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“It’s a long way from where I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, to the dining room in Vice President Joe Biden’s home at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Yet that’s where I found myself one day last December, along with a handful of other cancer specialists. I’m convinced that my perspective on medicine as an immigrant is what ultimately got me to the table.
Early in my career as an oncologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., I treated a woman who was terminally ill with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). As her disease progressed, I watched her struggle to write letters for her 2-year-old twin daughters. She wanted them to read a letter from her on each of their birthdays until they turned 21. She died before she got to the ones for their 13th birthday.
That experience nearly broke my heart. It also suddenly clarified the purpose of my career. I realized that we needed a more comprehensive understanding of her disease. I needed to learn how pre-leukemia develops into leukemia, how it continues to evolve, and how it can be treated.
Had I received my scientific training in the United States, my immediate instinct probably would have been to develop a sophisticated mouse model to work on each of those steps. But because I was educated in Pakistan, I thought about taking a simpler approach — examining the cells of patients with myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), an early-stage version of leukemia.
The leader of the group gathered at Vice President Biden’s home that day was another immigrant, Dr. Patrick Soon Shiong, a South African-born, Chinese-American surgical oncologist. He developed a way to transplant human islet cells to treat type 1 diabetes, performed the world’s first encapsulated human-to-human and pig-to-human islet transplants, and the first full pancreas transplant on the West Coast. Thanks to this immigrant’s development of the drug Abraxane, the first FDA-approved chemotherapy agent based on nanotechnology, the lives of thousands of patients with breast, pancreatic, and lung cancers are being prolonged.
Many immigrants have brought their unique talents to serve their new country by fighting cancer as healers and researchers. A 2013 study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that 42% of the researchers at the top seven cancer research centers across the country were foreign born. According to a recent study published by George Mason University, immigrants make up 28% of all physicians and surgeons in this country.
My parents chose to live in Pakistan but encouraged all seven of their children to immigrate to the United States in search of higher education. We were brought up to believe that it would equip us with the means of contributing to the knowledge of this world. My parents were deeply moved by the welcome their children received in their new homeland, a place where merit was recognized and rewarded regardless of race or color or religion.
My older brother is a cardiac surgeon, my older sister trained as a pediatric oncologist, and my younger sister is a radiologist and breast imaging expert. Another sister has a PhD in international relations, a brother is a professor of aerospace engineering, and my youngest brother is an electrical engineer.
We are Muslims, we are immigrants, and we are enriching, prolonging, and saving American lives. We are just seven of the many immigrants, from many lands, of many faiths, who are — and have always been — an essential part of America’s strength. We are hard workers, people with big ideas and big dreams, believers in this great country and our shared responsibility to make it even better for all of us.”
Azra, MD, is a medical oncologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, director of the MDS Center at Columbia University, and professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. Azra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story first appeared on the Statnews website. Read the full story here.