Upstate medical student’s journey to continue in Atlanta

SUNY Upstate College of Medicine

Upstate medical student Jamal Hajjari, left, holds up his Match Day letter Friday. Jamal was matched with his first choice, Emory University in Atlanta, in internal medicine. With Jamal are his wife, Lamiae, and their daughter, Rima.

Jamal Hajjari grew up in Morocco, the youngest of 12 children in a farming family. As a young man, he helped out on the farm and in his father’s construction business.

He was content doing so. But he always dreamed of becoming a doctor.

Jamal, 32, will graduate from Upstate Medical University in May. At Match Day today, he learned he will be going to Emory University in Atlanta for his residency in internal medicine.

Jamal’s path to the MD was anything but direct – or easy.

It took him several attempts before he was granted a visa; he left Morocco for the United States in 2003. One of his brothers had emigrated four years earlier to Rome, NY, so Jamal moved in with him.

The plan was for Jamal to learn English, earn money and continue pursuing his goal of medical school. While studying English, he delivered newspapers in the morning and worked in manufacturing in the afternoon.

He eventually enrolled in Onondaga Community College, earning an associate’s in Mathematics and Science – the first of several academic degrees he would earn.

At OCC, Jamal heard about Upstate’s programs and enrolled in 2006. He has since earned a bachelor’s degree in Medical Biotechnology and – after taking a year off to study for the MCATs — a master’s degree in Medical Technology. In two months, he can add MD after his name.

While studying at Upstate, Jamal worked part-time in a clinical pathology lab and conducted research in the vision lab of Barry Knox, PhD.

SUNY Upstate College of Medicine

Upstate medical student Jamal Hajjari graduated from our Medical Biotechnology and Medical Scholars programs. He was selected to the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society for medical students. Photo by William Mueller.

It was during that time that Jamal appreciated the connection between bench research and clinical applications. He knew he was on the right track. “This is what I want to do,” he told himself. “This is what I am. I am a problem solver.”

Jamal also was in Upstate’s Medical Scholars program, and is the first graduate of that 10-year-old program to be elected to the national medical honor society, Alpha Omega Alpha. Jamal’s grades throughout medical school place him high in the ranks of the class of 2015.

In the Medical Scholars program, everything clicked for Jamal. “I understood every single piece. Classes were small, and I could ask detailed questions,” he said. “Without the Med Scholars program, I wouldn’t have achieved what I have.”

He is quick to add a comment reflecting his humility: “Everybody should get the credit,” he said. “I’m just driving the road that was paved for me.”

Today’s national Match Day revealed that the road is taking him to Emory University, which was his first choice. Jamal will be joined by his wife, Lamiae, an aerospace engineer, and their one-year-old daughter Rima.

They attended today’s Match Day celebration, but the gathering for Commencement might be somewhat larger – Jamal’s parents will be here from Morocco, perhaps joined by several or his siblings.

Posted in College of Health Professions, College of Medicine, doctoral program, Medical Biotechnology program, Medical Technology program, Upstate | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off

Upstate students honor sickle cell patients, raise $4,250

SUNY Upstate sickle cell dinner

Student National Medical Association president Bilal Butt, Education Specialist Kristi Griffin, Dr. Richard Sills and SNMA members pose with honorees at the pediatric sickle cell disease fundraising dinner last month. Upstate students at far left, back row, are Minella Capili and Kethia Eliezer; at far right are Rosemarie Barker and Candace Hatten.

Upstate’s Student National Medical Association raised more than $4,200 last month for pediatric sickle cell patients, and honored four of our patients’ families at a dinner in the Campus Activities Building.

Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that affects red blood cells, primarily in African-Americans. It causes tissue damage and extreme pain, and can damage organs and compromise immune systems, especially in children. It can also lead to blindness, stroke and many other health problems.

Second-year medical student Bilal Butt, president of Upstate’s SNMA, said there are misconceptions about the disease in the medical community that lead to disparities in treatment and funding.

“Most patients are below the poverty line, which presents another barrier,” Bilal said. “It’s a major obstacle. Dr. (Richard) Sills is one of the few physicians who acknowledge the reality that race is a huge aspect in medicine, and the need to understand who the patient is.”

The SNMA dinner culminated the student group’s activities for the academic year. About 120 people attended, many of them medical students, Bilal said.

The SNMA works with Upstate’s Kristi Griffin, Education Specialist at the Waters Center for Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders, to raise awareness of sickle cell disease. Griffin, who has a special education background, advocates for pediatric sickle cell patients treated at Upstate.


Kristi Griffin, education specialist at the Waters Center for Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders, with two members of the honored families.

“Kristi needed to educate teachers in the city schools about sickle cell,” Bilal said. “A child may be acting up because of it, not just to cause trouble. Their bodies are doing something different.”

Griffin said there is a lack of awareness that extends beyond schools and hospitals to segments of the African-American community. She said her job is to share information about the disease and to chip away at the disparity in health care.

Griffin’s job takes her to schools, where she ensures the children receive the necessary accommodations to avoid a crisis.

Children with sickle cell, Griffin said, need to stay hydrated, avoid temperature extremes and limit exposure to the sun. They can participate in physical education, but need to be monitored to make sure they don’t overheat. They can become fatigued and may need to go to the nurse’s office to rest.

