Between practices, games and recruiting trips, Georgia Schweitzer had little time to think.
She was back at her alma mater as an assistant for the top-ranked Duke women’s basketball team, which had captured the ACC title and seemed headed for a dream run in the 2004 NCAA tournament.
An Elite Eight upset loss to Minnesota in late March foiled those plans, and suddenly, Schweitzer was out of distractions.
Schweitzer had long balanced dreams of basketball and medicine, but three years had passed since she applied and was accepted to Duke’s medical school. Her basketball career was over, but she didn’t know what would follow.
The former Duke and Minnesota Lynx point guard had a month to make the decision that she’d avoided since the previous September. She had always planned to head back to school, but now doubt crept into her mind. Could she handle the work? Should she instead pursue a career as a medical researcher?
Her Lynx teammate and four-time Olympian, Teresa Edwards, wasn’t about to let Schweitzer make the wrong choice.
Medical school was the golden ticket, said Edwards, who was nearing the end of her own nearly two-decade-long career. Schweitzer needed to grab the opportunity before it was too late.
Schweitzer had already cemented her place in Duke basketball history. She was about to find out if she could make the same sort of impact in medicine.
Schweitzer’s basketball career started early in Gahanna, Ohio. When her two older brothers went with her dad to the gym for basketball practice, she begged to tag along. She’d stand at the opposite end of the court and ignore her dad’s instructions to hold the ball. Soon enough, the first grader was dribbling between her legs.
Schweitzer only got better from there.
“I always loved playing basketball,” said Georgia Schweitzer Beasley, 36, who married Jonathan Beasley in 2006. “I never thought it was actually going to take me anywhere.”
That’s when she shot up to 6-feet as a 16-year-old at Bishop Hartley in Columbus. The offers from big-time basketball programs began to roll in, and she had the choice of the nation’s best.
But for as long as she could remember, Beasley had another goal.
I always knew that I wanted to be a doctor. I knew that basketball was just a temporary thing for me.
Georgia Schweitzer Beasley
“I always knew that I wanted to be a doctor. I knew that basketball was just a temporary thing for me,” Beasley said.
As she looked for the right combination of academics and athletics, she narrowed her offer list to Ohio State, Notre Dame and Duke.
The first time she walked through Cameron Indoor Stadium, the competition was over. The high school junior went through the rest of the recruiting process as a formality, but she knew she’d end up a Blue Devil.
As a freshman, though, her jump shot was smoother than her transition to Duke. The distance away from her parents and three siblings took a toll, and she struggled with homesickness.
Gale Valley, a Duke assistant coach, said she remembers tears when the homesick freshman first got to Durham.
“She didn’t come in and light the world on fire,” Valley said.
Former Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said she’s never sure how a recruit from a small-environment will adapt in a high pressure setting, but she continued to challenge Beasley on the court. She also supported Beasley as she pursued medicine in college and later urged her to pursue a WNBA career.
The motivation worked. Over her playing career, the 6-foot guard was twice named the ACC Player of the Year and was a finalist for the 2001 Naismith Award. She guided Duke to the 1999 championship appearance, a loss that still causes Beasley heartache. The list goes on: ACC tournament titles in 2000 and 2001, first-team All America honors and the first Duke player to notch at least 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 400 assists and 150 steals.
When her former coaches talk about her now, their sentences are streams of buzzwords: humble, mature, dedicated, motivated.
“If you had to make a college athlete today, you should make her in the mold of Georgia Schweitzer,” Valley said.
In April of 2001, the quintessential college player made a run at the big leagues. A draft day trade between the Miami Sol and the Lynx sent Beasley to Minnesota as the 21st pick of the WNBA draft. In her first two seasons, the 160-pound guard averaged just shy of four points in 17 minutes of action per game.
The WNBA schedule, which spans the summer, allowed Beasley to spend the 2002-03 and 2003-04 college seasons back at Duke as an assistant coach under Goestenkors while former assistant and current Virginia coach Joanne Boyle recovered from surgery.
Beasley’s passion for medicine, however, never disappeared. When she could steal time away from the weight room or practice floor, she buried herself in epidemiological histories.
