By Tracy Akers, ’16

She wears a white surgical mask, and her body is swallowed by a pair of scrubs. From behind her goggles, she sees a room full of nurses and physicians surrounding a patient lying on a table. Many of us will never have this opportunity to see an open chest, so fleshy and alive — a beating heart.

Haleigh Bass, ’17, is the intern swallowed by scrubs, asking questions, and watching the doctors perform open-heart surgery. But she’s not just in any surgical room; Bass interned at Johns Hopkins Medical Center this summer. Yes — she scored the internship that most pre-med students pine after.

Bass, a two-time recipient of UR’s Lush Pre-Medical Scholarship, worked with Dr. Ronald Berger, director of cardiac electrophysiology, who studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate at MIT. From there, he went on to Harvard Medical School and now works at Johns Hopkins.

As part of her internship at Johns Hopkins, Bass assisted Berger in his implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) research. “What he’s currently working on is making a — well, the end goal is a painless, or for right now something that is a lot less painful, version of an implantable defibrillator,” Bass laughs when I ask her to explain what all of this means.

Bass describes an ICD as a device for patients at risk of cardiac arrest. The device helps save the lives of patients when they enter into life-threatening arrhythmia, called ventricular fibrillation, Bass says. It fires a shock and terminates the arrhythmia, which saves the patient’s life, but there are downsides. One of these downsides is the surgery to first have the ICD implanted. The second downside is much harder to endure.

“It’s extremely painful when it goes off. Just talking to a couple different patients, a lot of them will say it feels like the equivalent of holding onto an electrical wire, getting electrocuted while being kicked in the chest by a horse. It’s extremely, excruciatingly painful,” Bass explains.

She came into her internship expecting to be wowed by exciting medicine, and she certainly was. But after hearing patients describe the trauma ICDs cause, Bass had a lot to think about throughout her internship. The more clinical hours she worked with Berger, the more research she did looking for ways to lessen the pain of an ICD. And the more she scrubbed into surgery, she started to realize how truly impressed she was by Johns Hopkins’s medical environment and started to see her future working in a research hospital. She realized how important her major at University of Richmond — Healthcare Studies — had become to her.  Seeing the sadness and trauma of patients’ suffering from cardiac arrest gave Bass a passion for quality doctor-patient relationships. She came out of her internship with a new perspective — she wants to give people a better quality of life.

Bass describes listening to the story of one particular patient. “Just getting to listen to her explain how her life has been totally changed because of this occurrence, it made me feel that I was taking part in something that was really big. Being able to do research on something that could really alter this woman’s and other patients’ lives, for the better — that was something that was really eye-opening for me.”

Taking pre-med classes first sparked Bass’ interest in medicine, but her internship at Johns Hopkins gave her more than just heavily scientifically based medical knowledge. She sat down and talked to patients, watched their surgeries, and saw them in follow-up consultations. Bass remembers, “a couple of different times when these patients would really feel [comfortable] enough to open up to [Berger] about how their health problems affect their day-to-day lives. Subtle, kind interactions like that, you don’t learn in your pre-med courses. How to make someone feel valued and have them come away knowing all of their different options and making sure they understand the different treatments, that’s very important.”

At the end of her internship, Bass sat down with Berger and discussed what worked or didn’t work in the internship. “Sitting down with Dr. Berger and receiving positive feedback on my performance in such a respected and professional environment was very encouraging. He conveyed that I have the potential to be a successful physician one day. Hearing that was absolutely incredible.”

Bass is pretty incredible herself, and for now she has plenty to keep her busy. She is one of the founders of the new pre-health fraternity on campus. She’s a UREMS volunteer. She’s working on a project to take a Richmond medical mission team to Panama in the spring. Oh, and she has to study for the MCAT, of course.