and research, and has just started her surgery rotation. “I’m starting to see all of the rewards from the medical knowledge in the third and fourth year. You’ve learned it, and now we get to apply it to patients.”
So far, Savelli is not sure what specialty she will pursue after medical school. “I want to get to know my patients and have a relationship with them. That’s the most rewarding part of medicine. That has to be part of any field that I go into,” Savelli said. “And it’s important to me to have a field where I feel like I can make a difference in underserved communities.”
The late Sam McCall was raised in Richlands, Virginia, and studied for a year in business administration at Virginia Tech with the Class of 1958. He moved away from the area to Texas, but his family that remained in rural Southwest Virginia faced limited access to health care.
“After talking with Sam, we decided with a scholarship, some of the graduating doctors would love the area so much that they would remain there,” said Priscilla McCall, a founding donor of the school. “I believe that has been successful. When I spoke to Dean Cynda Johnson after the first graduation ceremony there was a high percentage of the graduates remaining in Virginia. Nothing could have pleased us more.”
Despite a busy study schedule, Savelli makes time to give back to underserved communities in the Roanoke area by volunteering about once a month at the Bradley Free Clinic. She is active with the Group on Women in Medicine and Science, which volunteers a few times every semester at the Ronald McDonald house with fellow female physicians to cook a meal for the patients’ families who stay there. She served as vice president of the group during her second year of medical school.
Savelli is also one of four Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine students who serve as members of the Association of American Medical College’s Organization of Student Representatives.
The desire to serve is a quality you can find in almost all medical students, Savelli said. “We have the desire to make a difference. We see that there are things that are wrong in the world and we want to find a way to make it right, even in a small way.”