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Salma Patel, M.D.’s journey from Tanzania to Iowa, Arizona and Rochester

salma patel

Salma Patel, M.D.

Editor’s note: Her father’s passing threw her family into financial devastation. Bucking tradition and her mother’s wishes, Salma Patel, M.D. (I’ 16), a resident in Rochester, traveled to the U.S. from Tanzania with $500 in her pocket. That money was to cover her room, board and tuition at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Through hard work, resilience and determination, and several careers that spanned 13 years at Mayo Clinic, she grew to be what she had always dreamed of: a physician who treats patients with kindness and humility. Dr. Patel shares her story below.

I came to the U.S. in January 2002 to attend Luther College when I was 16 years of age. It had been three years since my father passed away.

We were living in Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania. My widowed mother could not afford to raise me financially, and we went hungry many days. I began working after school to help support my household. Thankfully, we had a place to live. It also was easy for me to wear my older clothes on an ongoing basis, as I only lost weight with time, and we took great care of the little we had.

My mother wanted me to get married so as to ease the financial burden.

The few marriage-related suitors I had met prior to leaving the country made it very clear — in a nice way — that marriage would mean quitting school and becoming a homemaker or helping with their family business. I was not ready to give up on my education and future. I would also be possibly financially abandoning my very poor mother if I did this.

I began to dream of becoming something more someday: a physician. I had skipped a few grades in high school due to good grades and tested out relatively well when it came to college entry requirements for the U.S. — SATs, Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

The $500 in my pocket to pay for tuition, room and board was not easy to pull together. My mother, brother and sister looked into their own savings — which were practically nonexistent — and gave me as much as they could. We then begged all our relatives, friends, bosses and co-workers to contribute some money for my travelling and school expenses. Some would give 3,000 shillings (about $3) and others 50,000 shillings (about $50). This is how I ended up with the plane ticket and $500 for my remaining expenses in the U.S.

I applied to colleges all over the world and went to the one that gave me the most financial aid. I was lucky that I ended up at Luther, which is such a good college.

I worked about four jobs at a time most of the time while I was in school. I don’t know when I slept or studied. The jobs ranged from washing dishes in the college cafeteria and cleaning dorm rooms for custodial services to working as a nursing assistant at the local nursing home or an emergency room unit clerk at the local hospital.

At Luther, I was a nursing major working multiple jobs to make ends meet. I would eat once a day to save money for tuition. Without parental or family support, it was not an easy ride in a foreign land and a new culture.

I majored in nursing, because I knew being a nurse could guarantee me a job upon graduation. I would still be caring for patients and in health care. It was imperative that I had a job after graduation, as I needed to continue to send money home to support my mother’s household.

“The physicians here have always portrayed the ideal physician that I would want to be, where the best interests of the patients are the only interests considered — one who treats the patients with kindness and humility.” – Salma Patel, M.D.

The Luther College nursing program is affiliated with Mayo Clinic, and we moved to Rochester from Decorah for a year to rotate through the different subspecialties as nursing students. I knew I wanted to stay within the system, as the model of patient care here lined up well with my own beliefs.

My exposure to the hospital, clinic and nursing home as a nursing student further reinforced my plans to eventually become a physician.

I was a nurse extern at Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus in 2005. I had been touched by the people who worked at Mayo Clinic and knew that I wanted to work for Mayo Clinic once I was done with nursing school. As soon as I graduated from nursing school, I worked for Mayo as a critical care nurse in Arizona and then as a clinical research coordinator from January 2006 through June 2013. During this time, I also was taking premedical courses at Arizona State University and then in medical school from the summer of 2009 at the University of Arizona.

I graduated from the University of Arizona Medical School with an M.D./M.P.H. and, in June 2013, transitioned from my role as a nurse to a resident physician on the Arizona campus. I am now completing my sleep medicine fellowship at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus.

I have had many excellent mentors over the years at the Mayo Clinic in my premedical and medical years, and wouldn’t be here today were it not for them. I would especially like to thank the following for their kindness and support over the years: Mohamed Rady, M.B., B.Chir., M.D.; Alyssa Chapital, M.D., Ph.D.; Fadi Shamoun, M.D.; Maria Aguilar, M.D.; Bart Demaerschalk, M.D.; Erica Boyd; Karen Swanson, D.O.; and Julie Sekella (no longer at Mayo).

I also would not be pursuing my career in sleep medicine were it not for the following sleep medicine physicians: Lois Krahn, M.D., Philip Lyng, M.D., and James Parish, M.D.

My husband, Imran, family and friends also have been personal cheerleaders and supporters throughout the process.

The staff and physicians at Mayo Clinic inspired me to pursue medicine. The physicians here have always portrayed the ideal physician that I would want to be where the best interests of the patients are the only interests considered — one who treats the patients with kindness and humility.

I strive for academic and clinical excellence every day because of what I have seen here. I simply want to thank the Mayo Clinic community for supporting my career development and making me the physician that I am today.

I am thankful to Mayo Clinic for the inspiration and guidance. The facility and people here have grown to be my family.

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