Determined to succeed, resilience defines a Tar Heel’s journey to Match Day

Anyone who knows fourth-year UNC School of Medicine student Aletheia Burrell knows she’s going to become an OB-GYN. This goal has propelled her forward through many challenges along the way to Match Day, and now she’s ready to celebrate her success.

Aletheia Burrell
(Photo courtesy Aletheia Burrell)

It wasn’t until this spring that Aletheia Burrell looked back at her path to medical school and realized just how much she had been through.

“You take for granted the encouragement your loved ones give you because you think they’re biased,” Burrell said. “When I got to my fourth year of medical school and began my residency interviews, I had multiple people remark on how many challenges I overcame to get here. And it really wasn’t until then I realized how resilient I am.”

Growing a passion

Her resilience is partially fueled by a love of medicine that began when she was a child. Burrell remembers reading a specific book from “The Magic School Bus” series, a set of children’s stories detailing the adventures of a young science class led by a quirky redheaded teacher.

“The book was ‘Inside Ralphie,’ and the Magic School Bus shrinks down with the whole class inside of it, and they actually go into Ralphie’s body to find what’s making him sick. I checked this book out so much in elementary school that when I left, the teacher gave me the book,” Burrell said.

Burrell grew up balancing time with family in Alabama and North Carolina. She moved to Sanford, North Carolina, during high school. Her love of medicine continued, and she volunteered at Central Carolina Hospital in Sanford to be around a medical environment. She organized magazines in waiting rooms, stocked supplies for labor and delivery nurses, got to work with EMTs and eventually shadowed a pediatrician – the specialty she thought might fit her best.

“I realized that while I enjoy kids, I didn’t want to be the person to stick them with shots,” she said.

Next, she shadowed an obstetrician-gynecologist for a high school externship and found her true calling.

“One of my first days we had a woman in labor brought in on a stretcher screaming and crying. The physician I was shadowing pulled me right next to her to watch her deliver this baby. It was a little shocking because I’d never seen a vaginal birth, but it was also the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”

Taking the next steps

Burrell continued her march toward medical school as she completed her undergraduate work at North Carolina Central University. While she knew her goal was medical school, she wasn’t quite sure what she needed to do to get there. She majored in biology and helped with research in a Duke/NCCU shared lab, investigating drug delivery systems for uterine fibroids.

A woman wipes tears away from another woman's face.

Burrell with her grandmother. (Photo courtesy Aletheia Burrell)

She decided on her next step toward becoming a doctor when a representative of the UNC School of Medicine’s Medical Education Development Program came to NCCU to educate students about this demanding academic preparatory program for minority and underrepresented students with an intensive curriculum. Burrell applied and was accepted in the summer of 2013. She completed the summer program but wasn’t quite ready for medical school yet.

She took the Medical College Admission Test and didn’t do well. From there she moved home to Sanford to live with her family, trying to find work in the medical field but ending up finding a job at an Office Max instead. She worked there for a year and a half, getting help from family to get to and from work because she didn’t have a car.

Determined to keep pushing forward, Burrell enrolled in a Pre-Health Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program at Meredith College in Raleigh. During her year in the program, she worked in a dining hall at NC State University and as a medical receptionist in a private dermatology practice in Raleigh. After completing the program, she worked as a dermatology scribe for a year, all the while using public transportation and getting rides from family.

Achieving her goal

Burrell took the MCAT again and did much better. She began applying to medical schools and was accepted to Carolina, coming to campus in the summer of 2017.

“They tell you it’s like drinking from a fire hose and it’s exactly that,” she said. “I had a lot of self-doubt at first. I had imposter syndrome very heavily the first year. But all it really took for me to feel better was speaking to other people going through it with me.”

A group of doctors.

Burrell with her colleagues. (Photo courtesy Aletheia Burrell)

Now equipped with her own car, a gift from her mother before starting medical school, Burrell dove into her studies. She was finishing up her third-year rotations at Atrium Health as a UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine branch campus student in Charlotte when the COVID-19 pandemic made everything screech to a halt. Her rotations stopped. Before the pandemic hit, Burrell had planned to start doing elective research with Atrium Health’s female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery group that spring. That was delayed until August.

From March to May Burrell stayed busy, volunteering as a PPE spotter in the Atrium Health emergency department and picking up medications and groceries for people who couldn’t leave their homes.

“I had to remind myself that helping people through medicine is amazing, but if I couldn’t do my rotations or practice in an office or clinic, I could still help people,” she said.

From May to July Burrell picked up a rotation in reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Atrium Health, and studied for her Step 2 exam. In August she started work with the female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery group, screening and enrolling eligible patients for a clinical trial, and then shadowing clinicians during surgeries and follow-up visits. She did this for 10 months and was also able to do a few rotations during this time.

Burrell picked up her last year of medical school in the fall of 2021. She was supposed to get married in October, but because of COVID, her wedding was postponed to May of this year. Now she has an exciting several months ahead of her and many reasons to celebrate.

“For Match Day, I have plans to get together with family, eat a lot of food and dance to some good music to celebrate this journey.”

The first celebration of several to come for the resilient medical student who made her elementary school dreams come true.


Learn more about Match Day 2022