How an Arab American Made It to a Surgical Residency

19 Apr 2023

By Shadin Ghabra, MD

As an Arab-American female of Syrian descent, who lived in the Middle East, applying to medical school was a no brainer. I grew up in a household that believed knowledge is the essence of female empowerment and strength. I had the full support of my family when I decided to go into general surgery. After applying to different programs, I was thrilled to find out I was accepted into the top residency of my choice. I believed that I would finish my surgical training in the Middle East, obtain my boards, and practice within the area. It wasn’t until the end of my PGY-4 that surgical oncology turned into this unmaintainable passion. It felt like the right fit, but no decision goes without consequences. Surgical oncology with all its complexity obviously required a fellowship. The fellowship that I was looking for was nowhere in the vicinity of the region I lived in. Although I am proud to say that I am the first female surgeon in my family, I felt as if my once ‘shiny and bright’ dream now looked very mediocre. Yes, I wanted more! Sometimes, dreams evolve, and that’s okay.

I was now at a crossroad to make the hardest decision that I have had to make in my adult life. Do I stay in my comfort zone, and finish my current residency, not pursuing a surgical oncology fellowship? Or do I move back to the US, knowing that this dream probably came at the price of repeating a general surgery residency? Were the decisions made to evolve my path too late in the game?

I completed my chief year and took my board exam. I resigned from my junior attending job that I had accepted and packed three large suitcases with all my possessions. Within six months of being a chief resident, I found myself in Houston, TX. I just started a new research job, had many unanswered questions, and with no idea how the future was going to unfold. What have I done? I had completely and utterly thrown myself into the unknown.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I knew that applying to a general surgery residency in the US was not going to be an easy task! Well, there had to have been something in my favor. I was, after all, an applicant who was fully trained. That had to be a good thing, right? But wait! I am a fully trained surgeon.

From my experience during interview season, that fact was a double-edged sword. I was an older applicant and an international medical graduate (IMG), nonetheless. It was constantly the elephant in the room during interviews, addressed over and over. Some interviewers were curious to understand my reason; others, doubtful of my ability to do it all over again. I stayed true to myself and soared across hardships, maintained honesty, and told the truth when asked. I did not and would not back down. 

Fast forward to the present after many sleepless nights, today I sit here writing this as an upcoming PGY-4 general surgery resident in the US who matched into her top choice. I am currently in a surgical oncology research fellowship, on my way to becoming the surgeon I envisioned myself to be. I am proud to be the first Hijab-wearing research fellow at my program. I never thought that life would take me on this journey, and I never knew that I would have been lucky enough to have my dream come true, not only once, but twice. This experience showed me that being brave comes in many shapes, and has without a doubt humbled me in many ways. Yes, the journey matters, but so does the destination! Courage is in all of us and will emerge when we need it to. To anyone reading this, continue to believe in yourself. It doesn’t matter where you start from. Dream big, and once you start believing in yourself, others will too. Have the courage to start from scratch, and from there, the possibilities are endless!


Shadin Ghabra is currently a Surgical Oncology research fellow at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD. Her research focuses on liver immunology and immunotherapy in hepatocellular carcinoma. She is a general surgery resident at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital/Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC. Shadin received her M.D degree from the University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. After graduation, she then completed an ACGME accredited 5-year general surgery training program obtaining the Arab Board of Health Specializations for General Surgery (ABHS-GS) from Tawam Hospital in affiliation with Johns Hopkins Medicine, Abu Dhabi, UAE. Shadin worked as a research fellow at Houston Methodist Hospital, division of Minimally Invasive Colon and Rectal Surgery in Houston, TX. She also completed a post graduate High-Impact Cancer Research program at Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.

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