Each time Sami Mesgun, a first-year UNLV School of Medicine student, thinks about the experience of his family, it seems more like a miracle.
His story is reminiscent of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
It is an American Dream story, where hard work pays off, where the child of poor immigrants pledges to give better health care back to the country that kept hope alive for his family, where dreams of leaving grinding poverty behind still can come true.
The back story
Mesgun’s parents grew up in Eritrea, which won a 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia in 1991. They didn’t escape the warfare together, first meeting in the nearby country of Sudan, where they eventually – after overcoming some harrowing hostility toward refugees — received the physical and legal protections that allowed them to come to the United States.
“Out of fear for their lives, they fled, hiding during the day and trekking at night, entrusting strangers with their lives, and living with the uncertainty of another tomorrow,” Mesgun wrote in a piece for his alma mater, Cornell University. “My dad, in his twenties, abandoned his livelihood of selling chickens...my mom was only a teenager…her schooling was interrupted and her dream of one day becoming a health care provider was permanently put on hold.”
Mesgun’s father first came to the U.S. and then Las Vegas in 1982 with the help of the Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program. More than a decade later his parents would marry, his mother joining her husband in Las Vegas in 1994.
Not long afterward, the couple started a family. Mesgun, who graduated near the top of his class at Durango High School, is the oldest at 24. He received a merit scholarship to the Ivy League’s Cornell, graduating with a degree in human development. His brother is nearing graduation from UNLV, where he’ll get a degree in finance. His sister attends Durango.
“I still find it miraculous that my dad was able to be the family’s sole provider as a taxi driver,” said Mesgun, who noted that after his father drove a taxi 12 hours a day for 10 years, the family was able to move from a two-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom house his father bought.
Not surprisingly, Mesgun is especially grateful to the U.S. for giving his parents a chance at a new life and for educational programs aimed at helping low-income youths, including UNLV’s Upward Bound program. He’s also thankful his parents stressed education as a way to a better life. His father only went as far as third grade, while his mother completed the ninth.
“When I was younger, my mother bought me English workbooks to work on grammar on the weekends even though she had difficulty with the language. She made me give the workbooks to the teacher on Monday to make sure I did them right.”
If Mesgun wasn’t studying, he was running track and cross-country, becoming captain of Durango’s cross-country team his senior year. “I still run a couple of miles every day. I love the feeling it gives me.”
According to the essay Mesgun wrote to help him get into medical school, it was while he was in middle and high school that he started thinking about becoming a physician. That was the same time he was accompanying his dad to medical appointments.
My role was not only part interpreter but also part comforter. Language and cultural barriers all too often got in the way of my father experiencing the best care and highest quality outcomes, even with me by his side to clarify things and reassure him. Though his physicians were well- trained and caring, he never truly felt comfortable during his visits. That changed once my father began seeing a physician who took the time to understand his cultural beliefs regarding health (God’s will) and lay out his presentation of health problems in a way that made more sense for him. Almost immediately, visits took on a different meaning, and the barriers of discomfort and lack of trust peeled away. His need for me to serve as intermediary faded and eventually disappeared and amazingly, for the first time, I witnessed my father shape the kind of autonomy he wanted with his physician. He felt connected not only to his physician but now to the clinic itself and other care providers. This experience with my father was an early spark in my desire to attend medical school and become a physician who could communicate across cultural gaps and empower patients to take charge of their own health.
Inspiration for the future
Mesgun said he hopes to be much like the physician that his father appreciated — one who takes the time to find out that, for a particular patient’s culture, it is believed that God, and not a medical practitioner, had the most to do with health outcomes.
“My father was raised that way. He wasn’t science-focused,” Mesgun said. “He was spirituality-focused.”
Once a physician has a sense of his patient’s understanding of modern medicine, the physician can tailor explanations accordingly, Mesgun said. When physicians took the time to patiently explain to his father how exercise and diet can help cardiovascular health, how an enlarged prostate can affect well-being, Mesgun said his father came to realize that spirituality isn’t the only important element in health care. “They were concepts new to my father.”
During his undergraduate years, Mesgun had the opportunity to study in Jordan. That experience helped cement his decision to become a physician. There, he came in contact with Palestinian and Syrian refugees, who reminded him of what his parents told him they went through after leaving Eritrea for Sudan. He said the people both in Jordan and Sudan believed their governments were pouring resources into helping the refugees that should have gone to them instead.
Like most Eritreans who were embarking for the U.S., Sudan was my parents’ first major stop. They lived in poverty and fear as they watched police raid homes and churches to sweep undocumented Eritreans from the streets and deport them back to Eritrea. My parents also recall being driven away by physicians due to refugee status, leaving them and many sick Eritreans without care. From the stories my parents shared of struggling to survive as refugees, I have cultivated a deep sense of empathy for underserved communities. Moreover, growing up in a refugee family, I understand what it is like to be driven to the margins of health care access and quality because of language and cultural barriers. As an aspiring physician, I hope to forge a medical career that works through the challenges faced by underserved communities and improve the way health is understood and managed in them.
Barriers exist at home
While Mesgun sees the U.S. as a wonderful land of opportunity, he also has found that it has barriers.
People are born into more difficult circumstances than others and I believe society has a responsibility to help those people as well, particularly in health care...people can be enterprising and remarkably resilient in the face of extreme adversity. The human cost remains tremendous, however, and cannot be alleviated without equitable access to health care and other services. Progress depends on us caring to make a difference.
Mesgun said the importance of helping others cannot be stressed enough. “I wouldn’t be here today without mentors and teachers who care about me. That’s something I’d like to return.”
Working with the medically underserved and contributing to health care policy is what he sees in his future.
“Medicine can become confusing,” he said. "I want to be able to have conversations with patients that matter to them, where they fully disclose what’s going on with their health. I want to help them manage their own health. I want to be about social justice and good medicine.”