Dr. Leigh Ball uses her English degree to improve patient care.
Dr. Leigh (Schlactus) Ball (’12) is an internal medicine physician with a specialty in sleep medicine. After an MD at East Tennessee State University and a residency at UT, she now practices in St. Louis, Missouri where she lives with her husband, a fellow UT alum. She spoke with Prof. Hilary Havens about majoring in English literature and how Virginia Woolf made her a better doctor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hilary Havens: Thank you for joining me today. I’d like to start by asking you about your job and the kind of medicine you practice.
Leigh Ball: I’m thrilled to be able to join you. I’m very passionate about coming from an English background and how that’s helped get me where I am now. I’m an internal medicine physician with a sub-specialty in sleep medicine. From a sleep medicine standpoint, I see a lot of obstructive sleep apnea. This causes the patient’s oxygen levels to drop and may make them wake up during the night. It tends to translate into poor quality unrefreshing sleep and significant daytime sleepiness. Not to mention the loud snoring that can be hard on relationships. I also see quite a bit of insomnia and restless leg syndrome, as well as disorders of excessive sleepiness like narcolepsy or other types of hypersomnia. I order a lot of sleep testing for patients. They either wear a little monitor at home overnight while they’re sleeping, or they go and spend the night in our sleep testing center where we outfit patients with some very glamorous wires and monitors. This gives us a comprehensive view of their sleep and helps us hone in on what’s causing them to sleep poorly. In some cases, the focus is on medication, and sometimes it’s treatment devices to ensure patients are breathing normally, as in the case of sleep apnea.
Havens: This may not come across in the transcript, but I love your enthusiasm for your job. I’d like to ask you a little bit more about your path to internal medicine and treating sleep disorders.
Ball: I actually had planned for a number of years on being a veterinarian, and it wasn’t until I was partway through college that I decided that I wanted to treat patients who can talk back. It was in my sophomore year of college that I made the decision to pivot. The medical and veterinary tracks are very similar in terms of what prerequisites you need an undergraduate, so when I say pivot, there wasn’t a whole lot that changed in my coursework and my planning process. I think most of us go into medicine – human or animal – wanting to help and do good for others. There’s also lifelong learning so that you can be best prepared to care for your patients. Being in a position to have that ongoing intellectual challenge alongside the humanitarian aspect was what drew me in. As for why I chose internal medicine specifically, I love the variety of it, I really do. The day-to-day life varies dramatically. I work in the office setting and enjoy the long-term relationships with patients. It is a true privilege to be a part of a patient’s life in that way, and the absolute trust that that they place in you was a big part of what drew me.
Havens: Could you talk about how UT has helped you along this path to becoming an internist?
Ball: UT was a great three years for me, not the least of which because I met my husband there. I came to UT actually as a transfer student after my sophomore year and ended up taking a fifth year, so I spent three years total at UT. The culture, the classes I took, the professors with whom I interacted were all part of a very positive environment. I honestly can’t think of an exception. Especially not having gone through freshman orientation and some of those core opening activities, to feel welcome and like I could jump in was very much appreciated.
Havens: That’s great to hear how you felt so welcomed to the UT community. I was wondering if you could share some of the most memorable classes and professors you had at UT.
Ball: A few professors stand out for me. Dr. Seshagiri: I just adore her! I remember working hard for her and earning those grades, and I came out a better writer. Even though she pushed us, she was so supportive and available. I would go to her office hours for almost every paper and came out at steps above where I had been thanks to her coaching. I also think about Mary Papke, who is just the most wonderful woman. I had several classes with her, and I really enjoyed her way of breaking pieces down and walking us through that analysis. I remember stories she would share in classes, especially as I got to know her over several years. Professors like them weren’t just my teachers in the classroom; there was additional mentorship and support. Those two ladies stand out in my memory, and I was so thankful that I was able to learn from both of them.
Havens: It’s great to hear how impactful your English classes have been – that’s wonderful! It’s not usual for pre-meds to major in the humanities, so I was hoping that you could talk about some of the ways that the English major has helped you.
Ball: I went into college knowing I was looking at a science career. But I was fortunate enough to figure out early on that I didn’t have to have a science major to go to medical school. For medicine, you just have to meet your prerequisites: physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and so on. I had always loved reading and books. I’m so thankful to my parents that I grew up reading from a young age and just loved losing myself in the pages of a book. As I thought about what I wanted to focus on as a major, it felt so natural to choose English, something I continue to love into young adulthood. And my future held plenty of science. I was going to eat drink, sleep, breathe science, so my thinking was, why not do something else, in addition to science, about which I’m passionate? And I didn’t fully appreciate that this was an unconventional path; to me, it was, “I love this. I can do all of this together.” The number of course hours is doable, and it ended up being a wonderful combination through college. It felt like I was getting the best of everything. It was actually a selling point when I started applying for medical school. It’s become increasingly encouraged to come to medical school with a non-science major. Ultimately medical schools want you coming in with a degree in something that’s meaningful to you. You are seen as more well-rounded applicant, as a person who has passions beyond medicine.
It has felt like such a benefit to come from this English background. So much of what I do is communication. Yes, there’s a lot of facts, knowledge, and memorization, but so much of it is me interacting with my patient. We talk through a scenario, whether it’s taking a history about their symptoms, or it’s reading through the lines to figure out what they are not telling me. The unspoken can be at least as important as their words. That’s not so different from analyzing Virginia Woolf novels and thinking, okay, what was the author really saying here, or what was I supposed to pick up on here? This reference is going back to such and such in chapter three. Now we’re building a pattern or theme. That’s a lot of what I do every day, use those skills that my English professors and degree helped me develop. I was the unofficial English writing tutor for colleagues through medical school and residency. Every time any of us were writing personal statements, I was the one they all turned to for review. That communication and analytic practice is a highly transferable skill. Those skills can relate to not just what I do, but to a lot of other professions and careers. And that’s part of what makes the humanities, including English literature, invaluable for whatever you might choose to go on to do after graduation.
Havens: I love your comparison of talking with and diagnosing your patients to analyzing a novel. It’s lovely to see how your English major has informed your medical career.
Ball: I fully believe I am a better doctor because of the things I learned and the tools I developed in my English training.
Havens: So before we finish, I just wanted to ask a short question because you have mentioned how much you love reading. What are you reading now?
Ball: I always have a couple of things going at a time, and I’ve been trying to make my way back through some classics that I might not have come across in high school or college. I’ve actually been revisiting Dickens. And I feel like I missed out early on, because I remember reading Dickens in high school, and I just wasn’t quite at the level to fully appreciate him. I’m reading Oliver Twist right now. All his verbiage is so fun! I mean it’s laugh-out-loud funny, which is not something I ever thought I would say about Dickens, but those witticisms and that dryness!