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Engineering Medicine Inside Out

By Dr. Wail Yar

I grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, thousands of miles away in the Middle East. I went to high school with a dream that I would become a petroleum engineer. I never thought that I would be a physician; I was scared from seeing blood, and I was afraid to touch a patient. When I graduated from high school, I applied to the best scholarship program in the country, and I got accepted to study petroleum engineering abroad. At the same time, I applied to King Abdulaziz University College of Medicine in Saudi Arabia, because it is one of the best schools in the country. I applied, not because I was forced to do so by my family, but I did it to prove that I could be a doctor, although at that time I didn’t want to be one.

I had made up my mind to pursue the degree in petroleum engineering abroad, and packed my stuff to go. I remember how sad and silent my mom was, how her child, who was only 18, would leave the country in a few days. I slept that night and kept thinking about the idea of leaving home. First thing next morning, I accepted my offer of admission to the Saudi Arabian medical school.  I was confident that this field would bring out the ultimate engineering side of me.

I was always fascinated by math and computers. I loved technology and web development. I built my first website when I was 10 years old. Having this interest in mind, choosing a specialty in medicine was hard for me, since I never thought I would be a doctor. I connected deeply with my passion for technology during medical school. I was lucky to be able to build a website that saved hundreds of people during the flooding in my hometown in 2010. During my fourth year in medical school, I created a website called Askdr.com which helped more than 15 million Arabic-speaking users with free online medical consultations. In 2014, I created CoronaMap.com with my friends, a real-time tracking system of MERS Coronavirus on a map, which was used by thousands of scientists and researchers to study the virus spread around the world. At that time, I realized my passion for technology, combined with medicine, can be what takes me to the next level in my career.

PGY-1 Family Medicine Residency Picture at University Hospitals/Case Western Reserve University.

After I finished medical school, I decided to leave home at that time and again, I applied for a scholarship to study abroad. I pursued a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Then, I wanted to learn the primary care system in the United States, and I was ready to directly and personally help patients as a physician. I decided to do the USMLE while I was doing my master’s, so I could get accepted into a family medicine residency program.

In 2017, I was fortunate to be one of the first international medical graduates (IMGs) to match to the combined Family and Preventive Medicine residency at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. It helped me to become a primary care physician with disease prevention in mind. I also had the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. degree in Health Informatics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Thanks to my directors, mentors, and advisors who believed in me and my passion.

The family medicine residents retreat day in 2019.
A picnic with my wife and friends during the family medicine residency.

Being an intern in a US residency is not easy, especially at a family medicine program. It’s as if it is the first of July with every new rotation, since you are the intern who rotates with almost every department in the hospital. Being an IMG, who recently moved to the US, and being with every department in the hospital was one of the most difficult challenges in my life. With my beloved wife’s support, and our amazing kids, I was able to make it. I also was surrounded by great mentors, faculty, and friends who were always beside me during my journey.

While swabbing COVID-19 suspected cases in the community as a part of cluster investigation.

At the end of my second year of residency, I decided to invite my class with their families over to dinner at my apartment. It was the moment that I realized that, although there are only 8 residents in the class including me, we represented at least 6 religions, 5 languages, and different dietary restrictions. I planned for the dinner to be authentic Middle Eastern cuisine, but it was challenging since I needed to accommodate all their dietary needs. I had to make sure that the food contained Kosher, Halal, vegan, nut-free, gluten-free, dairy-free food with non-caffeinated beverages, and non-alcohol drinks. In the end, it worked and everyone was happy with how Middle Eastern cuisine could accommodate their dietary restrictions.

Being in training during the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most unique experiences I had in the US. As a preventive medicine resident, I joined my colleagues working at the county department of health with the public health response team. I helped with contact tracing of COVID-19 positive cases. Furthermore, through cluster investigation, I used my cultural background to help immigrants deal with the emerging pandemic at that time. Again, this was a huge opportunity for me to blend with the community and support it the best way I could.

My kids: Lara, the new baby Aser, and Elyas.

My wife, who is a Ph.D. candidate, and I were expecting our third child in early April when the stay-at-home order was in place. We welcomed our baby with our masks on, at one of the busiest hospitals in the city for COVID-19 cases, and visitors were not allowed. After we had our baby, everyone was worried because they were unable to visit and help due to the pandemic. But my wife’s mentor, who is a nephrologist, was there—dropping food enough for a week, toys, plants, making face masks for our whole family, and reading stories to our kids remotely. Also, her professors and our neighbors dropped off food throughout the rest of the month. The support we had was the only way my wife was holding up through such a difficult time. Although our families couldn’t be here, this community made us feel at home in Cleveland.

Five years ago, I decided to come to the US to get a better learning experience and high-quality training. During these years I realized that what makes education and training in the US unique is the diversity and inclusions within the community. Accepting your colleagues when you know that they came from a different country, culture, language, and beliefs, is what makes this country’s social fabric outstanding and exceptional.

To the following people, I would like to give my heartfelt thanks, for opening my eyes to new stages of opportunity and strength. You have been the great teachers, leaders, and friends who have inspired, mentored, supported, and believed in me to help me become who I am today. I will forever be grateful for your guidance and kindness:

    • My wife, Bushra Alghamdi
    • My director, Dr. Johnie Rose
    • My role model, Dr. Heidi Gullett
    • My mentor, Dr. Wesam Abuznadah
    • My teacher, Dr. Masahiro Morikawa
    • My advisor, Dr. David Lodowski
    • And to our family mentor and supporter, Dr. Marcia Silver