campus news

Recovery and a return to activism

As part of her recovery, Sydney Johnson works out regularly in a local gym. She continues to be engaged in the Jacobs School's efforts to help address health disparities in Buffalo, and is looking forward to returning to medical school full time in August.  Photo: Sandra Kicman


Published February 6, 2023

“It makes me feel good that you have a Sydney who has had plenty of hurdles and she keeps moving, and then you add this additional hurdle and … she keeps moving. What she doesn’t know is that other people are watching her, taking inspiration from her. ”
Timothy M. Adams, clinical assistant professor
Department of Surgery

Editor’s note: This is the second part of the story of UB medical student Sydney Johnson’s recovery from a rare, COVID-related stroke. Part one of the story can be found here.

UB neurosurgeon Elad I. Levy, who performed life-saving surgery to remove multiple clots from Sydney Johnson’s brain, had brought her family the news they were so anxious to hear: The procedure was a success.

But it was clear they would need to be very vigilant during the coming hours and days. Those hours and days were among the hardest. “I wanted to know, where was the threshold for being in or out of the woods? Not knowing was just agonizing,” said Johnson’s mother, Nahkema Clay.

Johnson surprised the team with the speed of her recovery. She was able to squeeze a nurse’s hand soon after the procedure, and it wasn’t long before she was sitting in a chair.

As soon as she could talk, she told her mother that she would definitely be going back to medical school. Her mother wholeheartedly agreed. “If I have to quit my job to care for you, you are going back to school,” she said.

The joy and relief the family experienced was shared by the whole medical team.

News of Johnson’s outcome spread throughout the hospital and the Jacobs School.

“Experiencing a severe stroke is a terrifying ordeal for anyone. But going through such a harrowing event when you are an otherwise young, healthy person is even more traumatic, both for the patient and her family,” said Allison Brashear, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. “All of us at the Jacobs School are grateful for the life-saving, quick actions of Sydney’s medical team.”

As he prepared her for discharge, Levy pointed out that this positive outcome resulted from the expertise and collaboration among the whole medical team, including neurosurgery fellows and residents, as well as John M. Hourihane, clinical assistant professor of neurology and a neurologist with UBMD Neurology and Kaleida Health.

“Every one of them was critical to achieving Sydney’s exceptional recovery,” said Levy.

“This is a Buffalo native, born and bred here, with an unbelievable future, who could have met what could have been a tragic end,” he said. “But now she will go back to medical school and realize her dream of being a doctor.”

Still, plenty of challenges remained. The fatigue was overwhelming. Johnson had to use a walker at first. Her days were packed with appointments with physical therapy, occupational therapy, neurosurgeons, neurologists, cardiologists and hematologists — so many that her mother had to take time off from her job. Her mother’s assistance was essential: There would have been no way she could have made those arrangements herself. In addition, she couldn’t drive.

It’s a lesson that Johnson says will stay with her.

Given the proverbial firehose of material that medical students are required to digest on a daily basis, Johnson understood that she wouldn’t be able to resume her studies with her classmates — she had already missed too much. For the current year she is on a leave of absence. In August, she will return to school as a member of the Class of 2026. “It’s really frustrating,” she said. “I’m doing so great but I missed the first block of school.”

True to form, Johnson couldn’t just take it easy. “It is not at all surprising how much Sydney continues to accomplish this year,” said David A. Milling, executive director of the Office of Medical Education and senior associate dean of medical education in the Jacobs School. “She has taken this opportunity to intensify her activism and continue her research on issues related to health care disparities within underserved communities.”

SNMA officers addressed the attendees.

Last semester, Sydney Johnson, then vice president of the Student National Medical Association, was at the microphone during the group's annual Taste of Culture event. Photo: Sandra Kicman

Throughout the fall semester, she continued to serve as vice president of the Student National Medical Association, organizing and running many of its activities. She is also working on a project she began last summer as one of three summer research fellows funded by the Department of Surgery. The program is designed to mentor underrepresented students interested in surgery and to give them exposure to the operating room. In the OR last summer, she worked under Timothy M. Adams, clinical assistant professor of surgery, who recalled that her enthusiasm for surgery even helped rekindle his own interest in some aspects that had become routine.

As part of that program, Johnson is also working with the Office of Medical Curriculum and SNUG (Should Never Use Guns), a community group that works to combat gun violence, to develop a community-focused, trauma elective that will likely be incorporated into the Jacobs School curriculum.

Sydney Johnson is committed to a high-intensity, low-impact conditioning routine, which she pursues at a local gym. Photo: Sandra Kicman

Of course, her main goal this year has been to focus on recovery and regain strength. A few times a week, she participates in a high-intensity, low-impact conditioning routine at a Buffalo gym to build up her strength, endurance and balance.

She has taken plenty of lessons from her experience, including the importance of focusing on the patient’s family, as well as the patient.

“They say this all the time in class,” she said, “that you are not just treating the patient; you are also treating the family. Checking in with the family has a larger impact than it may seem. I have seen already that it can take almost no time to provide a small update that the family has been anxiously waiting to hear. There are many people holding their breath when it comes to a sick loved one. That extra moment of attention given to the family can change their entire experience.”

Her efforts have also not gone unnoticed by her peers and even by her mentors. “It makes me feel good that you have a Sydney who has had plenty of hurdles and she keeps moving, and then you add this additional hurdle and … she keeps moving,” said Adams. “What she doesn’t know is that other people are watching her, taking inspiration from her.”