Inside NYP: Dr. Cigdem Akman

The chief of child neurology reflects on how she left Turkey to advance her medical career and, in the process, found a new home in the U.S.

Portrait of Dr. Cigdem Akman
Portrait of Dr. Cigdem Akman

I was born in Ankara, Turkey. My father was a pilot in the air force, so we moved around a lot. I went to four different elementary schools between kindergarten and sixth grade, and changed high schools twice. But I always did well in school. I was good at math, solving math puzzles, and I actually enjoyed algebra, which is probably why I was thinking of pursuing a career as an electrical engineer.

It was my father who first encouraged me to consider becoming a doctor. I always trusted his judgment and listened to his advice. I still do. I applied to Ankara University School of Medicine and got in.

Going to medical school turned out to be the best decision I could have made. In medicine, every day brings a different challenge but also different opportunities to help others.

I started out in internal medicine, but I quickly realized my passion was pediatrics. When you are treating a child, it’s very much a team approach with the family. Understanding their needs, gaining their trust, and collaborating on the decision-making all require much more in-depth connections.

I began seeing many of my patients when they were infants, toddlers, or in elementary school, and now they’re in college. To be a part of their lives and to see them grow up, you feel like you become part of their family in a way. I’m still in touch with many of them. That connection cannot be taught in medical school — it comes through experience. For me, that connection is incredibly rewarding.

At the end of my residency in Turkey, I really wanted to come to the United States to advance my education and excel in medicine. The first six months were extremely difficult. I was very homesick. Part of me definitely wanted to go back home to Turkey, but the other part of me enjoyed the challenge.

My husband helped me enormously to push through and complete my residency in pediatrics and neurology at State University of New York and my fellowship training in clinical neurophysiology and epilepsy at Boston Children’s Hospital. I am so thankful to him for being so supportive during the difficult transition and rest of my training. If not for him, perhaps I would have gone back home.

I always thought I’d go back to Turkey to become a pediatric epileptologist because there is a lack of specialists, but my husband had the opportunity to continue his research in New York, and I had the opportunity to join the Child Neurology Division at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in 2003. NewYork-Presbyterian was my first home after I finished my training. NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University provided a nurturing environment where I could learn and grow in child neurology.

Because of that positive environment, my mission has been to stay and contribute to both institutions’ success.

What’s rewarding about pediatric epilepsy is the impact you can have. By making timely diagnoses and choosing the right medications, treatment methods, and surgical options, you truly have the ability to change the course of someone’s life.

Over the years, I learned that success in medicine requires not only hard work but also empathy and patience. Listening to the concerns of our patients and their caregivers, understanding their needs, and observing their progress are essential to accomplish our goals in medicine.

I think a lot about the first day when I arrived in NYC all the way from Ankara. I came here as a trainee and was fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful mentors and friends.

What happened over time, I began to feel that here is my real home, my family. I tell my two teenagers, who were both born in the U.S., that they have two homes far away from each other. We have been here for 23 years. Now when we visit Turkey, I find myself homesick for my home and family here at NewYork-Presbyterian.

Cigdem Akman, M.D., is chief of child neurology at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and an associate professor of neurology and pediatrics in the Department of Neurology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. An expert in child and adolescent epilepsy, Dr. Akman has served as director of the pediatric epilepsy program since 2010.

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