By Ekaterine Piccola
Training Program Liaison, Mount Sinai Health System
I first planted my tired feet on US soil in August, 2003. After 12 hours in the air, when I breathed in the humid and intriguingly unfamiliar air outside of Washington Dulles International Airport, I knew that I was in for an adventure of a lifetime. My country, Georgia, was far behind me.
I started out as a new J-1 exchange student at New York University (NYU) in September, 2003. I experienced a multitude of emotions – I simultaneously felt happy, privileged, overwhelmed, and anxious. I realized that I was on my own and for the first time, I had only myself to rely on. The first few weeks were a whirlwind as I was eagerly trying to find a place to live in New York City, navigate through the subway system (mainly figuring out the difference between uptown or downtown, and trying to hear announcements against the noise of a rapidly passing express train), register for all the correct classes for my graduate program, and comply with the J-1 visa requirements. Along the way, I made some new friends who are now friends for life. Also, the support I received from the international office was crucial to my survival and future success.
When I first meet with our newly arrived J-1 Physicians, about to start their residency and fellowship programs at Mount Sinai Health System, I fondly relive my memorable experiences and intuitively know what they are experiencing. I feel honored to be a part of their excitement and am ready to assist them on their new journey. Having lived through an experience similar to theirs, I am able to offer them empathetic advice and every now and then I get to speak my native language!
My first job in the United States was with New School University’s Office of International Students and Scholars. I had the privilege of working with brilliant minds who came to the US from other countries to learn, train, grow academically, professionally and personally. The experience of living and working in another country, especially in a place like New York City, makes you not only a more competitive professional but a more broad-minded and courageous person.
Today I am the Training Program Liaison (TPL) for ECFMG-sponsored J-1 Physicians training at Mount Sinai in New York City. It has been one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences of my professional career. As I work with our J-1 physicians, to whom I fondly and routinely refer to as “my people,” I try to make sure that their experience as International Medical Graduates is smooth and rich at the same time. I want them to take full advantage of the finest medical tutelage Mount Sinai’s multiple residency and fellowship programs have to offer. I also urge them to have a robust cultural and wellness experience through the wide variety of recreational and wellness initiatives provided by Mount Sinai, such as discounted tickets for Broadway shows and major sporting events, free Pilates and yoga programs, mindfulness and stress reduction classes, and healthy cooking demonstrations.
While many of my work days during the high peak season are busy and often stressful, seeing the relieved smiles, receiving thank you emails and phone calls makes it all worthwhile. I commend our J-1 trainees for their accomplishments, past and present. They are intelligent, resilient, and visionary medical professionals. Their efforts bring promise to the ever evolving landscape and delivery of patient care. Many come to the US with dreams of returning to their home countries to improve their own healthcare systems and ignite future generations to forge forward. The Exchange Visitor experience changes you forever. I am honored that I am a part of their important milestones.