A strong sisterly bond is proving valuable for Albertina and Natasha Sebastian—sisters from Montreal, Canada—who began their journeys together at Xavier University School of Medicine in Aruba to become physicians. Now, in their respective second and first years of residency, these sisters take us on their inspiring path of pursuing their dreams of saving lives.

Growing from love and generosity

From an early age, Albertina, 31, and Natasha, 28, learned the importance of giving back to the community. “We were taught, ‘If you have, then share,’” Natasha said lovingly. “Our parents are amazing and generous people who taught us the beauty of helping others. They would organize food and clothing drives for the less fortunate, and Albertina and I were always there to help. I truly believe this was the foundation of us wanting to become doctors.”

Finding their way to Xavier

Growing up, the sisters said their father instilled in them the virtue of working hard and preparing for their futures.  Each admits that their  parents did not pressure them into attending medical school,  they were always told to be the best in whatever they chose to do.

Albertina explained how school did not always come easy for her. “I had to study hard my entire life,” she said. “Going to medical school was never on my radar.” She explained how the educational system in Canada differs in comparison to the United States. After high school, students who wish to pursue a college degree must attend CÉGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel), a publicly funded college that provides technical, academic, vocational or a mix of programs that are exclusive to the province of Quebec’s education system. “At CÉGEP, I gravitated toward the sciences,” she explained. “It was great preparation for college, where I fell in love with biology. Little did I know then that I would soon be pursuing a medical degree.” Albertina explained that she worked as a pharmacy technician while in school, and seriously considered becoming a pharmacist. “I never imagined—shortly after earning my degree in biochemistry—that I would be flying off to Aruba to attend medical school.”

Natasha took a similar path as Albertina, attending CÉGEP after high school, and then college, where she also  studied in biochemistry. In August 2014, their father learnt that a friend of his had nephews who were practicing physicians, and had attended medical school in the caribbean. After some reasearch, the sisters applied to Xavier University School of Medicine. “Within 3 weeks of applying, we were accepted to the program, packed, and moving to Aruba,” Natasha said.

Overcoming cultural and gender challenges

“Moving to Aruba was a big adjustment,” said Albertina. “Moving from a large Canadian city to a small tropical island was challenging. We missed our family and had reservations about how we would fare in medical school.” Albertina and Natasha both expressed their fears about succeeding in the medical program at Xavier. “I was excited to go, but I’ll admit I underestimated myself,” said Natasha. “We made a pact that we would give ourselves a trial period to see how we managed in the program. We were both terrified about taking our first exam, but all that changed when we received our grades and saw that we scored the two highest grades in the class.” Albertina said that was all the motivation they needed to forge ahead in the program and prove to themselves that they have what it takes—as women—to earn their medical degrees. “Being a few years older than my sister, I had learnt to balance studying as well as a social life. With that came a lot of jealousy and bullying from our peers, who didn’t understand how two young women could do so well academically and yet be “normal”,” Albertina explains.

The Xavier experience

When it comes to the curriculum, Albertina and Natasha agree that Xavier’s systems-based learning approach made all the difference in their success. “Learning one subject at a time made it easier to move through the program,” said Natasha. “Each class that followed made sense.” Natasha laughingly admits she’s not a shy person and preferred sitting in the front row, where she asked several questions. “The small class sizes set the perfect tone for learning,” she stated, going on to express her love for the beautiful island of Aruba, which she considers as her home away from home. “The tropical setting helps to keep you in a positive mindset, especially on challenging days. And with the residency application hanging in the balance, any medical students will tell you it’s important to be well-rounded.” Natasha was student government president, and said that she and Albertina made time during their third and fourth semesters to join the family medicine group, volunteer at local orphanages and work at local health fairs.

In regard to the professors at Xavier, Albertina said all of them truly have each student’s best interest at heart. She recalls one standout moment that stuck with her during their white coat ceremony, when one professor delivered this message: “When you see your friends out partying and you’re in your room studying, just remember that you’re taking a step to further your life.” Their parents always told them “It’s all about ‘pay me now’ or ‘pay me later.’ Getting the work done now will pay off later in life.” In 2019, the sisters graduated at the top of their class, with Natasha as valedictorian and Albertina as salutatorian. Talk about women power!

