I spoke with Stanford-student Haley Schwager to learn more about how she plans to change the medical world.

ADINAWA: Haley, thanks so much for joining me. Can just tell me a little bit about who you are and how you got to where you are today?

I’m in Houston, Texas, originally, but today I am a Stanford student remotely. And I guess my journey there has mostly been through health care, I guess, to give a little bit of background on who I am and why I am the way I am. I always had a really strong passion for art and for working with children. Ever since I was little, I guess, when I was a child, of course, I loved working with children. I’m told that today I like working with children because I am a large child.

About five years ago, I was looking for a way I could combine these two interests (I’m from Houston and Houston has an insane medical center. It’s my favorite part about the city, it’s like a downtown but for doctors) and so I was looking for a way to combine those two passions. I came across an art therapy program at Texas Children’s Hospital called Arts and Medicine Periwinkles Program to work with pediatric cancer patients. I went there to work with the kids doing art and I returned there many times. I worked there for about three years, up until I had to leave Houston.

While I was there, what really surprised me was the real love I [developed] for the hospital and the medical center. I was wowed by the level of coordination taking place outside of just patient visits. Coordinating that kind of thing is a feat. It’s really, really cool and I really fell in love with [everything that] happens in a hospital and just thinking about how many rooms are in it…how many rooms are in the entire medical center…it just got me.So I came to Stanford trying to figure out how I could get into that sphere. I didn’t really think I wanted to be a medical professional. I didn’t feel that level of patient interaction was what I was wanting. I wanted more of a bird’s eye position and a coordinating role just because I wanted to have a larger impact than just patient-to-patient.

When I came to Stanford, I have always known what I was going to study. I have never changed what I’m going to study and it’s been great. I am currently majoring in human biology. Stanford has this program where it’s a core program of pure Bio classes. So I’ve done a lot of just the raw science and then it’s mixed in with more social science elements of health care, economics, policy…all of these things. You can design your own concentration and it’s a lot of self design in the major, so my concentration is health care business and social policy, which I’ve loved. I’ve always thought I was going to minor in data science as well, because I know that what I foresee in health care is huge technological innovation, primarily driven by the use of data to streamline efficiency in a lot of health care systems. So I wanted to get some experience before I left Stanford and I’ve just spent a lot of time sort of trying to figure out where I can fit in health care right now. It’s hospitals…[but] that can always change. I know it’s changed a million times, but right now I’m working at UCSF Health, which is a big health system in Northern California and I work in their strategy and business department as their intern. That is a lot of what I have been doing and how I got there.

ADINAWA: I love that you’ve stayed with the one thing that you’ve been studying. You described this really influential time in your life where you were working in hospitals. Can you tell me one or two moments that come to mind when you think about fond memories?

One specific instance that has really stayed with me and whenever I doubt working in health care, I’ve always come back to it, sort of because of this. In the hospital, you have outpatient and inpatient clinics. And so the inpatients are the much more trying cases are in a hospital bed and living at the hospital. Outpatient, at least in Pediatric Oncology, is more getting your chemo treatment, infusions — those patients are generally doing a lot better and just need to come in one a week. So I would spend a lot of time in the outpatient clinic but I would also go to the inpatient clinic as well, which was definitely more of a quiet, bedside experience. 

I had one patient who my supervisor had told me that I didn’t have to go in to see her because I was 17 at the time, not that I feel much older now, and the patient was a little girl who didn’t speak English and she had a brain tumor that caused her eye to come out of its socket. My supervisor told me that since I am not a medical professional, she understood if I did not want to be near that. I decided that if she’s in the hospital and she’s 5 or 6, doesn’t speak any English, and she has a brain tumor; I think she could use some coloring at the very least. So I went in and it wasn’t like the visit itself was anything crazy, it felt normal. She’s just a normal little girl who, just like everyone in the hospital, was scared but there to get better and obviously incredibly strong and brave just to be there. I had a great experience with her and just seeing her smile made me happy.

What really sticks out to me from that experience was the next summer when I was back at the hospital. She was still there, so I went in to see her and her eye was completely healed, completely back in;maybe not fully functioning, but cosmetically, completely better. It was just a completely different experience, just seeing how much improvement could be made in the time of the year. This girl’s life had changed completely and that was really important for me. That’s probably the moment that sticks out the most to me when it comes to that hospital. It was a great experience and she’s really sweet and I hope she’s doing well today.

ADINAWA: Thank you for sharing that. What is the field of human biology you want to go into or what you want to continue to do with your concentration now?

