Shannon Sarro isn’t like most young women.

The 26-year-old student at the University of Alberta is preparing to receive her medical degree, something she’s been working towards since she was a teenager.

“The first time I remember really wanting to go to medical school, I was 15 and my sister was really, really sick,” Sarro said.

Sarro’s younger sister Erin has had life-long health struggles.

Erin was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy after she became unresponsive at just three-weeks-old.

“She is basically the equivalent of a one to three-month-old baby,” Sarro said.

“She is non-verbal. She doesn’t speak and she doesn’t walk or move.”

It was Erin’s struggle with health that inspired Sarro to pursue medicine.

It was at the age of 15 when Sarro and her family felt helpless as they watched Erin’s health deteriorate.

“She was unable to tell us what was bothering her and it was really hard to watch that,” Sarro said.

When doctors tested Erin and were able to tell the family what was wrong and what could be done to help, that Sarro knew what she wanted to do in life.

“They had a plan, they made her more comfortable, and we all just felt this sense of relief that someone was able to explain to us what was happening and they were able to help,” Sarro said.

“That sense of relief, I thought, ‘this is what I want to do. I want to be this person who helps people in that way, I want to do that.’”

Countless work, volunteer hours to save for med school

With her sister as inspiration, Sarro worked several part-time jobs and spent countless hours volunteering in order to get herself to medical school.

“I made a 10-year-plan, like this is what I need to do. I started volunteering a lot so I could apply for scholarships,” Sarro said.

“I worked really hard and had all these jobs and I saved up all my money and I was able to get through the first two years of medical school without requiring any loans.”

Sarro’s mother Diane says Sarro worked hard to obtain scholarships because the cost of her education was more than what the family could afford, and she couldn’t be more proud of her daughter.

“It’s a lot of work. Nothing comes easy. It always comes down to how hard you work and how bad you want it,” Diane said.

Now Sarro is set to receive her medical degree on June 7.

“It’s huge for all of us to see how well she did,” Diane said. “I always cry.”

Sarro describes it as surreal.

“For so long I was like I want to go to medical school and every day I was studying and volunteering and then I was in medical school and it was so much fun and the whole time I was thinking about the next step and applying for residency and all of a sudden we’re writing our last exam and we’re all moving on to our different residency programs,” Sarro said.

“It’s all just very surreal. We’re all going to be doctors soon so it’s really crazy.”

'This is where we start helping people'

After a short break, Sarro will pursue her residency in internal medicine in Calgary beginning in July.

She believes her family roots will help her relate with patients and their families.

“I think it will be interesting to get involved with these people who have multiple diseases, multiple risk factors and sort of guiding them through that illness phase,” Sarro said.

Although Erin isn’t able to verbally respond to Sarro, Sarro says she knows her little sister is excited for this next big step in her life.

“I think in a way everybody is so excited. My family is so excited. I think she really picks up on that mood in our house,” Sarro said with a smile.

“They sort of saw this whole process for me, seen the volunteer hours, the studying. how hard I’ve been working. They’re happy and relieved for me.”

Sarro says although her residency and fellowship are expected to take another five to six years, she’s looking forward to getting out of the classroom and helping the patients and families who need it – while seeing her dreams, inspired by little sister Erin, realized.

“This is where we start helping people,” Sarro said.

With files from Carmen Leibel