The Model Doctor; She should be sitting pretty, but Melissa Sparrow is worried sick. The Paris runways have nothing on Hopkins auditiorium for nerves come residency assignment day.


This doesn't make sense. Melissa Sparrow is nervous?

True, this is a big day. She will be matched with a hospital to begin her residency, the next step in her goal of becoming a pediatrician.

But why worry? She's one of the brightest students at one of the best medical schools in the country -- Johns Hopkins. Any hospital would welcome her.

The problem is, Sparrow wants to remain in Baltimore. Specifically, she wants to complete her three-year residency in pediatrics at the Hopkins hospital.

But there's more to it than that.

"I'm not in control," she says.

Sparrow has known that feeling before. There was a time when she was told what to wear and where to stand and how to comb her hair and when to smile.

A decade ago, she was a model, and a successful one, living in Paris and earning $1,000 a day to pose for magazines. She wasn't in control of her life then, either.

"Other people are making decisions for you," she says.

If you're having trouble imagining Cindy Crawford with a stethoscope, or Kate Moss as a surgeon, Sparrow understands. She knows that modeling to medical school is not the normal career path for future doctors.

"It does make sense once you talk to me," she says.

Once you do, you'll begin to know why she was slightly frazzled last week, waiting in an Hopkins auditorium with about 130 other seniors.

Their futures are on the line. This is Match Day, the medical school equivalent of computer dating. Students are ranked by ability and specialty. Hospitals post their openings. The students then list the hospitals they prefer.

A computer matches them.

Talk about March Madness. The competition includes 13,000 medical school students across the country.

Sparrow is realistic. She knows that more than 75 percent of Hopkins students get their first choice and 90 percent land one of their top three choices. She also knows that a third of the Hopkins seniors will begin their residencies at Hopkins.

She has good grades. She won a medical school award for creative writing. She has chosen a field -- pediatrics -- that is not as potentially lucrative as ophthalmology or dermatology, so it's not as popular.

She also has this endorsement from Dr. H. Franklin Herlong, associate dean for students and associate professor of medicine: "She's a wonderful person."

But what if something goes wrong? What if the computer messes up and sends her to, say, Tulsa? It's out of her hands.

"I like control," she says. "I like a very orderly environment."

Few of these classmates know of Sparrow's past. She has appeared in television commercials. Her face has graced magazine covers. Her photo has appeared in clothes catalogs.

"I never talk about it," she says. "It's embarrassing. I actually did a cigarette ad. They didn't run it, probably because I looked so repulsed. Can you imagine it?

"Part of me is proud of the work I did, but modeling is almost like this embarrassing thing that I'm going to live out the rest of my life."

She's exaggerating, of course. Modeling was a lark, something to do, a way to pocket some cash, a chance to see the world.

"The modeling was an episode," says her father, Russell Marks, the retired president of a copper company in New Jersey. "It was exciting and interesting to do. It gave her a chance to travel.

"But it was clear all along that she would do something that had a very high academic or intellectual content."

From an early age, his daughter exhibited two qualities: She was smart, and she was photogenic.

How photogenic? Tall, blond and blessed with piercing blue eyes, Sparrow began modeling when she was 15. The summer after her junior year in high school, she lived in New York with other teen models and worked for the Elite agency. The summer after she graduated from high school, she went to Paris.

How smart? She was accepted to Princeton University, where she received a degree in history and won an award for writing the best history thesis. In a vote of seniors, she also was named best looking and the biggest feminist.

Hold on now. How do feminism and modeling mix?

"I always struggled with it," Sparrow says. "I still struggle with it. Somehow I think the allure of modeling won out."

After college, she left for Paris, where she worked with the Prestige modeling agency. Her photo appeared in Glamour, the British edition of Harper's Bazaar and the French edition of Vogue.

She learned French well enough to speak it fluently. She learned German well enough in trips to Hamburg that she studied the works of a favorite poet.

She was living the high life. And she was miserable.

"You constantly travel, there's no relationships," she says. "You never feel like you're really part of a product. There's nothing creative about it. You're not talked to, and you don't talk. It's just empty. I was very ready to try something absolutely different."

She retired from modeling at 24.

"I was already too old," she says. "As soon as you get a smile line around your mouth, it's over. The glamorous world is only there because you're beautiful. And that's transient. In a flash, it disappears."

She left Paris for Baltimore, where her fiance was teaching. Sparrow decided she would teach, too, and spent a year as a substitute and three years at Gilman.

She liked teaching, especially the one-on-one tutoring, but she wanted to go to graduate school. So she decided to become a doctor.

Which begs this question: Can someone who has seen the bright lights of Paris and knows her way around the big city of New York find happiness peering down the throats of sick children?

"Oh, yes," Sparrow replies, but it actually sounds like, "Ohhhhhh, yes!"

"It's exactly the opposite of modeling," she explains. "You're not concerned with what's on the outside. You're concerned with the inside. It's very interior and deeply caring."

Sparrow was nine months pregnant when she took the medical entrance exam. In fact, her water broke in the middle of the test and she was rushed to the hospital, where she gave birth to son Russell. (Daughter Marylouise arrived on the same day as a test in radiology.)

Now 33, Sparrow looks as if she could still make a living posing for photos. But her priorities have changed.

"When you're a model, you have to be in love with your beauty," she says. "You have to think your beauty is the most important thing in the whole world."

But doctors see bodies that aren't always pretty. They see ugly diseases. They see suffering. And sometimes, if they're lucky, they ease it.

"You have a relationship with a patient that's based on caring and giving and learning, or at least you should," Sparrow says. "Those things don't disappear. They're lasting. They're grounding. And real.

"Nothing feels better than to be grounded to the reality of caring."

She still cares about beauty, appreciates aesthetics, wants to look her best. But the reason why has changed.

"A surgeon once told me the way you walk into a patient's room means all the difference in the world," she says. "If you can look pretty and cheerful and happy and loving to a patient, you can give them confidence."

During her junior year at Hopkins, Sparrow joined in the care of a 10-week-old baby girl with a heart abnormality. The baby died. It was the first patient she lost.

"I think everyone has that story, trying to be a professional in light of sorrow," she says.

Sparrow wrote about the experience. It won a creative writing award at Hopkins.

The baby's death still saddens her, and that makes her wonder: Can she handle the emotional turmoil of being a pediatrician? How can she keep her marriage strong during the stress of being a resident doctor? Can she be a good mother and a good doctor?

And which hospital will choose her?

Sparrow opens the envelope. She has been matched with Hopkins, her first choice.

"Oh, sweetie," says her husband, Ned, who teaches at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He gives her a hug. Her parents congratulate her.

Later, outside the auditorium, the Sparrow family poses: her parents, her husband and the two children. The kids are holding balloons.

"I hate having my picture taken," says the doctor-to-be.

Everyone smiles. If there were lines showing, nobody seemed to notice. Or care.

Pub Date: 3/24/99

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