I’m actually asking myself that very same question. I think my ultimate goal is to work in a health care system in a strategy or operational role, ultimately working to lead my own health system. I’m currently trying to figure out the rung of the ladder to get there and see how I can actually make that happen….I might try and do a Masters in Management Science and Engineering. I ultimately will likely go to business school because if you do not have an M.D., typically an MBA is helpful (well, it’s always helpful when it comes to health care management.) I think next summer I’ll be working, doing some form of healthcare consulting, which I think will be helpful in developing the business chops to really make an impact in the health system. My ultimate goal is to be in a health care system at the moment.

ADINAWA: In observing the world as it is right now, being the state that it is, is there something that has particularly sparked your interest of late that maybe you hadn’t thought about going into this field initially?

When it comes to health care, I feel two things following the pandemic and amidst the pandemic. The first thing is that in many ways the coronavirus pandemic has hastened change when it comes to technology. It has pushed a lot of different health systems to make steps in technology that they probably wouldn’t have made for many years.

Something that is really interesting about health care is that doctors and health systems are made up of some of the smartest people out there, but it is really hard to adopt change when you have so many patients and so many responsibilities already. To expect people to be able to make serious technological changes is something that you can’t really do, but since they’ve been forced into it (obviously dependent on some government regulation,) we’re going to see a lot more telemedicine, which is definitely something I would have considered before Covid. [However,] I probably wouldn’t have considered working at a health startup in the near future, but now I absolutely would. I do think Tech will be more relevant as we keep going throughout the pandemic.

The other major change I see being really relevant is that this has exposed a few weaknesses in our healthcare system that were not extremely apparent. I don’t mean [that they weren’t apparent] to the people that study health care –I think [to them] these weaknesses are always showing — but the American public now is a lot more concerned with health care. I know that for the 2020 election, health care was placed much higher on the brackets of voting issues than ever before. Now we have the potential to see a lot of the momentum from the pandemic being funneled into health care change and hopefully some positive reform.

ADINAWA: I’d like to take a step back now from the medical field and biology, etc., and ask what inspires you and also what makes you smile?

What makes me smile is easy because it’s everything. I am a continuous smiler. It might be my resting face, but in general, I just love hearing laughter. That always makes you smile. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, I just want to hear people’s laughs – I think they’re so goofy sometimes. I tend to draw a lot of inspiration from the people around me — I’m a people person. I’m really inspired when I see someone who cares about something, because I think that caring about something and really going for it takes a lot of bravery and a lot of passion and that’s contagious. It’s been really cool to be at Stanford. One of my best friends is extremely passionate about International Relations and National Security (things that I just do not consider probably as much as I should!) just hearing her talk about it, even if I don’t know what she’s saying, I find it really inspiring.

ADINAWA: Would you mind talking just more about your family, your community and how those have shaped you?

I have one brother and my brother went to Stanford. We attended the same high school, four years apart. His graduation from Stanford was my graduation from high school – it’s just been a cycle and that definitely influenced me. I come from a family that has been encouraging of my passions and values doing something you care about, which has been really helpful for me. Obviously academically, I could do a lot of things and they have put no pressure on me to do what they think might be the most profitable or anything like that. It’s just what I care about and that has meant a ton to me. My parents have always been really encouraging figures for me, as well as my brother who has been such a good role model. He’s the smartest person I’ve ever met in my whole life, so he’s been really good to look up to.

As far as my community, I didn’t come from a super diverse community. I grew up in Houston and I loved growing up there – there are so many cool parts to it, but where I went to high school was not super diverse and I feel like when I went to college, it really helped me. I was really looking forward to sort of breaking out of that. It’s hard to say because I love where I grew up, but I recognize it has some flaws. It’s a weird feeling to sort of look back on where you grew up and recognize that some things weren’t great. Overall, I had a really good childhood and a really supportive family, and that has meant a lot to me.

ADINAWA: Who in your life inspires you or if it’s not someone in your life, if there’s anyone you ever looked up to who’s just been like, “Wow, she or he or they are just killing it.”

So many people! My brother, like I said, he has always really pushed and motivated me. I can’t say this enough, but he is the smartest person I’ve ever met in my life. I know he’ll do something amazing one day and just living even near him makes me feel smart. 

My parents have been huge role models for me. I grew up in Texas and  my mom, the entire time I was growing up, managed a full time career as a lawyer. I know that was hard for her sometimes because in our community, it’s not always common that women are successful and that women don’t leave their jobs. I saw her strength and her unwillingness to quit and it really inspired me and always showed me that I could push myself. I’ve always looked up to her for that and I know it wasn’t always easy, especially just where we were. That was always really important to me.

