Dr. Vera Paulson: Vanatta, Hesser, Schmalstieg Excellence in Tutoring Award

By Jan Jarvis

Dr. Vera Paulson was just 13 years old when she diagnosed her mother with cancer and insisted she see a doctor about a nagging cough.

Dr. Vera Paulson
Dr. Vera Paulson

The diagnosis was correct. The breast cancer her mother had been treated for three years earlier had metastasized.

“I made a promise then, that if mom would live long enough, I was going to cure her,” Dr. Paulson said. With her heart set on a career in research, she went a short distance down the road from her hometown of Navasota and majored in genetics at Texas A&M University. A professor there convinced her to pursue the M.D./Ph.D. Medical Scientist Training Program at UT Southwestern Medical Center. At his urging, she expanded her goals beyond research.

“My initial thought had been to find a new cancer therapy, or barring that, to treat patients,” she said. “Teaching in college had been a hobby, but after one summer at the Office of Medical Education, I knew it had to be a part of my career. That was when I realized I could go for the triple threat: research, patient care, and teaching.”

The 2012 recipient of the Vanatta, Hesser, Schmalstieg Excellence in Tutoring Award, Dr. Paulson found in teaching a way to make a difference.

That difference is one of the reasons Dr. Paulson is the perfect choice for this year’s award, said Carol Wortham, manager of the student assistance program in the Office of Medical Education. The award honors the graduating senior who made the most significant contribution in the service of fellow students in need of academic assistance. It includes a certificate and $500.

Dr. Paulson is one of just two winners in the last six years who taught in every program offered by the Office of Medical Education, Ms. Wortham said.

“Vera has been known to show up to her tutoring sessions with a high fever, or straight off a red-eye flight, to make sure ‘her students’ got the help they needed,” Ms. Wortham said. “When she made a commitment to teach, nothing would stop her from being there and being 100 percent prepared.”

Her students – fellow medical students all – most likely never fully understood the depth of her commitment to them. Even as her mother underwent chemotherapy, Dr. Paulson was teaching and juggling her own research. For a decade, she always kept her phone close by, should her mother need her.

“I was always wondering if this would be the call,” she said. On Aug. 10, 2006, the phone call came. She raced home, and two days later her mother died. Despite the devastating loss, Dr. Paulson refused to let it derail her goals.

This summer she will begin her residency in pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Regardless of whether she achieves her childhood goal of finding a cure for cancer, Dr. Paulson said she’ll never stop trying. Her mother would have wanted it that way.

“I would prefer a cure, but short of that, I realize now that any amount of time you can give a patient is worth it,” Dr. Paulson said. “We’re talking about giving a family time to be together and say goodbye.”