From Syrian Refugee and Dishwasher to Cardiologist

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PMY 407: From Syrian Refugee and Dishwasher to Cardiologist

Session 407

Dr. Heval Kelli is a Syrian refugee and is now a cardiologist having finished his cardiology fellowship at Emory Hospital, where he started right across the street as a dishwasher. He shares his story about becoming a physician, the obstacles that he had to overcome, and also the silver lining and the positives of what it was going to take to become a physician. He also talks about his program, the Young Physicians Initiative.

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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[01:26] Interest in Becoming a Physician

English is Heval’s fourth language and being a former refugee traveling from Syria to Germany and many other countries, he wanted to pick a career where he cannot lose his languages. 

'The one thing that refugee keeps with them is when they move from one country to another is the language at one hosting country.'Click To Tweet

And to him, medicine seemed like a language to learn. But the concept of medicine became reinforced through his life in America and living in underserved communities.

When he was 12 years old, Heval left Syria and went to a refugee camp in Germany. The German healthcare system allows them to automatically receive healthcare as everyone else when you arrive in their country. So he didn’t see much of a disparity. Some areas had less access to other things, but healthcare was available to all. 

Then they got resettled in Clarkston, Georgia after 9/11. And when you live in a poor neighborhood, insurance is not available to all. You don’t see clinics around you. And his family lived in one of the highest crime areas in Atlanta.

He was 18 years old and couldn’t speak English. Seeing the ambulance that kept coming in their neighborhood – either someone was shot or someone had a heart attack – and his dad had a heart attack when he came to the U.S., it was his wake-up call. He thought maybe he could make a change in their community.

[04:23] Withstanding the Social Disparity

When they left Syria, they left everything. And the same happened when they left Germany. They had to start all over again. And being a Kurdish refugee from Syria after the 9/11 attack, he didn’t realize the barriers since he was new to the country.

However, he somehow felt the pressure because his dad got sick and his mom couldn’t find a job. So Heval had to work as a high school senior and started washing dishes. He was seeing all these doctors in their scrubs come to their restaurant. They will come and pick up the dishes but they don’t look at you as someone who could be part of them. You’re like a ghost. It’s not a motivating job but you got to pay the bills to take care of your family.

Based on the AAMC data, less than 15% of medical students come from the lowest income bracket.

“If you're living in a poor community, the chance of you becoming a physician is pretty low. It's a barrier not only refugees face but many other poor Americans face.”Click To Tweet

[05:53] The Biggest Obstacle as a Premed

'The biggest barrier of someone coming from an underserved community is the network. Your neighbors are not doctors.'Click To Tweet

Heval went to Georgia State University and they had a good premed program. But there’s a different way when you get mentorship from a medical student or a younger physician,. The older physicians will give you a recommendation or give you some exposure to get into med school. You need like a personal trainer.

You need someone who is freshly involved in a process to get you through. And the best person ahead of you is usually a medical student. Back then, it was challenging to find medical students compared to nowadays when you can just connect with them on social media. But he had no iPhone when he was growing up.

In addition to all the economical barriers, the greatest barrier is the network. Medicine is an inclusive network unless you join in and you can be exposed to everyone who’s going to get you into the circle. That’s the key factor.

Your best trademark is showing up. If you’re going to meet someone, show up early. Make sure you write a very nice email. Heval thinks all of this stuff comes through much stronger than being intelligent because intelligence is relative. It’s not very hard to impress someone with intelligence nowadays. It’s more about hard work.

Be passionate. Share your story. Don’t be afraid. Don’t say you don’t have it. Everyone has a story, especially if you’re coming from a background struggle. And even if you’re privileged, you don’t need everyone to be poor around to serve. You need to be part of the process. Be yourself and make hard work and passion your trademark.

[08:58] How to Reach Out to Doctors

Although Heval didn’t join the Twitter train until later, he noticed Twitter is a big deal. Because what’s going on in our country right now with COVID and all that other stuff is that people are looking to help. And you’ll be shocked how many medical students and doctors are willing to help if you could follow them on Facebook. They can help you and connect you.

So first, search the community. See who is who on social media. There are a lot of programs out there like “Black men in medicine,” “Latinos in medicine.” Some individual people have their own network. So follow those guys. Message them and tell them about your story.

[11:18] Getting Through the MCAT

Heval personally thinks verbal reasoning has no relevance to medicine. And this affects many minorities and underserved people who didn’t have a good English education. It’s not just about being an American. Heval thinks that if you went to a poor high school, he’s doesn’t know how you’re going to be able to answer those questions systemically. 

'Try your best study. Study the practice questions. And if you don't do well on that section, you could shine in another one.'Click To Tweet

When you apply to med school, try not to be a number. Find some mentorship in the school you want to go to. Get some help from a physician and have a network because people will vouch for you. Once someone vouches for you, you go from being a numeric AAMC number to become someone they look at more closely.

That comes from building a network and the right mentorship too. Heval tells people shadowing is overrated. You could shadow for a thousand hours. But he’s more impressed with someone that took the time to talk about prevention to someone or about a low salt diet. 

