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In the Spotlight: ‘You’re never going to get into medical school’

This In the Spotlight features Stanford psychiatry resident Omar Sahak, who failed his first college biology class but forged his own path to medicine.

Omar Sahak failed his first college biology class. The second time, he got a C. And by the end of college, he was pretty sure medicine was a failed dream. But thanks to a few people who believed in him, he eventually did get that MD -- along with a master's degree in public health -- and he's now a second-year resident in psychiatry at Stanford.

Sahak shared his story with me:

Where did you grow up?

I lived in Flushing, Queens until I was about 10 years old. My parents had escaped Afghanistan, and they had one friend in New York. Everybody was an immigrant in our neighborhood. My dad got a coffee truck and sold coffee and bagels on the street from 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then we moved to California -- Marin County -- and I totally stood out. That was uncomfortable. 

When did you get interested in science and medicine?

When I was a kid, I loved memorizing things because I could do it really quickly. I remember being excited to read that the sun was 93 million miles from the earth.

By the end of high school, my intuition was to study film, but I wanted to do something that helped other people. I listened to my family and my parents, who told me I could study science and have a good career. My mom was a nurse and one of my aunts was a pharmacist, and they said medicine could be a good fit for me.

Ultimately, they were right, but when I tried to actually do pre-med at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I didn't know how to study or ask for help. I was trudging through the mud in my science classes, getting an F and then taking it again and getting a C. My guidance counselor told me, "You're never going to get into medical school." He saw me as a failure.

By the time I was a senior, I was getting B's and A's in my science classes, but I didn't have the GPA to apply to medical school.

So how did you get in?

After graduation, I was doing community organizing work for a nonprofit in Sacramento, and doing really well. My boss, who was always looking out for me, gave me a flyer for a master's of public health distance-learning program at San Jose State University. The director looked at my college transcript and said, "It looks like when you wanted to do well, you did well." I thought, here was this man really seeing me.

I never worked that hard in my life. I was working full-time and writing these papers I didn't feel qualified to write. I would spend hours and hours writing one page, but after each paper, I kept getting better. It was very validating. I got straight A's. I left that program with a totally different brain and attitude. I felt like I could do anything I want -- I just had to figure out what I want to do.

So then I thought about medicine again. I knew in my bones I could be a really good doctor.

I had done a ton of volunteer work and public health policy work, but I had to prove myself academically. I enrolled in an organic chemistry class -- which I had failed many times -- and for the first time, it made sense. I took one class after another and was getting A's and finally finding mentors.

I was accepted at University of California, Davis, where my mom was a nurse. The year I graduated was the year she retired. It was kind of like passing a baton.

Why did you choose your specialty, psychiatry?

Psychiatry brought together a lot of interests I had. I naturally think about people's inner worlds and how their life experiences affect them. I could see myself being motivated over decades to go to work.

What do you do for fun?

What I really like is unstructured time. Once the weight of expectation comes off, other things start to come up -- like general musings about life and what I'm seeing around me. Medical school gave me so much to think about and worry about, so when I have unstructured time, I take it. 

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I'd like to go to an urban, underserved area that's associated with an academic center, where I can live in that community and also serve as an advocate for it. I want kids coming home from school to be like, "Hey Doc," and come up to me and ask me for help.

Photo by Daphne Sashin

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