A poster on the wall of the biology lab at William & Mary caught the attention of Alexandra Knudson Friedman ’01: “Does stress make you sick?”
It was late in the evening, and Friedman, then a senior pre-med student, was cleaning up after working on a research project for her honors thesis. The poster announced a talk by Dr. Esther Sternberg, author of “The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.” Even though she was extremely busy, Friedman made time to attend the lecture.
“Medicine was interesting to me, but I was also always thinking what’s beyond what we can see,” she says. “I was always very interested in spirituality and spiritual concepts.”
A desire to understand the science behind connections of the human spirit, mind and body inspired Friedman to begin attending medical school. Longing for a deeper spiritual life led her to take a different path, where she explored Orthodox Judaism, attended a women’s seminary and became part of a Hasidic community. She married a widowed man with two daughters and became the mother of eight more children.
It is not often that those two paths merge together, especially for a woman. Hasidic women typically do not attend college, let alone medical school. The obstacles are many: Women in Orthodox Jewish communities generally marry young and have multiple children in their care. There are strict rules about interacting with the opposite sex, access to electronic devices and the internet is limited, and in many Hasidic communities, women don’t drive, making transportation to classes difficult.
Nevertheless, Friedman returned to medical school, and on May 27, 2021, two decades after her commencement at William & Mary, she graduated from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Middletown, New York, at the top of her class. She pursued her medical degree during a pandemic and while giving birth to three of her children, including twin girls. In an interview with The New York Times, she recalled studying for a board exam between contractions when she was in labor for 12 hours with the twins.
Given all the barriers to becoming a doctor, how did she do it? Friedman, who is now in a medical residency program at a children’s hospital near West Palm Beach, Florida, begins her answer by describing the rigorous pre-med curriculum at William & Mary.
“As an undergraduate, I learned how to study thoroughly, anticipate the types of questions that would be asked and to think beyond what might initially be presented,” she says. “So when I came to medical school, I was able to take in all the information quickly and study a lot of material in a short time.”
Alongside the challenges to completing medical school as a woman with a large family in a Hasidic community, Friedman sees significant advantages.
“It gave me perspective,” she says. “Medical school is very intense, and one bad test can feel like the end of your life.”
As she learned in the lecture by Sternberg — who later became a mentor as well as a research collaborator — too much stress can be damaging to a person’s health. On the other hand, a moderate level of stress results in more productivity than no stress at all.
“If I hadn’t had my family, I might have been too stressed,” Friedman says. “When I would come home from school, the children would run up and give me hugs. It was a whole other world, and I think it was beneficial always having a support system. The religious community was a support system as well.”
Having an understanding partner was especially important. When Friedman received the Touro Middleton campus Dean’s Award, given to the student with the highest academic standing, her husband, Yosef, was recognized with the Donna Jones Moritsugu Memorial Award, presented to a spouse of a graduating student for offering unwavering support.