'Build your network, build your story so you can shine in your application.'Click To Tweet

Heval was washing dishes for five years. And the struggle for him was how to save money for the next MCAT when he was getting paid $6 an hour and had to support his family. And the MCAT is not cheap. So while trying to save money, he delayed it for a year and took it again and did a little better. He also had a better mentorship that year and wrote a better personal statement.

'You just need one acceptance to become a doctor.'Click To Tweet

Heval didn’t get a good MCAT score the first time. But that’s what medicine is. You just take it again. And that’s the same thing with anything. Sometimes you find a challenge. You learn from it and move on. 

Heval adds that sometimes when you take it again, you’re doubting yourself. Just get out there. Tell your friends and family. Don’t be ashamed of it that you didn’t do well. Heval didn’t do great on the MCAT. But he’s a physician now.

[18:12] How to Overcome Self-Doubt as an ESL Student

'It's anything in medicine. You can't be perfect at everything.'Click To Tweet

Remember that when they read your application, you don’t want to have any grammatical errors. It’s not because you didn’t speak English, but because you didn’t pay attention to it. 

Have a bunch of friends who are English major or History major, or Philosophy major. That’s what Heval did. Ask them if they could read your personal statement.

The same way goes with your Experience section because you want to make sure it’s also as good as your personal statement.

That being said, Heval doesn’t think the accent is still a disadvantage. Sometimes it’s an advantage because it shows you’ve been around the world and you come from an interesting background.

[21:23] Focus on Resilience

Heval believes we have to learn from our failures and our weaknesses. Resilience is to just keep pushing and working harder.

Don’t highlight that medicine is all about resilience. Focus on resilience to tell your patient you are there for them. They may have a terrible diagnosis but it will be worked through this. You’re going to focus on the past and focus on a plan. That’s how we should do it in medicine.

“Come up with a plan and find the people to help you and guide you and focus on resilience. Something you don't get taught is your story and your journey.”Click To Tweet

Actual studies are suggesting that physicians who give their patients hope do better versus if all the management is the same.

Positive thinking is knowing your strength and working on your weakness. Show up a little early and know your patient. Maybe read more. Having a weakness can be also a motivation to learn better and work harder.

[24:32] Overcoming the Systemic Issues in the Society

Having that positive thinking doesn’t remove the systemic issues in place that are potentially keeping students back. And it’s hard. You see in the data that we have fewer black males in medicine compared to 30 years ago. That’s a systemic issue that we need to address. 

As an individual, think about what you need to get ahead. Having the right mentors and the right network makes a huge difference in your journey. It gives you inspiration. 

There are a lot of people in medicine who want to help and a lot of premeds who want to help. But the connection is not probably sometimes done in the correct way. Pipelines are a great idea. But one thing about pipelines is you have to also motivate people to go through the pipeline. Heval runs the pre-pipeline program and motivates all these students to get through the pipeline. He helps prepare them when they get through the panel so they can take the most advantage.

'Your social media is your digital business card.'Click To Tweet

Remember, you’re going to reach out to a professional person and their connection with you is a reflection of them, too. So you want to present yourself in the best way possible. It’s like you go into a job interview.

[28:19] About Young Physicians Initiative

The Young Physicians Initiative is focused on giving students a presence and how they can bring the network to them.

Heval feels like sometimes when they take kids from the neighborhood and bring them to their institution, it’s a great idea. But then they bring them back to the community, they face the same challenges.

Seeing the need for these people to be in the community, they went for a whole year to build this whole program. They brought speakers who look like them. The class was mostly African-American females. And they brought an African-American female physician to speak to them. They also did a panel.

Then they took that model and made it based on the medical students’ schedule. Now they’ve started expanding. From where they started in 2016, they now have 14 locations across the planet. They have 7 colleges for high school and a couple of middle school programs.

They started the pipeline all based on a simple concept – the medical students run the show, they bring the physician speakers, and they all present in those schools. 

We don’t use the power of the schools. No matter how poor the school is, they have a classroom, they have a projector. You could take your PowerPoint presentation and share it with your colleagues. And you might inspire these kids to become physicians.

Now, they’ve expanded it to a virtual mentorship program. They also host an annual conference. It’s all run by medical students now, and interns, residents, and physicians are supporting them.

Whether you’re a medical student, a premed, a physician, or resident, you could get involved in the program. Their model is based on low effort, high impact. They are all driven by the schedule of the medical student and resident. Currently, they have a shortage of these medical communities involved. So they want to make sure they are involved in the best capacity. And time is very valuable.

They usually open the application in August for medical students to be engaged and they get more than they could afford to assign to locations and programs.

[32:43] Final Words of Wisdom

The best advice Heval got was actually from a lawyer who came and taught them English every Sunday. And he told them one thing, that if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.

'Learn to ask for help, for guidance, or mentorship.'Click To Tweet

When you ask, share about yourself. Be personal. Show your story. And finally, don’t forget to invest back in your community. Heval is a big believer that if you invest in people and communities, the higher power and people invest in you.


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Young Physicians Initiative