“Eventually, you will figure out how to do that task that you once thought was impossible, and all you have to do is change your approach.”
If anyone has made the most of the cards life dealt them, it’s Sarah Sternlieb.
Sarah was born with an unknown physical disability that manifested as skeletal muscle weakness. It predominately affected her lower extremities, with the right leg being weaker than the left, as well as some weakness in her hand.
Those weren’t the only medical issues that Sarah had to contend with, however. She also had a clubbed foot that was surgically repaired when she was an infant, bilateral congenital hip dysplasia, severe scoliosis that resulted in two spinal fusions at ages 11 and 13, Brown Syndrome in her right eye that required unilateral eye surgery at the age of five, and a growth hormone deficiency that was treated with growth hormone injections for approximately 10 years. To this day, Sarah walks with braces on both her legs and uses forearm crutches.
“My father and my paternal grandfather were both orthopedic surgeons, pretty ironic considering all of my orthopedic anomalies!” she said.
Unfortunately, her father passed away when she was 12 years old. She thinks of all events in her life as happening before and after that tragic occurrence.
In spite of all these things, she describes her childhood as “fairly normal.”
“I grew up in Carrollton, Georgia, a stereotypical southern small town,” she said. “My mother raised me as a single parent and did everything she could to ensure I would be an independent adult one day despite my disability.”
Because she was encouraged to do everything she wanted to do regardless of physicality, Sarah was free to dream of becoming a doctor.
“As a lifelong patient, being a doctor was all I knew!” she said.
She attended college at the University of Connecticut, which was the farthest location anyone in her graduating class went to after high school. After volunteering at a hospital in Connecticut for a year, she moved to Philadelphia, where she earned her master’s in biology at Drexel University School of Medicine. Sarah then returned to the Deep South, receiving her medical degree at Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans.
Because she herself was born with so many health conditions, Sarah was inspired to study what happens during pregnancy and birth, which is how she came to Nashville. She is currently in a four-year residency program in obstetrics and gynecology at University of Tennessee Nashville at St. Thomas Midtown Hospital. It was during her transition to this current location that she first heard of Bulow Orthotic & Prosthetic Solutions.
When she was packing to move from New Orleans to Nashville her KAFO brace unexpectedly broke and was completely unusable. She had an old KAFO from 10 years ago to use in the meantime, but desperately needed new braces immediately, as she was starting a physically intense OB/GYN residency program. Sarah frantically called and emailed every orthotics clinic in Nashville that she could find on Google.
“Bulow was one of the first to get back to me with an appointment a few days after I was scheduled to arrive in Nashville,” she said. “Bulow went out of their way to accommodate me in my crisis situation.”
When she is finished with her residency in Nashville, she aspires to earn a Maternal-Fetal Medicine fellowship so she can specialize in high-risk pregnancies. Although she has fallen in love with this field of study, she has a few hesitations.
“Many are apprehensive and unsure if I can become a surgeon despite my physical disability,” she said. “I too am unsure what I am ultimately capable of, but I have never wanted anything more and know that I will do whatever it takes to become an MFM physician.”
It’s not a decision Sarah takes lightly. She underwent much soul-searching and sought out the advice from dozens of instructors, mentors, advisors.
“Ultimately, I decided to stop asking for everyone else’s opinion and decided I was going to pursue what made me happy, which is OBGYN,” she said.
In her free time, Sarah enjoys playing guitar, and takes lessons via Skype with an instructor in Connecticut. She also has two yorkies, Mia and Chloe, and loves spending time with them. To her, a perfect day would involve sleeping in, doing some studying at Starbucks and binge-watching shows with her dogs.
Sarah has this advice for those living with disabilities, “Do not assume you cannot do something just because everyone else tells you that you cannot do it. I started medical school thinking that any surgical specialty was not an option for me because of my disability.”
However, once she stopped limiting herself based on others’ expectations, she realized that she can do almost anything if she simply changes the way she does it.
“It takes creativity, ingenuity, and patience to trial and error different techniques and adaptions,” she said. “Eventually, you will figure out how to do that task that you once thought was impossible, and all you have to do is change your approach.”