Outside of my family, any professor I’ve ever had – I would just sit there in awe of them. I recently had a professor who I just absolutely loved. He was my health care policy professor and I could just talk to him for hours. He’d worked in the government as well and had a really interesting perspective on how little things change and it was really cool to talk to him. The last person that I really look up to is pretty much every woman I work with today at UCSF. I very much lucked into this, but all my bosses are women and they are all incredible people. It is the most supportive network I could ever have found about this very niche career I’ve chosen to share. I’m like, “I want to be like you guys!” I’m the only person that wants to be so excited and they’re just so kind. I look up to every single one of them because they just show me that with a lot of hard work, you can get exactly where you want to go. They all had very meandering careers as well, which led them here and I’m very grateful that they ended up here.

ADINAWA: If there was an area outside of your career or maybe they’re interlinked, but if there is an area that’s outside of your career that you hope to have an impact on, what area would that be? What do you want to see change in the world?

All of my volunteer work and all of the things that I’m interested in doing outside of my career are still in my career usually. I always liked working our dance marathon at school and fundraising for the children’s hospital, which is something different. Outside of that, something I really want to help with just in the near future, following Covid, I really am interested to see what the pandemic is like for children and following their development. I don’t know whether that would be in a research capacity or maybe a mentorship capacity, but as someone who has worked with a lot of kids, I know how much stimulation they need and how much socialization they need to develop fully. Outside of my time at the hospital, I ran an art class for children and I also was a mentor to middle schoolers during high school. I worry that maybe these months and months on end of being cooped up and not being with friends will have negative consequences on how they develop. I would love to help understand it because I am pretty worried about that and it’s something I think about a lot right now.

I just can’t even imagine what that would have been like when I was so little. My friends were my whole world. You’re not really focused on school like it’s something you do, but it’s not like college or even high school. I do worry that we’ll have some pretty big consequences on learning, general development, and mental health –  it’s a hard time to be a child.

ADINAWA: I want to ask you about your style and how you present yourself in the world. How do you try to show up in the world and if there was a word or a few words, you would try to put it to that?

I like to present myself well to the world — I love cute clothes…I love to shop. My bosses would always like to make fun of me since I would be dressed up for my Zoom internship. I feel like when I wear clothes that I am proud of, it helps me reflect who I want to be. Not like sweatpants energy – I’m trying to avoid that, even though it’s very easy to get into it. 

A word to describe it? I don’t know… I’ve always really loved dresses. It’s not really a word, it’s like, a girly professional, I would say! Maybe I’ll describe it as conservative but very cute.

ADINAWA: Was there a time in your life where you weren’t as confident or as comfortable?

Absolutely! We should just block out the ages from when I was allowed to choose my own clothes to the age of 17. I feel like confidence is really something that comes as you get older and I think everyone is like fake it until you make it kind of thing. That is something I definitely struggled with growing up. Obviously, when you’re younger, you know your insecurities before you really figure out who you want to be and you have those things to focus on that can be really big…it can be really hard. 

I definitely struggled with a lot of body image issues. When I was younger, I was a heavier kid growing up and that was definitely something that I had to overcome and work to be confident.

ADINAWA: If you consider yourself someone who’s active now, what would you say is the importance of social media – both in terms of self perception and confidence? Also in terms of sharing information – if you engage, how so?

As far as the second question, when it comes to the sharing element, I think social media has been really important to me over these past months when I felt so disconnected from everyone. I see some people and I am currently living with some friends during the quarter, but for the most part, I have best friends I haven’t seen in nine months. I have acquaintances I haven’t seen in months. I think that that has been really valuable to me to just even see their name pop up and just know they’re still out there and they’re still happy – that has meant a lot to me. I think this pandemic would be so much harder without social media and just knowing that your friends are doing okay, even if it’s a brief thing to me or anything, it’s just nice to have that reminder, especially when you feel so lonely.

Sometimes I worry that social media can go both ways when it comes to confidence. As someone who thinks about how people are feeling a lot, I consider myself pretty empathetic. I do worry that social media can create constructs where some people don’t feel like they have enough but I think for a lot of people, social media can be a way to show the world who you are and who you want to be. That’s something that can give people a lot of confidence and can give people a feeling of having power over their own identity and how they want their identity displayed, which I think is really powerful, especially right now when no one can see you. Especially now, it has been pretty cool to see social media take on a role in more political and social issues recently. That’s something that I didn’t see so much before and I think a big reason that it has happened is because of the pandemic. It’s a way to shout at the world and make yourself heard even from your bedroom — that’s pretty cool!

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