Don’t Let Anyone Steal Your Dream
"Your ability to believe is the most powerful weapon you have. It could be your best ally or worst enemy, and most of the time it will define who you will become, so use it well."
By: Nimer Adeeb Abu Shihab
I was born and raised in Nablus and graduated high school from Al-Islamiya School in 2007. One of the hardest decisions for young high school graduates is what to study in college. I was always interested in computer science and software engineering, but I was also fascinated by the human body and especially the nervous system, which we briefly studied during high school. After discussions with my family and parents, I decided to go to medical school at An-Najah National University.
During the first year of medical school, I gradually grew more interested in Medicine, primarily due to my basic sciences professors including Dr. Husni Maqboul, Dr. Ghassan Abuhijla and Dr. Anwar Dudin. In the first and second years, I used to complement my basic medical education by volunteering in the emergency departments at Rafidia and Al-Watani hospitals, which are two of the main government hospitals in Palestine, treating the majority of patients in Nablus. Volunteering at these hospitals allowed me to have a direct interaction with patients for the first time, helped me understand the importance of the basic sciences we study, and made me realize how much more needs to be done to help those patients further.
In the second year of medical school, I decided I wanted to pursue studying neurosurgery in the United States. This decision came from the fact that we are very short on neurosurgeons in Palestine and many patients have to wait too long to be transferred somewhere else for treatment, many times too late. Moreover, the United States is known to have one of the most well-structured residency training programs in the world. At that time though, I didn’t know much about specializing in the USA, so I started reading more about it trying to figure out what needs to be done to get there. Around that time, there was a big myth that you cannot get into any surgical specialty in the USA, definitely not neurosurgery, if you are a foreign graduate. No one knew how that myth started, but students believed it and medical students who wanted to complete those specialties had to go to other countries or stay in Palestine. One of the things I learned from my parents is to never listen to what people say is impossible and always try for myself. So with more encouragement from my parents and family, especially my aunt Dr. Suad Abushehab, I decided to proceed towards studying Neurosurgery in the United States.
By reading more about it, the things that I had to do to get into a competitive residency in the U.S. were to work on research, do elective rotations, score high on the American Licensure exams (USMLE) and build strong connections in the U.S. As you can imagine, for a second-year medical student in Palestine with no connections in the USA that sounded hard, but it was too early to give up on. So, during my third year of medical school, I started applying for research opportunities in the United States. I applied to many centers but with no positive reply, so I decided to improve my research skills and knowledge at my school with the help of the late Dr. Ayman Hussein.
After my fourth year of medical school, which was my first clinical year, I started applying for a clinical rotation. I thought that now I have some clinical knowledge, more research experience, and thus; a decent Curriculum Vitae. I contacted almost all the Neurosurgical centers in the U.S., but most of them would either not accept international students or required Step 1 of the USMLE exams. Eventually with the help of Dr. Mohamad Zahid, I got an elective rotation at the University of Alabama Birmingham to do neurology and pediatric neurosurgery rotations. I was beyond excited yet nervous to be in that new environment far away from home. However, I decided to work as hard as I possibly could to prove that we are as good or even better compared to their own medical students. Therefore, I would spend most of my day at the hospital from early in the morning to late at night, seeing patients and reading about them before morning rounds, be there for clinic, and participate in surgeries. Some of the Neurosurgeons I met during that rotation would later become my close friends and supported me a lot during my career. It was them who also helped me get my first peer-reviewed paper in Neurosurgery published, seven years ago. They also agreed to collaborate with them when I went back to medical school for my fifth year. This collaboration allowed me to have more than 15 published peer-reviewed papers by the time I graduated medical school. After my fifth year of medical school I did three more elective rotations in neurosurgery in the U.S. One of those rotations was at Johns Hopkins University which usually does not accept international medical students, but they made an exception for me after some help from mentors I met the year prior. With each rotation I did, my passion for neurosurgery increased, and I realized how much technology we lack back in Palestine and the amount of help I can provide to my people after doing a residency in the U.S.
