‘My grandfather would be proud’: Doctor’s education combines health, heritage

May 11, 2016  //  FOUND IN: UMHS News,

When Dr. Mohamad Issa’s grandfather immigrated to Ann Arbor from the West Bank more than fifty years ago, he never could have imagined that his grandson would return one day to his homeland as a medical student.

Dr. Mohamad Issa at his most recent Global Health and Disparities experience in Jordan working in a clinic that served Syrian refugees.

Dr. Issa’s most recent Global Health and Disparities experience found him in Jordan working in a clinic that served Syrian refugees.

But three generations later, Dr. Issa, whose mother also immigrated from Palestine and who is among the latest University of Michigan Medical School (UMMS) graduates, has dedicated much of his education to improving health in and around the war-torn Middle East. This included an early internship with the United Nations in the West Bank and, later, an experience treating Syrian refugees in Jordan.

“Even before I decided to become a doctor, I knew that helping communities I cared about was important to me,” he said. “It motivated me to mentor others who not only look like me, but share similar experiences that I have.”

As an undergrad, Dr. Issa was involved in student government, founded several pre-med organizations including the Ypsilanti Health Initiative, and served as a U-M diversity peer educator. After enrolling in UMMS, he joined the school’s Global Health and Disparities (GHD) Path of Excellence, which allows students to focus parts of the curriculum on health inequality issues. Dr. Issa is among about 165 UMMS students graduating May 13, and among 34 GHD students.

Dr. Issa interned at United Nations Relief and War Agency (UNRWA) in Kulandia, a refugee camp in the West Bank and received a master’s degree in Clinical Research through the U-M School of Public Health to gain knowledge about international health care and formal research training. Later, as a fourth-year student, he traveled on a Global REACH scholarship to Jordan where he worked with Syrian refugees at the King Hussein Cancer Center (KHCC). He completed clinical rotations at private and public institutions, performed plastic surgery and ENT work, conducted research, and spent numerous hours volunteering with the refugees.

“These experiences have definitely colored the way I see medicine and how I interact with my patients. They’ve made me much more empathetic and understanding,” he said. “I would recommend all U-M students at Michigan start with Global REACH if they are interested in international outreach. The organization is rich with resources and has a network of strong ties and opportunities that are available to students.”

A few dozen UMMS students a year join the GHD path, and many receive funding through Global REACH for overseas educational experiences during their time in medical school. The international exposure helps bridge the gap between individualized medicine and broader healthcare issues. In Dr. Issa’s case, it also helped him connect his work to his heritage.

“I believe physicians need to have some experience with people who have access to minimal healthcare,” he said. “I think my grandfather would have been proud of the fact that I have been willing to spend time working in these vastly different environments. It has helped me develop an appreciation for humanity as a whole.”

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