Part of Something Bigger

February 24, 2021

By Thomas M. Evans, PhD

Q&A with Rami Alattar, student doctor and UIWSOM ‘21

Rami Alattar Profile PhotoStudent doctor Rami Alattar, a member of the 2021 University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine’s inaugural graduating class, has received promotion to Lieutenant, U.S. Navy and will soon begin his General Surgery residency at the United States Naval Medical Center Portsmouth (VA). He is one of eight students in the inaugural graduating class participating in the Armed Forces’ Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), sponsored by the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force. After completing residency training in a military or civilian hospital, HPSP students pledge to return one year of service for each year of medical school support received.

As you look back, are you pleased that you chose to attend a new medical school like UIWSOM?

Absolutely. I didn't come in with expectations. I knew that there would be a lot of adjustments and changes. As the first class, we played a role in creating this school and its culture. That helped us to feel like we were part of something bigger. We started the emergency medicine club. We started the general surgery club. And the professors had us all to themselves that first year, and they were very willing to help and to connect us to their networks.

How has the pandemic shaped your final year or more of medical school?

Well, everything changed. We woke up one day last March unsure of whether we would still go to our clinical rotations, or if we would graduate on time. There were more questions than answers. For a couple of days, people were scared, no one was doing anything. We were used to scheduling every minute. We were used to eating at the hospital because that’s where we spent most of our time. So, somebody said — hey — we don’t have any food, we should go grocery shopping. But when we got there, everything was empty.

How did some sense of routine begin to return?

First, we dealt day to day with cancelled rotations or cancelled board exams. It takes months to schedule a rotation for the military. Then, they canceled three or four rotations that I had scheduled. Missing a rotation caused many of us to ask: Do I really want to do this specialty? If I haven't explored all of the specialties, how can I be sure? But we stayed with it and we did our best.

What was the most difficult change to deal with?

We were frustrated that as medical students, we didn't have more power to help. Many of us looked for opportunities to volunteer. My fiancé and I volunteered with a student-run organization to collect donated PPE — hard to find items such as n95 masks — and distribute them to hospitals and doctors. It allowed us to stay involved in medicine in general, and to learn more. A pandemic is one of the rare times that you and your doctor, at first, knew pretty much the same information.

Has it become more challenging to complete rotations?

Say you want to rotate with an anesthesiologist. There's a lot of skills that require being very involved with patients face to face with airways uncovered. There's a lot of protocols that have to be followed. Some anesthesiologists don't even want to deal with the headache of having a medical student. So that's another added stress — to find specialists willing to add a medical student to their team knowing the risks.

You will be graduating and starting a residency at the United States Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia. How does that feel?

Residency matching with the military is a little different than civilian. The military still allowed us to do face-to-face rotations and interviews. I flew to Virginia and to my hometown of San Diego, on very short notice, to complete those rotations. The daily contact allows residents to see you, how you work, how you interact with patients and colleagues. That evaluation [opportunity] was taken away from many UIW fourth years because of the pandemic.

Portsmouth was my first choice — so I’m thrilled. It's exciting. It's nerve wracking. You know, we don't know what the future holds, but we're all excited to, we're coming to an end of this chapter and we're starting a new chapter. That's for sure. It's going to be difficult, but at the same time, it's going to be fun to live in the moment and learn how to take care of ourselves while we're going through it.

Why military medicine?

Let me give you some background. I was born in Baghdad, Iraq. My parents and I came as refugees. We came to the United States to escape religious persecution. We lived in Jordan for three years. And from there we came to the United States. I was 16 when we arrived. I earned my EMT license right after high school and after working on an ambulance company I became an ER tech. That really just opened up doors for me and expose me to the healthcare field in general. I met a lot of Navy people, multiple Navy nurses and doctors that I worked with as well. They kind of drew me into that field. I also worked with Navy Seals. I was a lifeguard. I would watch Navy Seals train and when anything would start to go wrong, I would tell their chief, “Hey, this guy is getting into trouble.”

How did that experience with U.S. Navy influence your path?

It was a completely different perspective for me to see these 18- and 19-year-olds pouring their hearts out to serve. Seeing their commitment to their country drew me further into the question of how I could serve my new country. I wanted to give back to the country that gave me all these opportunities to be where I'm at right now. I know that if I wasn't for the opportunities offered to my family by the United States, I wouldn't be doing medicine. I felt that the best way, the most selfless way I could give back was to serve my nation through medicine. So that's what I'm doing.