During my medical education, I also used to volunteer with the International Federation of Medical Students’ Association (IFMSA), and I later became the president of the association at my University. We completed several healthcare awareness campaigns, student exchange programs, refugee healthcare camps, and research advancement projects. I also studied French for 2 years at the French Cultural Center in Nablus. What allowed me to do all those activities during medical school was good time management and the fact that I never focused on competing with other students, but only with myself. I decided to always be a better version of myself., and This allowed me to balance my medical education with volunteering, self-improvement and working on my residency. I also managed to receive a scholarship of excellence during all my years at medical school.
After graduating from medical school, I did my intern year in Nablus, during which I completed the USMLE exams, which allowed me to pursue a residency in the U.S. I was then offered a position as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in December, 2014. That was my first time moving out of my home for such a long period of time. I slowly overcame the initial homesickness and the stress of coping with a new culture. I learned more about Neurosurgery practice, published more research papers and book chapters, and developed strong connections in the field. I also filed a patent for a medical tool in collaboration with the Palestinian Businessman, Mr. Muhanad Jadallah, who has always been a big supporter for innovative Palestinian youth.
Due to the research work I did up to that point, in addition to the medical patent and with support from my mentors and Mr. Muhanad Jadallah I was awarded a Green Card by the United States Government under the category of ‘Exceptional Abilities in the National Interest’. An honor that is only offered to people with contributions that are believed to benefit the country. This great honor helped me move more freely in the U.S. and encouraged me to achieve more.
I was later accepted to do a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for one year at Harvard Medical School in Boston to study the treatment of cerebral aneurysms using flow diversion stents. I remember how hard it was to leave the people who became my new family in Los Angeles and move to a completely new environment in Boston, meeting new friends and living a new adventure. During that year we made significant contributions to the cerebrovascular literature through research papers, many of which helped advance the field of Neurosurgeryby improving outcome and reducing complication rates. We also published eponymous classification systems, including the Adeeb et al. Classification of Cerebral Bifurcation Aneurysms, which helped select the most appropriate treatment strategy for different classes of those aneurysms, and was published in the journal Neurosurgery. I presented my work at several national and international conferences.
Around that time, I developed a medical software startup called MedSolace in collaboration with Mr. Muhanad Jadallah. The goal of the application was to allow patients around the country to upload, access and share their diagnostic images and lab results with healthcare providers with no limitations. We are also working on applying the system in the Middle East where patients can also get a second opinion from experts in the U.S. and other countries without having to leave their houses.
At the end of 2016, I applied for Neurosurgery residency in the U.S. and I was accepted as a resident at the Department of Neurosurgery at Louisiana State University Hospital, marking a new milestone in my career. By the end of my second year of residency I had published around 100 Peer-reviewed papers and book chapters in the field of Neurosurgery, which were cited over 600 times and won 4 national and international awards for best scientific research. I also serve as an Editor and reviewer for several journals in the field of Neurosurgery including Neurosurgery and World Neurosurgery, having reviewed more than 110 publications.
Forexample, I was newly appointed as a Section Editor for Vascular and Endovascular for the World Neurosurgery Journal, official journal of World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies.
After I finish my current residency my goal is to move back to Palestine and apply the knowledge and expertise I am acquiring here to serve my country and people in Palestine. I can hopefully work hand-in-hand with the doctors and surgeons there to reduce the need for patients’ transfer, and add a whole new scope of surgeries that can be performed and improve outcomes.
My advice to the next generation of medical students and youth in general:
- Don’t let anyone steal your dream. The idea of doing any surgical residency in the U.S. was considered impossible, let alone neurosurgery yet in reality it is very attainable. Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot do something.
- At no point in my career did I ever had a Plan B. I believe that if you have a second plan or option you will never stick to your plan A.
- Never ever give up. As long as you keep getting up then you have not failed. Not a single stage in my career was easy to get to, nor I believe it was supposed to. I had too many setbacks along the way and still do. Those I would call learning points rather than failures, only because I kept going forward. We all are going to have many of them, some are harder than others but they all will shape the person that you will become.
- The time you spend in medical school is too long for you to only come out with a certificate. Don’t spend your time competing with other students deviating yourself from your main goal. You should rather work on what will improve your future and get your dream residency.
- Always work on building more connections early on during your study and afterword, as those connections will play big roles in your future career. Don’t ever be afraid of reaching out to people even if you get rejected, as none of us would ever have achieved anything without the help of many others.