Choosing their medical path

Albertina and Natasha are grateful to Xavier for being instrumental in helping them land their clinical rotations in New York and Chicago, respectively. During that time, they both decided to pursue a specialty in general surgery, although Natasha admits her first choice is to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology.

When it came to matching for a residency, Albertina said Xavier was extremely helpful in the process. “It’s more competitive for graduates from Caribbean medical schools to match a residency in the U.S.,” Albertina explained. Albertina initally matched in a one-year preliminary residency in surgery at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. She subsequently matched a categorical position thereafter, and is now a PGY-2. Although surgical residency is a five-year program, she is considering specializing in vascular surgery, which would add two more years to her journey. “My rotations facilitated by Xavier definitely helped me match with my current residency. Face time with the programs’ faculty members is extremely important during interview season” she states. Although respected by her peers, Albertina explains that she faces discrimination as a female doctor almost every day. “There are days when I’m consulting with a patient who needs surgery and they’ll ask me when the surgeon will be in to speak with them,” she explained. “When I tell them that I am their surgeon, they look at me in disbelief.” Interestingly, Albertina explained that more than 50 percent of surgical residents are women—with most of them coming from Caribbean medical schools. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get stereotyped,” she said. “Today’s women physicians need to put up a strong front to overcome these stereotypes.” When asked what drives her most to becoming a surgeon, Albertina replied: “It’s the privilege of saving a life. To know you can fix them from the inside-out is an honor, knowing they are putting their life in your hands.”

Natasha’s path to residency took a different turn. Although she graduated as valedictorian of her class, she did not match for a residency her first time. Feeling disappointed—but not discouraged—she filled her time wisely doing research and eventually earning her master’s degree in experimental medicine. “During those two years, I wrote four papers which were published, presented at conferences, and I made my mark in the research arena,” she said proudly. “There’s not just one path to medicine,” she said. “Things change. You may start out focusing on a field of medicine and end up doing something else. Everything is a learning experience.” Last year, Natasha matched a one-year preliminary residency in surgery at the same hospital as her sister. “It’s wonderful working with Albertina,” she said. “She is so helpful in everything she does. Everyone loves working with her.” When asked how she thinks her sister likes working with her, she remarked: “She’d better!” As to her greatest motivation for becoming a surgeon, Natasha replied: “It takes a certain type of person to be a surgeon. It’s a gift. Surgery is the most definitive treatment plan. Knowing you can give comfort to a patient, ensuring them they will be alright, is extremely gratifying. It’s a trust that is a two-way street.”

Although they both love working and being together, Albertina said they don’t live together. “Natasha lives across the street from me,” she said laughingly. “I love my sister, but we both need our own space—especially after working long shifts.”

Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, so we thought it would be relevant to ask Albertian and Natasha their thoughts on how it feels to be women in a predominantly male-dominated industry.

Albertina: “Women are put in a box. For years, it was the belief that men ‘wore the pants’ in the family. But not anymore. Our generation has opened doors to more opportunities for women—not only in the medical field—but across the board. I’ve had so many doors closed in my face, with others telling me I could never become a doctor. I started medical school at 23-years-old, which is late for a student. I believe there’s always a way to reach your dream. The key is to nurture your passion, work hard, and never have any regrets. It’s your time to shine, so make it happen.”

Natasha: “Women are incredible. Just give them a goal and they’ll work hard to reach it. My interest in obstetrics and gynecology go hand in hand with Women’s History Month. For years, we have been celebrating women during the month of March for their accomplishments and achievements. I believe women should be celebrated every day—all women—some who have suffered silently over the years. Being passionate about women’s health, I believe patients’ concerns have been underplayed for so long. Women caring for women is a passion I hope to turn into a reality. I find out my residency match in March—with OB-GYN as my first choice, and surgery my second. Maybe Women’s History Month will bring me closer to living my dream for helping women.

Advice to students

Albertina and Natasha agree that the best advice they can offer medical students is to find a school/life balance. They admit there are times when this can be overwhelming and stressful—and that’s when it’s time to take a break and enjoy life. Whether it’s going to dinner with friends, or doing something special for yourself, all the hard work will pay off in the long run.