By Dr. Ahmad Khan
Living the “American Dream” was a phrase I heard a lot while growing up because many of my relatives were settled in the USA. During medical school, I had made up my mind to pursue psychiatry as a preferred specialty. After making a thorough comparison of psychiatry training in Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the USA, I decided to aim for training in the United States.
I landed at JFK Airport on a cold January morning and was enthralled by the beauty of New York City (NYC). I was somewhat familiar with a few U.S. cultural traditions like Thanksgiving and Christmas, etc., courtesy of Hollywood movies and U.S. TV shows. After arriving in New York, I quickly learned about so many new things. For instance, I learned that football isn’t soccer, the Super Bowl is one of the biggest events of the year, and Black Friday and Cyber Monday are major events, to name just a few.
I spent a lot of time in the “Big Apple” and Oklahoma City doing pre-residency clinical rotations. During my time in these two U.S. cities, I became familiar with many U.S. traditions. I also had the pleasure of visiting more than 15 U.S. states during my interview trail. Eventually, I matched to the University of North Dakota School of Medicine’s psychiatry residency.
Moving to Fargo marked a new cultural transition. I was pleasantly surprised by the city and its beautiful people. ECFMG and my residency program supported my transition. I was amazed to see so many Pakistani people, Halal restaurants, and a big Islamic center in Fargo. My family and I survived the extreme winters, with its brutal wind chills and heavy snow, with the warmth of affection shown by North Dakotans.
I made so many good friends in my residency programs, people from all ethnicities. We were invited to Thanksgiving dinners, Halloween parties, Christmas dinners, etc. We had resident retreats at state parks, lake houses, and bowling alleys. We enjoyed participating in our friends’ bridal and baby showers, which made us feel at home. I am super lucky that my wife also matched at the same residency program, and we were blessed with two little girls.
Everything was going great, and I felt like I was living “The American Dream” until the rampant COVID-19 pandemic hit. It changed everything for us. Initially, it felt like a bad dream. Part of me thought that I would wake up, and everything will be back to normal. But it wasn’t. I was afraid of catching it, and even more so, transmitting it to my patients and family.
My residency program rose to the occasion, made our didactics virtual, paused our outreach clinics, and started e-visits for the on-site clinics. After initial hiccups of mask shortages, we got all the personal protective equipment (PPE) we needed in abundance. With the onset of COVID-19, my fight and flight response kicked in, which helped me power through the initial four to five months, but then I felt like I was running out of gas. We were not able to travel, have restaurant dinners, gatherings, etc. There was a lot of frustration, anger, exasperation, and the most worrisome of all, hopelessness.
One day on the weekend, as I was pondering the situation, a thought struck me. My father always taught me that “in the most difficult of times, people who survive are the ones who fight together.” It also reminded me of Liverpool Football Club’s slogan, “You’ll never walk alone.” I discussed this with a few of my colleagues, and we started working on a Resident Wellness Program. We sent out a questionnaire to the internal medicine, family medicine, surgery, and psychiatry residents and got an overwhelming response in favor of having such a program. It brought some much-needed positivity back to my life.
In late December 2020, we heard the news of vaccine approval, which was like winning a million-dollar lottery. I was fortunate to receive the vaccination within a week of its authorization. It was incredible to me that I, an international medical graduate (IMG) on a training visa, was able to get the vaccination before the U.S. President and Vice President. I was grateful for the honesty and equitability of the U.S. vaccine distribution.
ECFMG assisted IMGs throughout this ordeal via emails, providing helpful resources and support. I would have never managed to fight through the virulence of this pandemic without the support from my family, friends, residency program, and ECFMG. As an IMG, I have really enjoyed my time in the USA. I started this journey with an empty apartment and an air mattress and now I have a beautiful house and two children.