When Dr. Sierra Mastrantonio (she was known by her maiden name, Kreamer-Hope, during her four years at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine) talks about the experiences that helped form her desire to become a physician, she recalls the strokes her beloved grandmother suffered.
Mastrantonio, now in her first year of an anesthesiology residency, was just 13 when her grandmother had her first stroke on the left side of her brain. “She looked up at me with tears in her eyes and gasped, 'I don’t know what's wrong with me, but I know I am not me.'"
They were the last words she remembers her grandmother saying before she had a second stroke that left her unable to speak and barely able to move on her own.
“My initial feeling was powerlessness, that I was unable to help her.”
In the wake of her grandmother’s ordeal, Mastrantonio says she wanted to develop the necessary tools to intervene and help people with medical challenges, but she lacked direction. That all changed, she says, because of two teachers she had as a student in the magnet International Baccalaureate Program at Valley High School in Las Vegas — biology teacher Jason Delgado and psychology teacher Jerremey Carr.
“The passion they had for biology and psychology just resonated with me on a deep level and I became fascinated with science in a way I had never thought of before,” she said. “They taught me to truly seek the why … why does the human body/mind work the way it does? Through their inspiration, I began volunteering with/shadowing my mother in her nursing job and began to see medicine in practice. Mr. Delgado, Mr. Carr, and my mother were definitely the impetus for my journey to medicine.”
Mastrantonio’s mother is a registered nurse who has worked for Valley Hospital and Nathan Adelson Hospice Care. Her father, David Kreamer, is a professor in hydrology at UNLV.
“Once I started showing a real interest in medicine, my parents saved enough money to send me to a medical summer camp at San Diego State University. I remember we were given a patient case to diagnose at the camp. I stayed up half the night with a small reading light and a textbook, writing down over a dozen differential diagnoses and learning everything I could about each condition. It was the first time I had ever felt like I desperately wanted to open a textbook and to learn and read more...By the end of high school I had friends writing 'Dr. Sierra Kreamer-Hope' in my yearbook."
While an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno, Mastrantonio got a frightening sense of what her grandmother went through. As a member of the stunt team for the UNR cheerleading squad, she suffered a fall that left her forever unaware of what happened.
“I suffered a significant concussion after being dropped 10 feet during stunt team athletics practice and landing on the back of my head. I still have no memory of the injury and I have no memory of two to three hours before or after the injury occurred. Everything I know now I have pieced together from those who witnessed the accident. The only thing I can truly remember is fear -- not knowing what happened or how I got to the training room, surrounded by clinicians.
“Through the fog of fear, my grandmother’s words came back: ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I know I am not me.’ My feelings exactly … The only solace came from knowing that, after a variety of tests, there were no signs of intracranial bleeding or long-term damage.”
Setbacks Before Success
Even though Mastrantonio graduated in 2012 from UNR with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, her dream of attending medical school wasn’t easily realized. It would be five years before she got the chance.
After college, she worked as a medical assistant at a dermatology practice for three years, in outpatient surgery at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno for a year, then as a 911 dispatcher under her EMT certification.
"During this time, I applied to medical school more than once before being accepted to multiple medical schools in 2017," she says.
“I think the biggest catalyst and push for me during this time of my life was failure," she said. "Although I did well in college and had careers in medicine prior to undergrad, I was not a perfect applicant. I felt countless times as if I would never achieve my goal of being a physician. If there is one thing I could pass on to other students, it would be to maintain the resilience, determination, and hard work ethic to achieve your goals.
"Each time I was rejected, I worked harder to be better for the next time. I think the most important thing is failing upwards.”
Drawn to Diversity in Medical Cases
At the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, she received a full-tuition scholarship from the Engelstad Foundation. She was elected by faculty to membership in the prestigious Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society for outstanding educational achievement, professionalism, excellence in teaching, leadership, and service to others. She was one of the first students in the charter class to act as a peer tutor, medical student ambassador, and problem-based learning instructor for other medical school students.
She is remaining in Las Vegas during her first year of her University of Utah anesthesiology residency — the first year of the four-year specialty is in internal medicine and can be taken outside Utah. She sees anesthesiology as far more than “putting someone to sleep.”
“The diversity and multifactorial challenges that come with the field of anesthesiology are what drew me to the specialty,” she said. “In reality, anesthesiologists are trained to manage acute and chronic diseases as an internal medicine physician would, handle critical care/life-threatening circumstances as an emergency medical physician would, and perform procedures with the technical skills of a surgeon."
When Mastrantonio had a shoulder operation of her own a few years ago, she recalls that her anesthesiologist showed his compassion in a unique way. “He sang a Britney Spears’ song to me just before putting me to sleep because he knew I would laugh and it would comfort me during an otherwise frightening experience.”
Will Dr. Mastrantonio incorporate caring serenades into her practice? She’ll always do what’s best for the patient, she says.
Challenges of COVID
Named by her parents after the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mastrantonio got married during her third year of medical school. She and her husband, Adam, a paramedic and Nevada National Guard flight medic who has served in Afghanistan, met while they were both working for the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority in Reno. She asked him out on their first date. The pair tied the knot in 2019. Adam Mastrantonio is now taking courses at UNLV that he hopes will help result in a successful application to medical school.
The couple got a real scare in 2020, when each came down with COVID-19. Sierra Mastrantonio was in Reno during the winter holidays doing virtual interviews while her husband was working as a paramedic on an ambulance.
“He had a patient who had COVID who had to be intubated and even though he was wearing perfect PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), he was sure he got it when he intubated the patient...Ironically right about then, he was supposed to get the COVID vaccine. His symptoms got worse and worse and he was tested and tested positive...I hadn’t isolated myself from him at first because I had no idea he had it and I also came down with it.”
Mastrantonio suffered from nausea, respiratory problems, and muscle aches while her husband’s case largely gave him fever, fatigue, and muscle aches. Both got much better in about 10 days, though it took each about four or five months to get their sense of taste and smell back. Each has gotten vaccinated.
“I’ve been lucky enough to not have long haul symptoms,” she says. “I’m sure if I had been older, the virus would have impacted me more. I felt short of breath for some time, but fortunately, that went away fairly quickly.”
There is no doubt, Mastrantonio says, that the age of COVID-19 has been a challenging time.
“For most of us, the past one to two years have been some of the scariest — times we will ever experience. It has certainly impressed upon me the fragility of life and the importance of medicine, both in its tangible practice and the need to use our knowledge base and skills to educate others for the betterment of healthcare in society.”