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Make-A-Wish fulfills teenager's dream of attending Harvard Medical School

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Gabrielle Samsock, 14, performing a procedure on a simulation mannequin (Courtesy Harvard Medical School/John Soares 2012)

Make-A-Wish, the organization known for making dreams come true for children with life-threatening medical conditions, has flown kids around the world, granted them shopping sprees and helped them meet their favorite celebrities.  

Last week, the organization fulfilled one girl’s wish of attending Harvard Medical School.

“My wish was inspired by my past medical problems,” Gabrielle Samsock told FoxNews.com. “When I went to Boston for surgeries, we’d pass by Harvard and I’d say, ‘Daddy, I’m going to go there when I’m older.’”

Gabrielle,  a 14-year-old high school freshman, who lives in Factoryville, Penn., was born with Shone’s syndrome, a rare congenital heart disease in which the valves on the left side of the heart are narrowed, and blood flow in and out of the heart is obstructed.  

“In March of ’99, Gabrielle had a chronic respiratory infection, and her doctor did an X-ray to make sure she didn’t have pneumonia,” said Gabrielle’s mother, Melissa Samsock.  “He said her heart was too swollen for her body, and to make sure nothing was seriously wrong, he sent us to a cardiologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). That was when we found out about her condition.”

Gabrielle underwent her first surgery as a 1-year-old at CHOP to repair her aorta.  She and her parents were referred to an expert at Boston Children’s Hospital where she has had multiple surgeries to balloon her valves and put in three different stents.

Her condition is not fatal, but she still needs a valve transplant surgery, which should ultimately fix her heart, her mother explained.

Gabrielle said all her time spent as a patient in the hospital fueled her desire to be on the other side of the situation – as a doctor.  Specifically, she hopes to one day become a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon.

“I was 8 years old when I decided I wanted to be a doctor,” Gabrielle said.  “My parents laughed and were like, ‘OK.’  I was little, and little kids always say those things, like ‘I want to be a firefighter,’ or ‘I want to be a policeman.’ But when I brought it up to Make-A-Wish, they were like, ‘Wow, this is what you really want to do.’”

According to Gabrielle, when she told representatives from Make-A-Wish she wanted to attend medical school, “Their jaws just dropped.  They were so shocked.  They said my wish was so unique and personal.  I was just very excited to start my life.”

Not long after Gabrielle made her wish, it was granted.

“I was freaking out,” Gabrielle said.  “I was smiling from ear to ear, jumping all over the house.  I said ‘thank you’ a million times.  I was so beyond grateful.”

Attending Harvard

At Harvard, the wish request had moved through administrators until it reached Dr. Robert Kitts, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and attending physician at Boston Children’s Hospital and clinical instructor at HMS.  Kitts said as soon as he heard the wish, he knew he “had to make it happen.”

Kitts set to work drafting a proposal and planning a week-long program for Gabrielle. He said he envisioned the week as an accelerated four-year experience, starting with orientation on Monday and ending with ‘graduation’ on Friday.

“I wanted to craft all four years into one week,” Kitts said.  “I knew the first-year medical students were starting August 20.  So the day they started, she started too.”

Gabrielle attended orientation with 150 first-year students that Monday morning, accompanied by Cyndie Seraphin, a fourth-year medical student volunteer. After, she toured the campus and continued with introductory classes.  That night, she attended a ceremony in her honor, where she was presented with a white lab coat and traditional books for medical students.

“Everyone was so nice and welcoming,” Gabrielle said.  “The campus was beautiful.  I had so much fun meeting people in a new environment.”

Throughout the rest of the week, Gabrielle attended classes where she learned how to take vitals and worked with a simulation mannequin that mimicked real medical symptoms.  She was even able to pre-round on pediatric patients at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“She got involved,” Kitts said.  “She was talkative and asked engaging questions.  When the professor asked the class a question, she’d ask Cyndie what the answer was, and then raise her hand and say it.”

Gabrielle said she wanted to do her best.  “I wanted to make a good impression on everyone and show them I wasn’t just there to watch.  I wanted to interact and get the full experience – be a regular student,” she added.

Open-heart surgery

Gabrielle said a standout experience for her was on Thursday morning, when she was able to observe an open-heart surgery on a 2-month old infant.

“I stood in the operating room through the whole time – it was awesome,” Gabrielle said.  “The surgeons were so nice.  They pointed things out to me and made sure I knew what was going on. It was just a jaw-dropping experience.”

Kitts added: “She was totally fascinated.  She said it reaffirmed her dream to be a doctor.”

Gabrielle’s week as a medical student ended the next day at a mock-graduation ceremony, where administrators presented her with an honorary certificate of accomplishment.  

While Gabrielle readily admits she’s got a lot on her plate, between studying, weekly dance classes and frequent doctors’ visits, she said the experience “just makes me want to work 10 times harder in school.  It changed my attitude and outlook.”