How a future first-generation surgeon carries her parents’ strength and courage
By Scarlett Tohme
I am a native New Yorker, in one of the truest senses of the label—I am a daughter of immigrants. I grew up in Bay Ridge Brooklyn and Staten Island and studied and worked in the “city” (Manhattan). Everyday, I am surrounded by the beautiful language and culture of my parents at home and the vibrant neighborhoods of NYC outside of it-from listening to the angelic voice of Fairouz on the cassette player and eating my favorite Syrian foods like manaeesh and kibbeh bil sanieh, to learning about the lives of New Yorkers from Richmond Town to Washington Heights. I am a first generation Syrian-American, navigating my life with different cultures and learning how to interconnect my parents’ heritage with the heritage that I am creating of my own.
There were of course challenges for my family as I moved along my path towards adulthood, common for many first-generation individuals. I have always been passionate about science, and I must give credit to my parents for instilling in me the curiosity and respect for how the universe functions. My parents came from difficult conditions in Syria, where education was not the priority. Despite hardships and obstacles, they were determined to complete their degrees—my mother would hide in the bathroom to study and worked two jobs to help pay for her books and supplies for college; my father, having been pulled from school to work with his father, would stay up all night after working all day at my grandfather’s shop to study to finish his baccalaureate degree. Their determination and strength to reach their goal of receiving an education and to devote their lives to ensuring that their children have better lives than they did has had an incredible impact on my own perseverance and inspiration to achieve my goals.
My decision to become a physician came from that energy my parents gave to me to go out into the world and apply my interests, curiosities, and passions in the service of others. They gave me the fuel to push through the challenges that I have faced over the past decade and to never give up so that I can reach my goals. I had never thought that I would be sitting here today, interviewing for general surgery residency programs, and only months away from becoming a doctor. I will be the first surgeon and first physician in my entire family, and I have been able to reach this incredible accomplishment because of my parents, despite their not having experienced first-hand the various institutional systems in the US. Their courage to give up everything they knew in Syria in order to start over in New York is the same courage that I have to step outside my comfort zone to find the resources and opportunities to realize my dreams and support others to reach new potentials. They have also taught me the compassion and empathy that has helped me to go out in my communities in NYC and welcome all backgrounds and philosophies with open arms.
As I continue on my path towards becoming an empowered first-generation female surgeon, I hope to take the influence that my parents have imparted on me, as well as the ideas and perspectives on life in every corner of my city, to give back to the communities that have raised me. I have had the privilege to gain knowledge about human disease. Now with the humbleness and appreciation for the life provided to me by my parents, I hope to be the best surgeon I can be where I can use the skills that I gain to provide more effective, efficient, and affordable healthcare to all. I also hope to be a mentor, paying it forward for future first generation and underrepresented surgeons. All of this I give to my parents, and I hope I can show them one day the impact they have had on their communities in NYC and on the future of medicine.
Scarlett Tohme is a fourth-year medical student at New York Medical College (NYMC) and is currently a surgery resident applicant, hoping to pursue a cardiothoracic surgery career. She was born on Staten Island and has grown up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and on Staten Island, going to high school at Staten Island Technical High School. She completed her BA in biology at Columbia University in the City of New York in 2014 and completed her MS in physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University in Washington DC in 2016. Before medical school, Scarlett spent time as a clinical associate in a private plastic surgery practice in Manhattan, NY, and as a medical assistant in a private orthopedic surgery practice on Staten Island. During medical school, Scarlett has been heavily involved in clinical research particularly in pediatric cardiac surgery, adult cardiac surgery and trauma surgery. She has been a member of NYMC’s SOM Student Senate, of which she is currently the Vice President of the Senate. Along with her classmates and AWS members, Nainisha Chintalapudi and Kendall Post, she has co-founded the NYMC chapter of AWS in 2020. During her free time, Scarlett likes to kickbox, play piano, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and spend quality time with her parents and younger brother, Gil, who is currently a freshman at Boston University School of Engineering. You can find her on Instagram: @_scar.latte and Twitter @scarlett.tohme
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