Dr. Leigh Sundem dies by suicide due to discrimination

Dr. Leigh Sundem died by suicide when she was obstructed from practicing medicine due to discrimination related to her drug addiction as a teen. Clean & sober 15 years, she was an advocate for others in recovery, even testifying to congress. With countless awards in med school, Leigh was a phenomenal physician, yet (after 3 years of applying) was never accepted into required residency training. Leigh did not want to die. Unmatched to residency, unemployed with student loans due, she saw no way out. In her suicide note, she asked her family to contact me & gave us instructions to share the truth so her story “goes viral” and starts a REAL conversation about ending the stigma of addiction in medicine. So Please . . .

1) Celebrate Leigh now by sharing your addiction or mental health recovery.

2) Support her Memorial Scholarship here.

3) Watch the award-winning film by Emmy-winning filmmaker on SUNDAY, MAY 3 on our doctor suicide crisis with an expert panel addressing the specific factors that led to Leigh’s suicide so we never lose one more doctor again. Register here. (10% of film proceeds will be donated to Leigh Sundem Memorial Scholarship). Please share. View movie trailer (and join us Sundays in May for additional screenings & interactive expert panel discussions).

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16 comments on “Dr. Leigh Sundem dies by suicide due to discrimination
  1. Mitchell Zeitler says:

    I find this very upsetting. Since I was a resident in Anesthesiology over 30 yrs ago , there has been a movement towards helping impaired physicians and allowing an opportunity to go back to practicing. I am profoundly disappointed that a teaching program could not figure out a way to monitor her during training. Wondering if this is partly the result of corporatizing of medicine.

    • My understanding is that she was clean and sober for 15 yrs and was being monitored by a PHP, which could easily have been continued during any residency in any state. The employment discrimination may have been on the basis of drug procurement related criminal activity, as a teen. Depending on the state, such a history might be expunged. But she was quite open about how she had turned her life around, and this honesty may have doomed her in a medical hierarchical system, in which decisions are often made on the basis of expediency and limited information. Such a needless tragedy, and waste of a perfect example of how people can change. Institutions, not so much.

      • Donald Turken, MD says:

        Leigh was very open on her applications as required, yet they used that information in order to oppose her. She was highly qualified and altruistic in her direction to help others. She did not shy from asking for help and was available to give help. Mysogeny and jealousy are latent and blatant. She was exceptional, yet they denied her opportunity, a hand up.

        • Chrissy B. says:

          Dr. Turken, Thank you so much for your kind words and memories of Leigh. Thank you also for reaching out to her. She sat at my dining room table right before she left for Rochester and she was telling me about all of her fears about going to Med School without a clear path to residency or licensure. I clearly remember telling her that by the time that came to pass she would be well past anyone judging her for her adolescent. Boy was I wrong. I share in your heart ache. She was one of the smartest, kindest, most determined young women I have ever met. It is all of our loss that she is gone.

          • Pamela Wible MD says:

            Stigma in medicine persists to this day. Shameful that we continue to lose so many beautiful and talented souls like Leigh.

          • Donald Turken, MD says:

            G’day Chrissy, Pamela-Thanks to Pamela sending me your recent note Chrissy; I have not been on this site. Leigh remains and continues on my mind. I have no words of wisdom other than keep and save the love and memories in your mind in your heart. Life is cheap yet precious to be nurtured to be nourished. Such sudden irreparable deadly violence is human tragedy incarnate. Disease, intentional/accidental, the end is guaranteed, the beginning is not. Treasure those with whom you share love and peace and never take it for granted as you live every day and look ahead while you remember behind. Live Love Laugh.

