Leslie Scheunemann ‘01 Blends Science and Ethics to Provide Compassionate Patient Care

As a Park Scholar at NC State, Leslie Scheunemann ‘01 had no shortage of interests. She triple-majored in physics, applied mathematics, and chemistry; minored in Japanese; conducted mentored research; studied ethics independently; gave piano recitals; practiced karate; and was engaged in community service. Not only did each of these pursuits help lay the groundwork for Scheunemann’s post-collegiate life and work, they made her feel connected to something larger than herself.

“I increasingly appreciate how unusual it was that [NC State and the Park Scholarships program] kept opening doors and genuinely supporting and facilitating my enrichment without ever complaining that I needed to focus more,” Scheunemann said.

While she appreciated the beauty inherent in physics and mathematics, Scheunemann recognized as an undergraduate that she did not want to be a career physicist or mathematician. She credits her Park Faculty Mentor, Don Ridgeway, with helping her identify and cultivate her natural inclination to ask ethical questions.

“A theoretical physicist, he became my karate teacher, statistics professor, and mentor nearly simultaneously in my second semester at NC State,” Scheunemann said of Ridgeway, with whom she remains in almost daily contact. “Outside my parents, he has had the biggest impact on my intellectual and personal development of anyone in my life.”

Ridgeway applied structure to Scheunemann’s interest by guiding her through a study of Plato’s ethics. This informed her experience a few years later when, as a medical student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Scheunemann wrote a Socratic dialogue on the ethics of euthanasia that became the foundation for her clinical practice and research.

Scheunemann was drawn to the idea of becoming a physician despite her ethical concerns about navigating the physician-patient relationship. As she trained in internal medicine, her concerns evolved into a focus on the particular problems clinicians and families face when making decisions for patients receiving life support who are very near death. Following medical school, she completed a Master’s in Public Health degree to build her research skills to investigate and try to improve some of those problems. Scheunemann trained in geriatrics in order to understand physical and cognitive function, the family as the unit of care, and how illness impacts them. She also trained in pulmonary and critical care in order to practice and do research in hospitals’ intensive care units.

Ultimately, Scheunemann landed at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), where she is a fellow of pulmonary and critical care medicine. She was attracted to UPMC by the opportunity to work with Douglas White and Robert Arnold, two internationally renowned physician scientists who study communication and decision-making near the end of life. Scheunemann finds that the challenges and rewards of her clinical practice are flip sides of one another.

“On the one hand, helping patients and families through life-and-death decision-making offers almost every challenge you can imagine. The physiology is hard, the emotions are high, there are time pressures, usually we are strangers when the patient first comes to the ICU, and patients usually are too sick to participate in decision-making,” she said. “But on the other hand, working hard to establish strong communication and relationships with families so that I can deliver high-quality treatment that respects the patient’s values and preferences is the reason I practice medicine. I am so grateful that patients and families let me into these intimate times in their lives and trust me to help them.”

In addition to clinical practice, Scheunemann relishes the creativity and collaboration that scientific research demands. While laborious at times, research allows her to advance the profession she loves. She will be appointed as an assistant professor of medicine in the research tenure track this summer.

When she’s not in a lab or an ICU, Scheunemann continues to do karate, and has recently begun taking piano lessons again. She also enjoys running – she and a group of friends and colleagues will run a relay race from Gettysburg to Washington, D.C. in April – as well as reading, enjoying the unique character of Pittsburgh, and traveling. She has remained connected with the Park Scholarships program by serving on one of its Regional Selection Committees, reviewing applications and conducting interviews with candidates for several new classes of Park Scholars.

“As the Park network grows, I’m getting to meet a lot of really interesting, motivated, productive people and connect more and more of them to each other,” Scheunemann said. “That means that the Park community is still contributing to my growth and development 20 years later, and I’m getting to contribute to its growth as well!”