At the beginning of her third season, she injured her right knee. After not missing a game in college, Beasley was out for the first three games of the 2003 campaign. She never got on track and appeared in a career-low 16 games, averaging 0.9 points.
I’m going to save lives. I could cure cancer.
Georgia Schweitzer Beasley
Beasley knew she had lost her edge, that something was missing in her life. Thus began the conversations about returning to Duke for medical school. She’d saved nearly all of her league-average WNBA salary, and the Wallace Wade scholarship, granted to a former Duke student-athlete in graduate school, would ease the financial blow. She consulted a host of important people in her life, including Goestenkors, her parents and future husband Jonathan Beasley.
They all gave the same advice: follow the path that would make her most proud.
“Everyone was always very supportive,” Beasley said, “but at the end of the day, I knew I was going to have to be the one to do all the work.”
When she stepped off the Los Angeles Staples Center hardwood after the Lynx’s 2003 playoff exit, she knew her career was over. Ahead of training camp in April 2004, Beasley alerted the Lynx front office she would retire before the upcoming season, despite a potentially increased role.
Goestenkors, who ultimately supported Beasley’s decision to attend medical school, first tried to permanently recruit Beasley to her staff. This time, she wasn’t successful. Beasley couldn’t spend any more time away from medicine.
“I’m going to save lives,” Beasley told her coach. “I could cure cancer.”
A juggling act
Dr. Henry Friedman was late. The Duke basketball summer camp was over, and his 11-year-old daughter, Sara, was nearly alone in the gym.
When Friedman, now 63, finally arrived from Duke Hospital, he found Sara rebounding for Beasley, who was recovering from shoulder surgery.
Friedman, a devout Duke basketball fan, knew of Beasley. She’d averaged 10 points and four rebounds the previous season on the 1999 Blue Devils’ march to the national championship game. Beasley’s only clue to Friedman’s identity was the pager clipped to his belt.
A brief mention of Beasley’s interest in medicine prompted Friedman, who currently serves as the deputy director of the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke, to write a letter to her coaches. If he could ever be helpful on Beasley’s path to medicine, he wrote, they should let him know.
Beasley didn’t waste much time before she added to her official pre-med education. In the fall of 1999, she began to see patients with Friedman. She also joined him in a reading course and discussed the material in ways that blew Friedman away. Another Duke doctor, Allan Friedman, taught her how to perform neurological exams.
What Georgia did was to display both extraordinary intellectual gifts and technical skills on top of remarkable athletic skills.
Dr. Henry Friedman
Before long, she started to do rounds on her own. Henry Friedman said an undergraduate had never been granted that privilege.
“Suffice to say, what Georgia did was to display both extraordinary intellectual gifts and technical skills on top of remarkable athletic skills,” Friedman said. “How many people are going to do that? Not whole lot.”
As Beasley continued to rack up awards on the court, Friedman helped guide her on a path toward Duke medical school, which costs nearly $40,000 a year. She credits him with keeping her focused as she took the MCAT and applied to schools.
“You would never know the load that she was carrying in the classroom, on the court, in the community and then also doing her rounds,” Goestenkors said. “She gained energy from all the things she was doing that most people wouldn’t be able to handle.”
Through her time as an undergrad, she also grew close to the Friedman family.
Friedman’s son and daughter began to hang out and practice with the Duke basketball team. Beasley spent lots of time at the Friedman house, including a stay when she sprained her ankle one season. As she tried to acclimate to life away from her family in Ohio, the Friedmans took her in as one of their own.
“She’s family,” Friedman said. “[I] consider her a surrogate daughter.”
Beasley’s performance on the court and in the hospital led Friedman to help found the Collegiate Athlete Pre-Medical Experience (CAPE), which helps to mentor Duke female student-athletes on their path to Duke medical school. Around a dozen students are accepted into the program each year, and Friedman said their academic prowess rivals that of other pre-med students.
“[Otherwise] they couldn’t be an athlete and get into a school as good as Duke.” Friedman said. “They’d go to UConn.”
The next step
During one of Beasley’s first rotations of medical school, she listened to a lecture on melanoma delivered by Dr. Doug Tyler, now the chair of surgery at the University of Texas at Galveston.