  2. Donald Turken, MD says:

    I was primary interviewer of Leigh Taylor Sundem for admission to the medical school here 12/2011. Today (5/2) I am thinking of Leigh and damning the system. And I have stories, too, some personal, of the non-sentient nature of the system but also of humanity; small wonder I prefer other animals. Leigh was an extra-ordinary candidate. Later I searched for her and reached out to her to be a mentor. I made contacts and offers to help her, to advocate for her. This hurts. My last attempt to communicate with her was in an email 4/12/2020 after I learned she was in Las Vegas, NV. I did not expect a reply, again, but hoped. I think our last exchange was about 3 years ago when she was not accepted for Orthopaedics, and I encouraged her to do 3y surgical and re-apply; they are very difficult positions especially for a woman. Such a waste. Leigh was an incredible young lady up against the staid conservative medical/surgical profession where the **** continues to flow. Health care in this country continues to sink, and they are oblivious and do not care. My first sense of Leigh that I took from the interview room was what an exceptional candidate she was, exactly what we wanted.

    • Amy Wang, MD says:

      this story very much hurt my heart too. She sounded like an extraordinary young doctor with a big heart. But I did wonder since you guys interviewed her for medical school and obviously felt correctly she would be an asset and not a liability, was it ever discussed that her past may not be able to be forgiven out in the real world where deep down there is still a real bias against addiction? she passed the vetting to get her foot in the door, then got caught again and couldn’t get out and she had obviously done everything right since the youthful mistakes. this is the type of story that makes you want to cry when you think about it. may she rest in peace.

      • Donald Turken, MD says:

        Yes Amy, Leigh was an extra-ordinary candidate, and I described her as ‘exceptional’ in discussions. Leigh earned deserved the superlative moniker of exceptional. And any talk with regards the medical system and its inherent monstrous pressures stressors was beyond any possibility in that system. But later after searching and finding her is a good question. No, our few brief exchanges were just that, few and brief despite my reach out offer to mentor. I was able to help make contacts for externships and work and letters from prominent physician leaders. She did not take me up on those routes, find the side or back door inside and beat the crowd, also part of the numbers game, stand out. It is unfortunate and across the board a woman has to be so much better than the males of the species to be considered, maybe, on a par.

    • Dear Dr. Turken,
      Thank you for sharing this. I work in addiction medicine and I see my patients hit similar barriers in housing, education, and employment every day. Leigh recovered in full. America is not a country that allows people to become who we say they ought to be. Our policies and punishment industries are merciless. I would like to be in contact with you about how to address this with new public policy. If you find this message, please look me up on Facebook, under my real name: Moxie Loeffler (DO, MPH) in Eugene, Oregon.

  3. anon says:

    I’m just wondering if anyone is willing to address the portion of her letter where she discusses her knowledge of her white female priviledge during parts of her training? Racial discrimination in all aspects of the US medical education, training, and corporate structure is rampant and careers are ruined very often in POC with spotless records and strong academic profile due to technicalities or being disliked by a particular attending.( I have many examples of this in friends and family members) Discrimination in medicine comes in many forms but it seems like she also wanted to bring this issue to light. In addition are there any suicide statistics for physicians by race? AA are the most oppressed group in this country and Im just wondering if there is a baseline of increased coping mechanisms in this group due to higher need for resiliency? Thanks

  4. Niokié Legester (Mortician) says:

    This is heart broken. Who decided that one should not practice in their discipline despite of his/her stories.
    When since it become a norm for us human to use the past of others to anchor their future?
    We live in a very unbalance world and if we continue down this path we will only see more sad stories like these.
    Time come for a change and we need to act very fast.

  5. My heart hurt, when I read her story. We are educated and repeatedly told that substance abuse disorder is an illiness. However, this is only lip service. It is clear that many in healthcare still view it as a character flaw or weakness. I wish I could tell my story, but I still need to practice another 10 years in order to retire.

  6. Dr. Susana Zabaneh says:

    On September 29, 2020 Assembly Bill 890 was singed by CA Governor Newsom allowing Nurse Practitioners to practice independently like 28 other states. Why then not unmatched medical students, like Dr. Leigh Sundem, with more training?

    https://www.change.org/p/united-states-department-of-health-and-human-services-don-t-waste-doctors

  7. jack stevens, md says:

    Why didn’t any residency program directors at Rochester give her a chance??? She graduated from their program and everyone knew her background. It seems like something else is missing in this tragedy.

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