How A Childhood Goal of Advocating for the Sick Led to Medical School and Beyond
Unrealistic. Selfish. Impossible.
The words were lobbed at Waleed Gibreel, M.B.B.S., who has lived in the margins of two powerful forces that shaped him — his dream of becoming a top-flight surgeon and his reality of growing up in war-torn Sudan.
“I knew as a child that my ultimate goal was to be a doctor, no matter what it took,” Dr. Gibreel says. “I didn’t really have any understanding of what medicine was nor how to get into it.”
Dr. Gibreel’s dream and his accompanying reality led him from witnessing impoverished communities in Khartoum to becoming a meticulous and highly skilled pediatric surgeon. Along the way, he tended a gas station in Virginia, drove a cab and delivered pizzas on frigid Minnesota nights.
The United Nations called the killing of 300,000 people and the displacement of 3 million more one of the worst humanitarian crises ever when Darfur, Sudan, exploded with civil war in the 2000s.
Although he was not directly affected by the war, Dr. Gibreel watched how the crisis shaped the country. People didn’t have access to medical care. Many died from a lack of basic necessities.
“When people are sick, they are vulnerable and need help. They need someone to be their advocate,” Dr. Gibreel says. “I wanted to be that person who could help someone when they truly needed it.”
Dr. Gibreel’s father was an accountant and his mother worked raising three children. But even professional workers had difficulty finding what is commonplace in the West — cohesive medical care and education.
Education is not free or compulsory in Sudan for children between ages 6 and 13. The literacy rate is 70%, and only half the population can afford to even attend school. Dr. Gibreel’s family strongly stressed the importance of education, and his father worked long hours just to ensure that the children would receive an education.
“I saw what my parents did for me, and I want to make sure I keep doing what I’m doing, so they can see me succeed and can be proud to know all their effort was worth it,” he says. “In Sudan, most teens have to get jobs to help their families. When I would tell someone about medical school and the additional five-plus years of training, they would say it’s not possible.
“They had to take care of their families. Putting my interests and dreams first was difficult for the community to understand, and some viewed it as selfish.”
But Dr. Gibreel pressed on, achieving and entering medical school at the British-founded University of Khartoum Medical School in Sudan, where his classes were taught in Arabic and English. He was drawn to anatomy and surgery because he liked being able to diagnose the cause of a patient’s condition and be able to act on it through surgery and immediately see the outcome.
In 2009, Dr. Gibreel graduated at the top of his 400-student class with a medical degree. After a yearlong internship, Dr. Gibreel knew he wanted more — to train with the best in the United States.
Sudan to the States
Sudan lacks many medical resources and opportunities. Consequently, doctors often work two or more jobs just to get by, medications are limited, and many areas are not safe.
With aspirations to train as an academic medical center surgeon, Dr. Gibreel embarked on his cross-continent voyage, landing in Arlington, Virginia, in 2011.
To join a medical practice in the United States as a foreign-trained physician can take up to 10 years because of the involved testing process, burdensome costs and often duplicative educational requirements. The biggest hurdle is gaining acceptance to a medical residency program, which requires obtaining medical experience in the U.S. prior to acceptance.
To get by, Dr. Gibreel spent his first year working numerous blue-collar jobs while studying for his medical exams.
Even so, he scored in the top percentile on his first medical exam.
Frequently asked about his accent, Dr. Gibreel would share his story about becoming a U.S. physician. A customer at the gas station he tended suggested he reach out to Sudan-born pediatric surgeon Abdalla Zarroug, M.D., who worked at Mayo Clinic at the time. A few days later, a friend referred Dr. Gibreel to the Sudanese American Medical Association, which also mentioned Dr. Zarroug.
“I called him and he was kind enough to allow me to come join him,” Dr. Gibreel says.
With that, Dr. Gibreel secured a one-year unpaid research position to gain the medical experience required to apply for residency.
To make ends meet, Dr. Gibreel drove a cab and delivered pizzas in Rochester for six hours each night after his days in the lab. What little downtime he had he spent studying for his medical exams to apply for resident positions.
Despite the long days and lack of sufficient study time and sleep, Dr. Gibreel once again excelled, and he was accepted into the Mayo Clinic General Surgery Residency Program at Mayo Clinic School of Graduate Medical Education.
The school is America’s first physician graduate program and one of the largest in the country. Learners at Mayo Clinic have extensive opportunities to conduct research, work beside experts in a clinical setting and receive tremendous career guidance and networking.
Mentors Mold the Man
Michael G. Sarr, M.D., Dr. Gibreel’s attending senior consultant in surgery at the time, recalls their first meeting while collaborating on a research project. “It was immediately obvious that Waleed was brilliant, despite his recent struggles to learn the language and social customs,” he says. “With his ever-present infectious smile and extreme intelligence, he won the heart and confidence of everyone he worked with.”
Extremely humble, Dr. Gibreel appreciates the mysteries of disease and the marvels of healing. He cites his advocates and mentors for his achievements and for helping him narrow his specialty to pediatric plastic surgery to restore function to kids born with congenital facial abnormalities.
Dr. Gibreel says, “Kids deserve to look normal, and sometimes they are born with cleft lips or cleft palates. There is nothing harder in life than to be a child whose face does not function normally or look normal. I decided to spend the rest of my life helping these kids.”
Karim Bakri, M.B.B.S., another mentor of Dr. Gibreel’s, says, “Dr. Gibreel personifies humanitarianism, as evidenced in all aspects of his life. I have worked with him in the operating room, and his technical skills are outstanding. He is detail oriented yet thoughtful.”
As chief resident, Dr. Gibreel has published 18 research articles, with six pending publication. He has also given back to the institution that he says gave him so much by educating junior residents and assisting with residency program development.
“I came to this country without my family, but the people at Mayo Clinic embraced me. Mayo changed me,” Dr. Gibreel says. “I met a team that believed in me and was willing to give me a chance. I’m a better person because of the mentors and role models who had such a positive influence on me.”
Dr. Gibreel graduated in May 2019 and is now continuing his education with a one-year fellowship in craniofacial surgery in California. He was awarded the prestigious Mayo Foundation Scholarship, guaranteeing him a position at Mayo Clinic when he finishes his fellowship.
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