She had no idea he was the one who took out her appendix years earlier, as Duke was gearing up for the 1998 NCAA tournament. Beasley, a freshman, went on to average seven points and four rebounds as Duke advanced to the regional final before falling to Arkansas that season.
As a third-year medical student, Beasley worked in the lab with Tyler on regional treatment strategies to overcome advanced melanoma for almost 10 months. She later continued her work with him as a resident during a two-year research requirement. Henry Friedman, who appeared on “60 Minutes” in March to discuss the use of the polio virus in cancer treatment, also worked alongside them, as brain cancer and melanoma share several similarities.
4 Years of med school including lectures, labs, clinical rotations
5 Years at Duke on a clinical residency
2 Years at Duke for laboratory research
Beasley honed in on general surgery, which she said seemed to require the largest breadth of knowledge and an extreme work ethic. The task-oriented nature of the operating room also appealed to the former All-American, who graduated from medical school in 2008.
Friedman said he’s never seen a resident publish as many research papers as Beasley, while Tyler said her accomplishments and productivity placed her in the “top echelon” of residents nationwide.
Beasley, however, said she’s most proud of the Golden Apple award, which is a teaching award voted on by the Duke medical students. When ranking her many accomplishments, she places the Golden Apple above her All-America and ACC Player of the Year honors. She’s only the second surgical resident ever to win, Friedman said.
Tyler, unable to attend a dinner in mid-June to honor the general surgery chief residents, flew into Raleigh-Durham International Airport a month earlier for Beasley’s grand rounds presentation on the history of Duke breast cancer care. His help through medical school and her residency, she said, was invaluable.
“He trained me as a colleague. He didn’t train me as his disciple,” Beasley said. “One of the first times I met with him, he turned to me and said ‘What do you think?’”
“I didn’t stop giving my opinion for the next 10 years.”
Eighteen years after Beasley left Ohio to become a Blue Devil, her most recent move took her home to Gahanna.
Beasley recently began a surgical oncology fellowship at Ohio State University’s James Cancer Center. Her future isn’t quite set – she already has her fair share of medical centers hoping she’ll join them in the future – but Beasley thinks she’ll wind up as an academic surgeon and hopes to pursue an administrative role in the future.
As she starts a new set of rotations, Beasley her husband Jonathan, an architect engineer for Oracle, will juggle life at home with a now 4-year-old son, Reid, and 21-month-old daughter, Wyn.
My son’s starting to understand that I’m a doctor and I fix boo boos.
Georgia Schweitzer Beasley
“My son’s starting to understand that I’m a doctor and I fix boo boos,” said Beasley, who can’t wait to get her kids onto the basketball court. “It’s a challenge, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
While in Durham, Beasley made sure to share those experiences. As a med student and resident, she always carved out time to talk to undergraduate CAPE students, some of whom babysat for her in the past. She taught a session one summer on giving stitches – while she was pregnant. On other occasions, she would empty the contents of her pockets and share with the group of aspiring female doctors. Turns out, a granola bar is as important as a stethoscope.
Before her final talk this year, Beasley was just finishing a 24-hour shift and hadn’t seen her kids. CAPE associate program director Terry Kruger could tell Beasley was running on fumes, and she told the resident to go home. But Beasley wouldn’t.
This is important, Beasley said, they need to know what this moment feels like.
“If they become Georgia, I’ve done my job,” Terry said. “They idolize her like you wouldn’t believe.”
Between the 80-to-90-hour work weeks and the few hours of sleep she gets each night, Beasley discovered a type of toughness she never needed on the basketball court.
“When you’re operating, you’re starting to sweat and your heart is pounding,” Beasley said. “People say, ‘this is just like hitting a free throw.’ No. It’s nothing like that.”
She credits that mental toughness to the lessons she learned from Coach G.
“Coach G, she really liked to use the F-word and my name in the same sentence a lot,” said Beasley at her Duke Athletics Hall of Fame induction speech in 2013.
Beasley had another Duke coach on her side. Back when she applied for medical school, Mike Krzyzewski wrote her a letter of recommendation. Most letters were at least a page in length; Coach K’s was just two sentences.
“If she could manage basketball and pre-med, then med school will be a breeze,” Beasley said he wrote. “You’d be crazy not to take her.”
Seems like they made the right choice.