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Persevering from Humble Beginnings to Cutting-edge Medicine

By Dr. Kumar Ashish

I grew up in a modest family in rural India, watching people in the underprivileged strata of the society suffer from diseases that could have been easily treated if they had access to state-of-the-art healthcare. Experiencing the devastating consequences of health issues firsthand left an indelible mark in my mind. That lasting impression and a lifelong fascination with science is what led to my passion and ambition for medicine.

I believe that curiosity is the spark behind knowledge. Since childhood, I have been inquisitive about science. I received a merit scholarship after admission to the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, a school for talented students from rural areas funded by the Central Government of India. In sixth grade, I made hydrogen gas using a zinc battery base and a diluted acid that we used for cleaning in India. I vividly remember the days when we didn’t have electricity in our village, and we used to study by kerosene-based lamp every evening. My fascination with science continued through high school; I discovered my predilection for biology while learning the complexities of the human body. I volunteered at several medical camps in deprived areas, which further nurtured my passion to become a doctor.

C3 Cardiology Conference 2019, Orlando, FL.

Though medicine was not a straight path for me, I chose this profession because I have always been altruistic. I find joy assisting those in need. I am reminded of the day I saw a blind man walking with a stick at the train station at Wayne, Pennsylvania. I held his hand and helped him reach the nearby cafe. We sat together and shared stories from our lives over coffee and bagels. When he said, “Thank you very much, I am sure you treat your patients with the same care you would show to your family,” I was overjoyed. I strongly believe in Mahatma Gandhi’s sentiment: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

When I was in 11th grade, my father had a hemorrhagic stroke leading to left-sided residual weakness. This awful incident left a terrible scar in my family. I am very close to my dad, and this experience motivated me to work even harder to achieve something good in life. After high school, I ranked in the top 0.3 percentile out of nearly 350,000 candidates in the All India Pre-Medical Test (analogous to MCAT). I secured a position in the prestigious R.G. Kar Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata, which is among the top 11 medical colleges in India and caters to a diverse population. While maintaining outstanding grades, I found myself drawn to internal medicine. After completing my 4th year of medical school, I began the compulsory one-year clinical rotation in India, which is similar to that of a PGY1 residency in the U.S. About halfway through that internship year, a friend convinced me to pursue graduate medical education in the U.S. I had never thought it would be possible for me, as I knew that the necessary USMLE tests and travel would require good financial support. Coming from a middle-class background, it would be tough for me. But once I set my mind to it, I never abandoned this new dream, as I have this stubbornness quality.

MD Anderson Cancer Center

After graduating from medical school, I moved to New Delhi to look for a job as a resident physician. I struggled the most during this time. I worked in New Delhi and saved money. Working in a hospital as a resident, while preparing for the USMLE steps, wasn’t easy. However, the inspiring world of evidence-based medicine, preventive screening strategies, cutting-edge technology, newer treatment modalities, and the progressive U.S. healthcare system persuaded me to travel halfway across the globe to pursue my dream. I passed my USMLE steps and received my ECFMG certification. Fortunately, I got a research trainee position for 6 months at MD Anderson Cancer Center, which was an unpaid position. I knew that I would have to save money so that I could survive in Houston, Texas for 6 months. So, I worked two jobs (110 hours/week) day and night in New Delhi for a few months to save enough money. Then I moved to Houston from New Delhi, and with the help of one of my medical school seniors I got a place at University of Texas (UT) Houston housing, which was cheap compared to other places for me. I shared a one bedroom apartment with a PhD research assistant at UT housing.

During my interview trail.

Finally, I applied for residency programs in September 2017 again, as this was my 2nd time applying for residency positions. I still remember how I didn’t have enough money to pay for my numerous residency applications, and the travel necessary for interviews. Maybe because of the good wishes from everyone, a few of my friends lent me 4-5 thousand dollars, which helped me tremendously. I remember traveling in a Greyhound bus for my interviews so that I could save money for my next interviews. The most interesting part of traveling by bus was meeting amazing and welcoming people. My family and friends all believed in me, which gave me immense strength and support.

COVID-19 pandemic, ICU days!

On “Match day” while eagerly waiting for the email, I was running in a park to divert my mind. The moment I received it in my inbox, I called my mom to inform her that I matched. I started crying over the phone. She said I know you sacrificed everything for this and we are so proud of you. Coming from a humble background and reaching this far was not easy, but I never abandoned my dreams. Rather, I pushed myself forward relentlessly against all adversities.

I am now pursuing internal medicine residency training in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. I have struggled a lot so far, but also enjoyed every moment of this roller coaster ride. I have not lived in my family home for the last 20 years, which is very strange and sometimes makes me wonder if it is worth it. This independent living has made me more strong and confident. I firmly believe; with perseverance and consistency you can achieve any ambitions. Last but not least, I have the best parents in the world. Everyone has their own struggle and journey. Hopefully with my pure intentions, I can make this world a better place.

“Success is not the final, failure is not the fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill