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Childhood Illness Inspires Sisters’ Pursuit of Medicine

Posted by on Friday, September 22, 2017 in Features, Summer 2017 .

Photo by Anne Rayner


Identical twins Shelby and Sydney Payne, VUSM 2019 and 2020, respectively, use the word “adventure” and its derivatives a lot in conversation. It’s fitting because their lives have been full of it.

The twins grew up with “adventurous and entrepreneurial” parents and moved quite often. They were born near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, moved to Boulder, Colorado, where they lived until they were 12; moved to Tampa, Florida, spent part of their senior year in Japan; then lived in England for eight months and Australia for six months.

A list of sports they play includes soccer (they’ve played recreationally since age 5 and competitively since they turned 11), basketball, track, skiing, snowboarding, snowboard cross, running half marathons and hiking. The two played soccer throughout high school at IMG Academy near Sarasota and in college at Stanford University, where their team was the NCAA Division 1 National Champion in 2011. Sydney deferred her first year of medical school at Vanderbilt to play professionally in Denmark and Spain.

But life hasn’t always been healthy for Shelby. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes on Christmas Day 2004, a couple of months shy of her 12th birthday.

“When you’re a young kid, you never think anything is that serious,” Shelby said. “But I had been a little off for the previous few months, tired, not feeling well and I lost about 30 pounds. For an 11-year-old girl that’s quite a bit,” she said. “I also drank all the liquids in the house. All the signs were there. We were both super active and fit kids and when one of you looks like you’ve been starved to death, you’re like ‘Ok, something is going on.’” she said.

Shelby had been resisting going to the doctor, but when she felt worse and couldn’t fall asleep on Christmas night — sleep usually came so easily for her—her parents took her to the hospital. When they arrived her blood glucose was around 1,300. Normal, when not fasting, is less than 140. She was taken from her local hospital to Denver Children’s Hospital where she was stabilized, then sent home with daily follow-up for managing her diabetes.

“My first question when I found out was, ‘am I going to live?’ My second was, ‘can I still play soccer?’” Shelby said. “Before my diagnosis I had never heard the word ‘diabetes’ before. Nobody in my family has it. It was very new and very shocking.”

After one year of insulin injections, Shelby switched to an insulin pump to better control her diabetes. She and Sydney volunteer for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and both did research work in college on the artificial pancreas in the Department of Pediatric Endocrinology at Stanford.

The twins believe that being immersed in the world of diabetes indirectly led them both to pursue careers in medicine.

“Since Shelby was diagnosed I’ve helped by giving her injections, helping her calculate doses of insulin, checking her blood glucose. I went to diabetes camp with her when we were younger and the research we did at Stanford inspired me to learn more about medicine,” Sydney said.

“I don’t think there was a pinpoint moment for me,” Shelby said, “but I think I was interested in medicine for the interactions with people, the problem-solving and the fact that I had seen how my own endocrinologist was able to impact my life.”

The Payne twins, who say they are best friends, were recruited heavily by several universities since the eighth grade. They thought about separating when they headed off to college, but both loved Stanford, where they each earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. After graduation, Sydney stayed on at Stanford to do research on the artificial pancreas, then signed a contract to play with the Fortuna Hjorring team in Denmark in 2015 and with Atletico de Madrid in Spain in 2016.

When they applied to medical schools, they were accepted at both Yale and Vanderbilt, among others. At Vanderbilt, they were awarded substantial scholarships—Shelby, the John M. Leonard, M.D., Scholarship and the 1979 School of Medicine Class Scholarship and Sydney, the David Hitt Williams, M.D., Memorial Scholarship and the Romm Family Scholarship.

The twins say that being a year apart at VUSM has worked well. “The separation is nice. We’re very unique individuals. People tend to lump us into ‘the twins’ instead of Sydney and Shelby. We don’t mind that, but it’s also great to get to know people as our own selves,” Sydney said, adding that each have their own group of friends.

Shelby said having Sydney a year behind her helps reinforce what she already learned, and Sydney said she can ask Shelby for guidance since she has already completed the first year. “When I have a long day, Shelby understands. We support each other at home.”

The Payne twins, who live with another second-year student, said there’s only one downside to living together. “We sometimes have a problem not talking too much to each other instead of getting our work done,” Sydney said, laughing. “We’ve done that our entire life. We’ve been partners on the soccer field and in academics. I think it’s really pushed us. We’re so competitive, but we push each other in a good way. We have a built in study partner and training partner. It’s made us who we are today.”

VUSM is a good fit for them, they say.

“The students are happy and the faculty is very involved,” Shelby said. “The culture of wellness is huge for us too. It radiates through the entire institution. That’s something that you don’t really realize when you’re going through the steps of applying to schools.

“Once I started to get acceptances, it was hard to know how to differentiate between schools. Here, I walked in the first day and they knew my name, where I was from, what I did. I’m not used to the faculty knowing me. I typically sit in the back of the class. I come and I leave. They are different here—’they know you; they teach you; but they’re also going to be your colleague and your friend.’”

The twins have not decided what specialty they will choose after medical school. Sydney is considering emergency medicine or pediatrics and hopes to help underserved populations. Shelby is thinking about emergency medicine, orthopaedics, pediatrics or pediatrics endocrinology where she believes she could inspire children with type 1 diabetes.

Sydney hopes to blend her love of medicine with her love of travel. When she played soccer in Madrid, she broke her arm and needed surgery. “It was extremely complicated. Everything was in Spanish—working with the insurance, the emergency room, scheduling the surgery. It was already complicated in my first language, but then I had to figure out everything using a language that was not my first. My teammates tried to help, but they didn’t speak great English. It was a gap we kept hopping over.

“That inspired me for my own patients. From that experience I made a decision that I would never have a patient in the situation I was in. It made me dig in and learn Spanish and I was able to get a hold of the language over there,” she said. She now volunteers as an interpreter at the Shade Tree Clinic in Nashville, the free student-run medical clinic for Nashville residents with limited resources, and plans to take the bilingual provider certification exam soon so she can speak with Spanish-speaking patients at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“No matter what, Shelby and I will stay involved with kids who have diabetes,” Sydney said. “There are kids growing up with diabetes who need role models and help managing a new diagnosis.”