“Every patient is different,” Griffin said. “No two patients have exactly the same psycho-social qualities. That makes them unique, and they need to be treated that way. They’re all individuals, and they’re human beings.”

Adults with sickle cell develop a tolerance for pain medicine, Griffin said, and may need stronger doses over time. That’s where misconceptions come into play, as shown in this Johns Hopkins University video.

As Bilal said, “An African-American male coming into the ER asking for opiates is not necessarily a drug addict. In the big picture, in all aspects of medicine, if we understand who our patients are and what they’re going through, we’ll be better doctors.”

Bilal, whose girlfriend Sarina Meikle was SNMA president at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine this year, said Upstate’s SNMA is in good hands for 2015-16.

“The incoming officers are motivated, will take our ideas and run with them,” he said. That will include continuing efforts related to sickle cell disease.

Posted in College of Medicine, Student National Medical Association, Student organizations, SUNY, Upstate, Upstate Cancer Center | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Drag show at Upstate raises funds for LGBT youth

SUNY Upstate

Upstate medical students perform a number during the Drag Show at the Campus Activities Building. Photos by William Mueller.

Last month’s inaugural “drag show” hosted by Upstate’s Campus Activities Governing Board and the LGBT student organization was such a success, it likely will return next year.

The show in the CAB featured about a dozen Upstate students performing musical numbers in drag, as well as a pair of national entertainers. It raised almost $1,570 for the Q Center at ACR Health, a Syracuse organization that provides a safe place for LGBTQ youth and their allies.

“It pushed people out of their comfort zones,” said MacKenzie Hall, one of the second-year medical student organizers and performers. “The money we raised was good, but we brought awareness. A lot of people didn’t know the Q Center existed.”

Max Norris, president of the campus LGBT club, also performed. For students, the show provided “a stance in solidarity and community,” Max said. “A lot of youth can feel uncomfortable and stay in the closet. On stage in drag, people put themselves in an uncomfortable position.”

SUNY Upstate

Campus Activities Governing Board vice president Whitney Kukol, left, with Brittany Gouse and Nick Runeare on stage during the Drag Show.

Macy VanArman said hosting the show on a medical school campus was significant. Prevailing societal views on gender identification caused at least one of the performers some pre-show unease, she said.

“This is nothing compared to what the LGBT community faces,” Macy said. “As future physicians, we need to be aware of the spectrum of gender and orientation. However you identify, it should not have an impact on how you are treated. If we’re aware of the spectrum, we can be better doctors.”

In addition to the importance of raising awareness, the student organizers said, the show also was a lot of fun.

“That’s my favorite thing about drag — it’s interactive,” Macy said. “It’s fun for the audience, because they get to be part of the show. They pulled people up on stage, including my boyfriend. The audience got to throw dollar bills on stage.”

Macy and MacKenzie also performed, in a duet.

“We’re both experienced performers,” MacKenzie said. “But this was the first time we dressed as guys. We had to adjust our mannerisms and learn how to walk like guys. That was harder than performing.”

And, she said, “We got to teach the guys how to walk in heels.”

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Upstate medical student is a published poet — again

SUNY Upstate

Upstate medical student Danielle Wallace enjoys reading physician memoirs and essays, especially by Atul Gawande, Abraham Verghese and Brendan Reilly. “Any form of creative writing can be so important as an outlet for everything, good and bad, that people in the medical community experience,” she says. Danielle plans on going into Internal Medicine, probably primary care.

Third-year Upstate medical student Danielle Wallace’s poem, “Malignancy of the Mind,” was selected for the March 3 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Danielle, an Elmira native spending this year at our clinical campus in Binghamton, said the poem was inspired by a patient she saw during her Internal Medicine clerkship. Danielle said she was able to spend a significant time with him, allowing her to develop a nuanced diagnosis that was not apparent at first.

“I spent a lot of time getting to know one particular patient who was admitted for a COPD exacerbation but was very, very sick looking,” Danielle said. “So it was kind of presumed that he must have some sort of cancer due to extensive smoking. It was also assumed that he was constantly itching his head because he had an infection or dermatological condition even though the work-up had been negative to that point.”

When Danielle saw him over the course of several days, she got the impression that his “itching” was an anxious habit. The patient also told her he had no interest in eating.

Danielle conducted a geriatric depression screen, which led the man to reveal details about his past that were causing depression and anxiety.

“He apparently had never told anyone before about his history, so we were able to start him on an anti-depressant,” Danielle said.

Without the structure that allowed her to focus on one patient and build a relationship, Danielle said she never would have gotten the man’s history. “I recognized how negatively the time crunch of inpatient medicine could impact outcomes,” she said. “I was frustrated, so I wrote about it and submitted it on a whim to JAMA.”

Danielle said she had an excellent English teacher at Elmira Notre Dame High School, Anthony Pucci, who exposed her to good poetry and edited her poem before she submitted it (to read the poem, google “danielle wallace JAMA network”). Danielle has only been writing poetry since she started medical school, and regularly reads Upstate’s literary and visual arts journal The Healing Muse, and the JAMA Poetry and Medicine section.

When she was a first-year student taking Human Anatomy, Danielle was inspired to write a poem, “More than the Sum,” which was published in The Healing Muse that year.

“That started me on using writing to express some of the emotions I have had during this training,” Danielle said. “I tend to write about specific patients or situations that have had a major impact on me. They tend to be poems that are more natural to write about because they are so emotionally charged.”

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