Colleen Fabian, a second-year student in the UNM School of Medicine, is not one to let a few obstacles get in the way of becoming a doctor.
Over the past three years, Fabian, 23, has undergone surgery for a brain tumor, made up for lost class time and survived a head-on auto collision that left her with serious injuries. But she hasn’t let those challenges deter her from pursuing her dream.
“It’s been a journey, for sure,” Fabian says. “People are always, ‘You’re so inspirational.’ I don’t feel inspirational. I kind of just did what I had to do. It doesn’t seem special or out of the norm for me.”
She was born in New Jersey, the middle of three children. Her father was in law enforcement and her mother is a nurse practitioner. The family moved to Vermont after the 9/11 attack in New York City, and then relocated to Rio Rancho, where she graduated from high school.
Fabian knew from an early age that she wanted a career in health care.
“I was kind of surrounded by it a lot as a kid,” she says. “When we lived in Vermont, it was really rural. After school, it was either walk five miles to my house or one mile to the hospital and wait until my mom was off work.”
At UNM, Fabian majored in biology and worked her way through the premedical curriculum while shadowing physicians on the job. Then, in January 2016, the 19-year-old junior had a wakeup call.
“I had been really stressed,” she says. “I was dehydrated, so I fainted.” A concerned roommate took her to the emergency room. “As part of the workup they did a CT scan, just to be on the safe side. They came back and said, ‘You have a brain mass.’”
It was a central neurocytoma – a very rare tumor. For Fabian, it was grim validation of what she’d long believed to be the case. “I had told my parents that I had a brain tumor since I was in middle school,” she says. “I would get headaches every single day and lie in a dark room with ice packs to make the pain go away.”
UNM neurosurgeon Muhammad Chohan, MD, wanted to operate immediately, but Fabian persuaded him to let her wait two months to complete the first half of the spring semester.
Chohan removed all of the tumor during the March 2016 surgery, but then the question arose of what to do next. These tumors don’t respond to chemotherapy, so the decision was whether to undergo radiation therapy.
“Radiation puts you at higher risk for more cancer down the road,” Fabian says, “so we opted out of radiation. Now, it’s watch and wait.” She undergoes regular MRI scanning, and so far the results have been clear.
The ordeal set Fabian back on her quest to get into medical school, but she redoubled her efforts at finishing her undergraduate degree. Meanwhile, her parents counseled her to take some time off to let her brain heal before applying to medical school.
Instead, she says, “I studied for the MCAT and did not tell my parents I was taking it.” It was four months after surgery. Fabian was waitlisted when she applied to the School of Medicine, but then a spot opened up and she was offered admission, starting in July 2017, just 16 months after her brain surgery.
“At the beginning I just really struggled,” she says. “I realized my brain didn’t work the way it used to.” Study tasks like rote memorization took a little longer. “That was really difficult,” she says, “because there isn’t ‘a little longer’ in medical school.”
Fabian’s fortunes took another drastic turn in January 2018, in her second semester as a medical student.
“I was in a car accident on Paseo del Norte,” she says. Passing a slow driver, she shoulder-checked to see if she was in the clear. When she turned back round, a wrong-way driver was barreling straight at her.
The 76-year-old driver of the other car walked away unhurt from the head-on collision. Fabian was not so lucky. Both of her legs were broken, requiring orthopedic surgery at UNM Hospital.
She was confined to a wheelchair when she returned to school after several weeks (she has since had several follow-up surgeries). Her classmates helped her with notes and drove her to school when she still needed crutches. “They say it takes a village,” she says, “and there’s this weird little community of smart people who are willing to help you succeed.”
A few months back, her mother, Kathleen Fabian, NP, a pediatric hospitalist at UNM Children’s Hospital, wrote a note of thanks to her daughter’s caregivers. It read, in part, “How one kid can have such horrible luck, I have no idea! In both cases she received immediate, excellent care.
“Thanks to all of you she has had a very good outcome . . . I am grateful for you and your team's dedication to providing excellent patient care to ensure that the best outcomes are achieved.”
Colleen Fabian meanwhile has her sights set on a career in pediatric emergency medicine. Her left foot is still a little sore, and will probably remain that way. She expects to start her clinical rotations in September, and she’s making plans to marry her fiancé when she graduates in 2021.
Despite everything that has occurred, Fabian says, “I don’t think I would go back and change any of it, because I’ve learned so much from the experience.”
Her time as a patient has inspired her to emulate the caregivers who made a difference. “Everyone has had really good nurses and not so great doctors and nurses,” she says. “I think you can take those qualities from the people you really enjoyed caring for you and incorporate that into who you want to be.”