Physicians share stories of struggle and hope

Four extraordinary physicians — a Syrian Kurdish refugee, a victim of childhood abuse, a man who survived extreme violence, and a woman who lost her husband to suicide — described their experiences and inspirations at the AAMC’s annual meeting.
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Left to right: Heval Mohammed Kelli, MD; Will Ross, MD, MPH; Claire Pomeroy, MD, MBA; Suzanne Watson, MD, MDiv; and Tamron Hall. Credit: Richard Greenhouse

The journey through medical school is long for everyone. But some physicians must travel an incredible distance just to take their first few steps. 

Years spent in the foster care system, abject poverty, ethnic persecution, widowhood at a young age — the speakers at “The Extra Mile” session at Learn Serve Lead 2018: The AAMC Annual Meeting survived these extreme circumstances and more.

As AAMC Board of Directors Chair M. Roy Wilson, MD, noted as he introduced them, these four doctors served as an inspiration not only to fellow physicians but also to the high school and college students in the audience beginning their own journeys.

At the conference’s final plenary on Tuesday, Nov. 6, the speakers shared painful stories in a conversation with award-winning journalist and former TODAY show co-host Tamron Hall. Their remarkable insights and the ways they thrived in the face of adversity moved attendees to tears and brought them to their feet. 

Out of foster care at 18

At age 15, Claire Pomeroy, MD, MBA, fled her home and never looked back. The foster care placements that followed were better than her abusive family, she said, but each lasted only a short time. And then at 18, she aged out of the system — and into extreme poverty.

Once, she recalled, she lay in bed too sick to take a bus to care and too poor to pay for it. “I had no safety net,” explained Pomeroy, now president and CEO of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, which promotes support for medical research. “I was on my own.”

Teachers and others supported Pomeroy as she made her way through high school, college, and the University of Michigan Medical School. Even so, she noted, “the cost of survival is high and lifelong.”

“I had no safety net. … I was on my own.”

Claire Pomeroy, MD, MBA 
President, Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

Ultimately, the infectious disease expert’s travails connected her to suffering patients and motivated her fierce battle against health inequities. 

“[T]hose years shaped my core values of fighting for the vulnerable, of fighting to make the system work for those whom society marginalizes, makes invisible, or discards,” she said. “I wouldn’t let them struggle alone.” 

From dishwasher to doctor

When he was 11 years old, Syrian police stormed into the home of Heval Mohammed Kelli, MD, and dragged his father, a Kurdish attorney, off to prison. Although Kelli’s father was released, the family fled the country’s ethnic persecution, paying smugglers to help them escape. In 1996, they finally arrived at a refugee camp in Germany.

There, the four of them shared one bedroom and lived in constant dread of possible deportation. Eventually, though, they applied for asylum in the United States with the help of local church members. “After two years of interviews and security checks,” recalls Kelli, “we heard three wonderful words from an agent at the U.S. Embassy: ‘Welcome to America.’”

Once in America, Kelli’s mother couldn’t find a job and his father was too ill to work. So Kelli began washing dishes after school in a restaurant a block away from Emory University. Today, Kelli is a preventive cardiology fellow at Emory University School of Medicine. 

“My American Dream is actually to help everyone who wants to pursue that dream to realize it.”

Heval Mohammed Kelli, MD
Emory University School of Medicine

“How did I get there?” Kelli asked. His life was transformed by a call from a physician who contacted him after serendipitously learning of his interest in medicine, Kelli explained. “He saw something in me I did not see in myself.”

As a result of that kindness — and many others — Kelli is determined to give back, and has co-founded various programs, including one that helps high schoolers pursue careers in medicine. 

“People tell me I’m living the American Dream,” he said. “I tell them that my American Dream is actually to help everyone who wants to pursue that dream to realize it — to make it feasible for many, many more people.”

Never too late

Suzanne Watson, MD, MDiv, wanted to be a doctor since she was 5 years old. Almost a half-century later, in 2013, she set out to pursue that dream.

Watson had begun a medical career much earlier, in 1991, but dropped out when she became pregnant with her second child. Studying medicine while raising two infants and helping her neurologist husband build his practice seemed “untenable,” she said.

“It's my commitment to fighting stigma that gives me the courage to talk about something so personal in such a public setting.”

Suzanne Watson, MD, MDiv
University of Cincinnati Medical Center

Instead, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in divinity. Then, just a few months before her ordination as an Episcopal priest, tragedy struck. For years, her husband had battled depression on his own, worried that seeking treatment might destroy his career. In 2002, he took his own life, leaving Watson a widow with four young children.

Over the next decade, although Watson’s clerical career flourished, she still felt the pull of medicine. “Losing my husband increased my desire to pursue psychiatry,” she recalled. “I wanted to do all I could to help people like him.”

What’s more, she wanted to dismantle the stigma around mental illness. “It’s my commitment to fighting stigma that gives me the courage to talk about something so personal in such a public setting,” Watson noted. “It’s not easy.” 

Eventually, spurred by a desire to avoid regret and encouraged by her spiritual advisor to use her gifts, Watson applied to Wake Forest University School of Medicine. “I will forever be filled with gratitude that they took a chance on me,” she said. Today, Watson is a resident at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Asked for a final bit of wisdom, Watson told listeners to remember that “every situation can be changed. ... You can change every bit of your life to make a better future.” That certainly was the lesson of her life — and a message she wanted to send anyone in medicine suffering from thoughts of suicide.

Bloodied, but not broken

Before he was 13 years old, Will Ross, MD, MPH, had been beaten countless times and stabbed in the arm. He had witnessed an execution-style murder and hidden in his house to avoid gangs. “Most of the kids I knew growing up are now dead or in jail,” said Ross of his childhood in Memphis, Tennessee.

Books were his refuge, and he loved math and science. In fact, Ross began dreaming of a medical career at age five, after a visit to the ER with a sick sibling.

That dream drew closer when a high school counselor connected him with a local philanthropic couple that helped him through his entire educational journey. “I never believed ... someone was not going to step forward. It was just a matter of time,” said Ross. “There is,” he added, “inherent good in all of us.”

And though he recalled horrible moments of racism — including being suspected of a crime simply because of his skin color — he appreciates “the common humanity among all people.”

“With more cross-cultural exposures and conversations, we can bridge divides and share our common interests,” said Ross, who is the associate dean of diversity at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (WUSM).

“I have learned to strive for … the belief that every individual, every neighborhood, every community should have the opportunity to reach their full health potential.”

Will Ross, MD, MPH
Washington University School of Medicine

Ross also says his personal experiences underlie his determination that all WUSM trainees, no matter their specialty, learn about the importance of fostering community health.

“I live with bitter memories of my childhood, with heartache, and with emotional pain on a daily basis,” he told those assembled. “However, I have learned to strive for something larger in life: the belief that every individual, every neighborhood, every community should have the opportunity to reach their full health potential. 

“That gives me purpose and places my struggles in the broader context of social justice,” he said. “It has also given me enormous capacity to love.”