By Julie Chakriya Kvann, MD
“Hello! Who are you, where do you come from?” They asked with their hand offered forward. I was starting my fellowship at the Kleinert Hand Institute.
I was always puzzled when I was asked this question. I was a visible minority even back in my hometown, although I was born there. What do they want to know? Where I am originally from? Where I was born and grew up? Where I went for university, or the program I graduated from?
I was born and raised in my family home, from kindergarten to medical residency, crossing the rivers between Montreal and its suburbs, until I earned my professional title as a physician. That is my personal CV in one line. Not bad.
Who was I when I entered fellowship training? That’s a little bit more complicated. I was maybe a bit of a naive dreamer at the time, not understanding the concept of “you can’t discover who you really are until you step outside of your comfort zone.” So how would I answer at that critical first contact moment at the Kleinert Hand Institute? An “MD” comfortable with “plastic surgery” from “Montreal.” A four-word answer. Clean and concise. A pretty good start, to a story yet to be told.
Medicine is a fun and not so fun experience that opens the doors to a very particular world where we are not usually allowed to enter: to step directly into another person’s life and make a direct impact on it. When I decided to choose this path, I stayed in Canada and set aside my dream to go on international studies to “discover the world.” Simply getting into a medical school close to home was quite competitive. Not to mention the financial burden it would have been to move out of my city to study for at least a decade before getting a degree and start earning a living. That was, if I was even able to get into a program, survive far from my family, and complete it successfully. I was a dreamer then, and… I still am.
When I learned about the opportunity to go get additional training in the field of my chosen sub-specialty at a top-notch institution in the United States, suddenly, my old childhood dream got electroshocked back to life. With a bit of luck, and a lot of work, I got the chance to participate in the ECFMG J-1 sponsorship program for exchange visitor physicians. I was accepted as a fellow at the Kleinert Hand Institute.
How to summarize this experience? Another line on my CV? Literally. But a line representing a whole year that really sharpened who I am. I was so lucky to be thrown out of my comfort zone, to be let to my own devices to test myself against an unknown world and discover what I was capable of, what I was made of. The life lessons I learned there were invaluable. The teachers, friends and mentors from all around the world whom I meet changed my life. The patients who let me step into their lives to help them were amazing. And among other experiences, I also stepped into a cadaver refrigerating room, and learned very fortunately that the door can be opened from the inside. But talk about “mortui vivos docent”…
I have never met Dr. Kleinert. Except through the amazing team he has built. How is it that this man was able to set up such a great institute in the middle of a rural area and gather people from all over the world, experts and dedicated health professional in a very specific field of surgery? How is it that this man whom I have never meet has such an influence on me and my dreams, although he rested his scalpel a long time ago?
When I finished my U.S. training and came back home to Canada, I asked myself: what did I want to do? Would I want to go back to my hometown, work in a university center? That was my initial set path. However, after my experience, I realized that it might not be my dream path. What about going to another city, in a more rural area and trying to set up my hand surgery practice there, to inspire people and build a great team around me, to provide the best care like I learned about? What about letting myself be inspired by the reality I saw and lived through, to see if I can set up my own dream in reality? What was my dream? Can I still dream high and achieve it? Who am I? Where do I come from?
If I hadn’t been given the chance at the ECFMG exchange program, of going to be a fellow at the Kleinert Hand Institute to become a hand surgeon, to live and feel how someone was able to make his dream a reality that survives even his own passing away, who would I be today? Would I still be a dreamer? Would I have been given the tools to make my dreams a reality?
After training, when I started at my new work place, I was again asked those famous questions: “Hello, who are you, where do you come from?”
Now I can offer my hand with a bit more firmness, hold my head a bit higher and kindly take an offered hand: “Hello, I’m a dreamer hand surgeon and I have come to realize my dreams. Will you help me do so with your helpful hand?”