The road to commencement: Ilicia Shugarman fights cancer at home and in the hospital

What sets Ilicia Shugarman, 29, apart from other UF College of Medicine graduates isn’t just her dedication, intelligence and hard work, but the personal challenges she’s had to face.

Ilicia’s mother, Gwynne Shugarman, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2002.

During her four years of medical school, Ilicia would leave on many occasions to go home to Clearwater, Fla. to be with her mother.

“I was a total mess between the bone marrow tests, the waiting and the diagnosis,” Gwynne Shugarman said. “Ilicia always came. She makes me feel safe. It’s knowing that I have her and also have the safety of her medical knowledge.”

Ilicia said the beginning was difficult. Aside from trying to understand the disease and the treatments, there were a slew of doctor visits, blood tests and bone marrow biopsies, not to mention stacks of results where the numbers resembled more of a roller coaster than anything else.

“I went with her to the hospital and experienced first-hand the waiting game,” Ilicia said. “It taught me how I will be with my patients.”
Gwynne recalls Ilicia always just simply being there for her.

“When I was first diagnosed, Ilicia, my mother and I went to the first meeting of getting answers. Ilicia organized questions to ask. She just let me be scared,” Gwynne said. “Everytime— one week recalls for a year, blood work, lab work, bone marrows, three month recalls —Ilicia’s always waiting for my numbers. When there are questions, she’s spoken to the people she knows. She does so much. She’s my doctor, she’s my daughter. She really takes care of me. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

Ilicia said her mother has been lucky in that her mother’s leukemia is chronic myelogenous leukemia, which is a more easily treatable kind of leukemia. The cancer has been kept in remission for seven years by a drug called Gleevac. She said as long as her mother’s body doesn’t become resistant to the medicine, she will stay on the treatment — and in remission — for the rest of her life.

Ilicia made a mini-documentary of her mother’s trials with leukemia for the Narrative Medicine and Humanities class, taught by Nina Stoyan-Rosenzweig.

“I thought it was important for med students to see what bothers patients the most, so they can see the important aspects of being a caring, compassionate physician,” she said. “I got a lot of essays back on how the video helped them. It’s been shown to three or four classes now.”

Though her mother was never treated poorly, Ilicia said her mother’s doctor often would keep her mother on a need-to-know basis when her mother wanted much more honesty.

“We mentioned in the video for upcoming doctors to be open and receptive to patients and how much, or how little, information they want to know,” Ilicia said.

Her mother’s fight against leukemia is just one of the reason’s Ilicia has decided to specialize in oncology, she said.

“My mother was a huge driving force, being involved in her journey and her care surely opened my eyes but so did the month I spent during my rotation on the oncology floor,” Ilicia said. “I’m fascinated with cancer and the patients, their stories and their families.”
Gwynne said, at first, she wasn’t sure if oncology would be too hard emotionally on her daughter.

“We had many conversations about oncology. We discussed her quality of life doing oncology. The conclusion we came to was that she genuinely has a gift,” Gwynne said. “I think it’s wonderful she wants to go into oncology. I don’t think it’s just because of me. She has a gift of making people comfortable with her. People open up to her.”

Tammy Euliano, M.D., a UF associate professor of anesthesiology and obstetrics and gynecology, has known Ilicia since her time as an undergraduate. She also encouraged Ilicia to pursue medical school. Ilicia later worked as her lab assistant in the 2004-2005 term.
“Ilicia recognized the privilege it is to help others in an altruistic way,” Euliano said. “I think she will be very popular with patients because she will take the time to talk with them. She will be respected in her field.”

In addition to medical school and helping her mother, Ilicia found time to volunteer with the local Best Buddies program, an organization that pairs volunteers with individuals with intellectual disabilities. They go on outings for bowling, to the Special Olympics, the movies and the park.

Ilicia has been paired with a man, now 38, for close to 11 years now. He has Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes obesity due to the extreme urge to consume food as well as other symptoms. When she met him, he lived in a group home and weighed over 200 pounds.

Now, he shares an apartment with a roommate and a supervisor and weighs 140 pounds.

“I’ve seen him mature, I’ve seen him gain more control,” she said. “He was also the first person I called when I got into med school. He’s gotten so attached.”

Her mother said Ilicia does her volunteering “from her heart.”

Ilicia has also earned a few awards during her medical school career. These include the Lawrence M. Goodman Trust Recipient for research on tuberculosis in Ecuador; election into the Chapman Chapter of the Gold Humanism Honor Society; and the Mark W.

Herrbold Memorial Award, given to someone who exemplifies extraordinary determination and perseverance in pursuit of a medical education.

After graduation May 16, Ilicia was married on May 23 to Scott Schlossman, 28. She will be starting her residency at Shands at UF upon her return from her honeymoon in Hawaii and will continue research on delayed cancer diagnosis with Thomas George, M.D., an assistant professor of hematology and oncology.

Currently, Ilicia said they have been compiling data on cultural, gender and socio-economic aspects and how they may contribute to a patient waiting so long to seek treatment.

“Dr. George has been such a valuable mentor to me,” she said.

“She’s going to be able to help a lot of people and do a lot of good,” Schlossman said. “It’s given me a sense of appreciation of how much work she’s put in and seeing the reward, getting the rotation in with patients, translating her knowledge from books to the floor. She’s doing what she loves.”