Bernadette A. Thomas, M.D.
Bernadette A. Thomas, M.D., ’01 senior nephrology fellow at the University of Washington Medical Center, Seattle, has a passion for global health issues that has grown and deepened ever since she wrote a research paper for an honors history course at IU.
“When I got to Immaculata, I didn’t know what I wanted to be,” said Thomas, “but I thought I would be a good teacher, and I loved writing. I knew my strengths, and I hoped things would move in those directions.”
And move they did. Thomas was assigned to write an historical analysis of Philadelphia’s response to cholera by History Professor Dr. John Hill.
“This was perfect,” said Thomas, “because cholera started in India in 1832 and swept all over the world, but the only academic information about the cholera years dealt with New York’s response to it.”
This meant Thomas’s research would be entirely from primary source documents, and her resulting 100-page paper ended up “opening a lot of doors.” Thomas was invited to speak at the SouthEastern Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education (SEPCHE), the NIH Extramural Associates Program, and to participate in Posters on the Hill in Washington, D.C. through the Council of Undergraduate Research.
At her professor’s urging, Thomas sent the paper to Charles Rosenberg, renowned history of science scholar and author of The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, who, at that time, was at the University of Pennsylvania. They eventually met and Rosenberg asked Thomas what she wanted to do with her life. When she shared some of her dreams Rosenberg replied, “If you want to effect that kind of social change, you’ll need an M.D. after your name. Like listens to like.”
Thomas went on to medical school at Temple University, where she was class president for two years. At graduation, she gave the address, but the keynote speaker had canceled and been replaced by none other than Rosenberg, who was then at Harvard.
“So we spoke, one after the other,” said Thomas. “I never feel as though Providence doesn’t have its hand on my life.”
Thomas did her residency in social medicine/primary care at Einstein Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, NY, where she developed a longitudinal educational intervention for residents to receive training in screening and management of cases of domestic violence.
Also during her residency, Thomas volunteered for Doctors of the World Human Rights Clinic, preparing medical affidavits for survivors of torture and persecution seeking asylum in the U.S. She also spent a month in Uganda as an inpatient physician of adult medical wards in a government hospital.
Thomas also applied to Doctors Without Borders and completed a six-month assignment in northern Thailand at a 6,000-member refugee camp before beginning her nephrology fellowship.
During her time in Thailand, Thomas’s Immaculata mentor and friend, Sister Marian Monahan passed away. “One of the other Sisters e-mailed me,” said Thomas, “and it was very hard to read that message. My family went to the funeral on my behalf.”
Thomas feels that her time at IU “lit a fire, and has been lighting the way ever since.” She remembers one of her English professors making a statement indicative of the academic attention and intellectual rigor that Immaculata provided.
“Mr. Mooney, in grading one of my papers for his honors English class, let me know that it was a very good paper, and I would get an A,” said Thomas. “But he noted that, ‘On the Thomas scale of uncompromising excellence’ it wasn’t good enough. I had not given my best, and he knew it.”
Thomas admitted, “I had to sit with that for a while, but I think it summarizes the experience I had at Immaculata. You can get an education, or you can get your education.”
Thomas is using her education today to train with the goal of working with populations that don’t have access to dialysis, and she is active in the WHO’s Global Burden of Disease Project as a member of the Genitourinary Expert Group.
“I was always interested in dialysis.” said Thomas. “That population requires a high level of care and I feel as though I am really putting my training to use when I take care of them.”
Thomas also appreciates the fact that, with dialysis care, “What we do has a logical connection to what we understand, and it’s not always that way in medicine.”
One of Thomas’s projects is to start a dialysis program in Cambodia. “The country has one dialysis unit,” she said, “so we’re training the nephrologists there. The beauty of it is that the nephrologists in Cambodia will be piloting these efforts. This will be a Cambodian effort in the end.”
From not knowing just where her path would lead, Thomas is now “very fulfilled with what I’m doing.” Her direction is clear and in line with her deep commitment to care for the world’s most underserved.
“I want to be a practicing nephrologist in academia, seeing patients and teaching about nephrology and resource-poor settings,” said Thomas. “I would also like to be directing the treatment in countries that currently don’t have those resources.”
Even with her profound sense of purpose, Thomas acknowledged that the hardest part of her professional mission is “the uncertainty.”
“Life changes so much from day to day,” said Thomas. “But I’m learning to roll with that gracefully. I’m learning to trust that what has brought me this far will continue to lead me further.”