Sara Yousef

The earliest memories I have of my mother, sister, and I consist of waking up before the sun had a chance to shine, putting on our hijab, and running out of our building. Leaving in paranoia, my mother’s head turned both ways for each step we took to make sure no one followed us. It almost felt like we were doing something sinful, but when we got to the church, those feelings instantly vanished.

2023 WCI scholarship Sara Yousef

Sara Yousef

For those three hours every two weeks, none of the risks we took mattered because we were there. I was surrounded by the ancient handmade icons, the sweet aroma of the incense, and scripture that was read with poise in Arabic and Coptic as if the world wasn’t tumbling down outside the church walls.

Of course, living in bliss never lasts very long.

It began with a visit from my father bringing my sister and me special Egyptian chocolates and abruptly ended with him holding a knife to my mother’s throat in front of us. He was more than angry; he was enraged at the thought of his own children at a Coptic Christian church. As a Muslim man, he could not fathom such a confession being uttered from my mother’s mouth. At that moment, we knew we had no option but to flee this predominantly Islamic nation where Coptic Christians are regularly persecuted.

Coming to America at the age of 7 was a dream, but our conditions were far from ideal. We slept on a couch in our grandparents' one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment for years. Once we had gained our asylum status through a painstakingly tedious process, our fight with my father was over. Then, began our fight for my sister’s life when I was 12. We tried to understand what the doctors were saying with what little English we had learned. Words thrown around like “hypoglycemic,” “ketoacidosis,” and “insulin” made as much sense to us as they would have for a toddler. The real challenge was not that we couldn’t comprehend the disease. It was that we simply couldn’t afford it. No money meant no health insurance, which meant no medication. With the combination of my sister’s minimum wage job and my mother’s leftover income after putting food on our table, it was always just the right amount for my sister to get her daily dosage of insulin shots.

Naturally, I decided to learn all that I could about my sister’s disease.

I began college learning the foundations of biology in my courses and became increasingly interested, challenging myself each semester thereafter. I wanted to go and experience patient care myself, so I became a volunteer EMT. On my third shift, a call was announced: “24-year-old female . . . AMS . . .” The patient presented symptoms that were all too familiar: low blood sugar and tachycardia. The flashbulb memory suddenly struck me: a 14-year-old me in my exact position, holding my sister in my arms convincing myself that she was just dizzy, urging the 911 operator to hurry while meticulously following every instruction that she gave. This time, I knew precisely what to do. I quickly snapped back into reality. “Oral glucose,” I thought to myself, and within minutes of administration, our patient had regained all consciousness. I am proud to say we saved a patient that day.

During my undergraduate career, I discovered my interest in patient advocacy by becoming an intern at the Northeast Regional Alliance MedPrep HCOP program. I was shocked to learn of the disproportionate distribution of healthcare in New York City communities, such as Harlem and the south Bronx. This impelled me to take part in the Diversity Innovation Hub competition under the supervision of Dr. Gary Butts. I was able to see that a physician is not only a clinician but also an educator, researcher, and advocator. Inspired by Dr. Butts’ activism for underrepresented communities, I envisioned an opportunity to do better for those in my sister’s position.

A group of interns and I proposed HealthU, a low- to no-cost clinic on wheels that can enter underserved communities in New York City to prevent and treat diseases before they have a chance to progress. While this idea was ultimately rejected, I still had the chance to advocate for those who were not able to advocate for themselves. After witnessing my family’s struggles to acquire my sister’s medication, I aim to take part in advocacy to provide medical care for uninsured refugees with limited access to healthcare. I began to view medicine and advocacy as inseparable, especially when it comes to living in NYC, and I plan to pursue a career in medicine that allows me the opportunity to integrate them.

I never thought I would have the opportunity to practice medicine with a background like mine. As I grow older, I have come to realize that my past experiences are precisely my reasons for “Why medicine?”—whether by shaping my empathy as a first responder or my advocacy as a minority. Patient care is more than just healing a sickness; it encompasses caring for the patient as a human being apart from the ailment. Using my experiences with my sister’s health, as a future physician, I aim to educate my patients as well as advocate on behalf of those who are marginalized in healthcare.