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Voices of HMSOM: Caitlin Sarubbi, Paralympian and Healer-in-Training

The alpine ski slope was a daunting challenge. But for the little girl, it was also thrilling – an utter freedom that combined the exhilaration of speed – with the possibility of a crash. 

With risk came the reward for the 11-year-old city girl, who had never before seen a slope like that snowy run in the Rocky Mountains. The momentum, the rush gave her a feeling she’d never felt before.  

It was like Caitlin Sarubbi was on top of the world – and nothing could stop her. 

For the very first time, it felt like there were no boundaries, no limits – and no disability.  

“This sense of freedom to run down a hill, being outside, it’s something I immediately connected with,” recalled Sarubbi, a Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine student from the 2019 cohort. “It’s one of those sports where you win, because you’re on the edge of winning – or crashing hard… I really just like to push the limits, to push myself and better myself.”  

For the medical student, life has presented her with a series of opportunities to push limits: her own, and those of the world. The Paralympian alpine skier and Harvard graduate is poised to begin her medical career early in 2023, after earning her degree.

She’s been tackling challenges since “day one” – quite literally. When she was just three days old and still in the hospital, she had the first of 80 reconstructive surgeries to help correct a syndrome she inherited at birth. Now 32, she remains partly visually and hearing impaired – but she has a unique experience and empathy she’s bringing to her career as a healer.

“Caitlin is a remarkable doctor-in-training. Her drive and persistence in overcoming obstacles is inspirational to all of us. And she is, quite simply, a wonderful person,” said Jeffrey Boscamp, M.D., the interim dean of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. 

BROOKLYN GIRL… EXCELLING ON THE SLOPES

Sarubbi was born to a mother and father who came from large families in Gerritsen Beach, a Brooklyn neighborhood right on the water. Her mother Cathy owned a marine construction business building docks and piers. Her father John is a longtime Fire Department of New York firefighter, now retired after a full 30-year career. In 1990, as they expected their first child, they had very little experience with medical institutions; her mother had actually never been inside a hospital at that point.

But that quickly changed when Caitlin was born and diagnosed with Ablepharon Macrostomia, a syndrome so rare it was only first identified in the medical literature in 1977. She was born without eyelids and other facial deformities. Doctors didn’t believe she would live through that first night. Three days later, she had her first surgery to salvage the eyesight she had left. That continued through dozens more surgeries over the course of her youth – with about 80 to date.

“ I grew up as a patient,” she said recently. “From a very young age living the life of a patient, I know that gift that I was given by my doctors and what they’ve done for me. And I knew I wanted to be able to try to do that for someone else. So that propelled my whole lifelong goal of becoming a doctor.”

Caitlin found a life-changing passion – in the aftermath of 9/11. Her father’s FDNY station was one of the busiest in the city – so busy that it was already on calls when the World Trade Center attacks commenced on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He and his fellow firefighters only arrived at the Trade Center as the second tower was crashing down. 

Many philanthropic organizations sought ways to give back to the first responders after the terrorist attacks. An organization called Disabled Sports USA intended to bring seriously wounded first responders out to a ski slope after 9/11 to honor their service. But the tragic reality was that few put in harm’s way survived the attack. Still, John Sarubbi and his family were invited as special guests to Breckenridge, Colo. by Disabled Sports USA for their annual Hartford Ski Spectacular.  

This event changed Caitlin’s life forever, as she recalls. 

From that first experience in the Rockies, she became a regular skier back east, on Windham Mountain in Upstate New York in the Catskills, with the organization known as the Adaptive Sports Foundation. Her love of the sport grew with each run downhill.

ON THE WORLD STAGE

From there on, she set two goals for herself: getting into a good college, and qualifying for the United States Adaptive Ski Team. This involved balancing a rigorous course load in high school, while training hard to be among the best skiers in the country. The hard work paid off with life-changing news in the span of three days in 2008: on April 1 Caitlin received her acceptance letter from Harvard University; and two days later she got the call she’d made the United States Adaptive Ski Team. 

“With determination, hard work and a great support system, you can achieve anything you set your mind to,” she said. 

Sarubbi finished her first semester at Harvard in 2008 – and then took a three-semester leave of absence to train. She was the youngest athlete on the Paralympic Alpine Team for the U.S., and she raced in all five alpine events in the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, placing 6th twice and 8th once. 

Sarubbi returned to Harvard to study social and cognitive neuroscience in 2010. But she was still competing in alpine skiing, amassing numerous National Championship and World Cup medals in her many races. She took another leave of absence from college to be able to train and compete in the lead-up to the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. Unfortunately, in the lead-up to the Games, she had a major crash and the injury forced her from competition. 

But that has not diminished the colossal experiences over her athletic career. She was hosted by President Barack Obama at the White House – twice. She rang the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange. And she also was one of the spokespeople for the “Thank You, Mom,” campaign by Procter and Gamble in 2014, alongside other Olympians like fellow skier Lindsey Vonn and U.S. hockey star Julie Chu. 

“I was one of two Paralympic athletes who took part,” she recalled. “For me that was really important because it kind of shed a light on Paralympic sports, and put it on an equal playing field with the other Olympians. It was a big move on their part.”

TO A HEALING CAREER

Sarubbi finished her undergraduate degree in social and cognitive neuroscience in 2015 at Harvard, where she had been a research assistant in the Gilbert Mind Brain Behavior Laboratory. She immediately leapt into further research, by landing a role at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for two years, working at the Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Service as a project manager on multiple therapeutic clinical research protocols. 

Next she earned her Masters degree in Biomedical Science from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Over two years, she formulated a thesis on an analysis of diffusion, functional, and structural MRI data, to study the effects of the loss of estrogen on cognitive structure and function, under the guidance of Dr. Paula Croxson and Dr. Mark Baxter.

Her pursuit of a medical degree started in 2019 at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, as part of the second cohort of students admitted to the then-new school. She has embraced the opportunity, through her experiences in the Human Dimension course, where she worked with a man and his sister who lived together and faced a host of difficulties due to mental health challenges. 

Besides excelling in academics, she has been involved in a whole host of extracurriculars. They include the School’s Students with Disabilities group, which she co-founded, as well as the Oncology Student Interest Group, and the Human Dimension Student Advisory Council. During the height of COVID, she was a member of the COVID Cares group – a student-run program which helped Hackensack Meridian Health health care workers by providing babysitting and online lessons to children, dog sitting, grocery shopping, and other tasks. Her research efforts continued during her education, with bone marrow transplant research over the last three years at the large program at John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center, where Sarubbi has worked with physician-scientists Dr. Andrew Ip and Dr. Scott Rowley. 

Now she’s aiming at her M.D. and an internal medicine residency, with an eye toward oncology. First up is Match Day in March, when she will open her envelope and find out where she will do her residency to start her career. 

What little free time she does have is spent with her large family in Brooklyn, back in Gerritsen Beach. Holidays regularly consist of a dinner with 60 or more people, she said, including her four siblings. She says she hopes a little more free time in the near future might allow her to get back to the ski slopes. She also tries her hand at cooking family recipes while also indulging in a bit of reality television when she can. 

Her ultimate goal is to be a terrific doctor, and to heal as many as possible. Her experience has helped her figure out the best way she can find to do so, she said.  

“I just learned how to adapt and figure out different ways of doing the same thing that everyone else does,” she said. “Being resourceful and resilient is really what has helped me in the clinical setting – to be a better doctor. Being on the patient side of things for so long has given me insights in how to be a better healer as well.”