Why I Became a Doctor

In honor of National Doctors’ Day, these NewYork-Presbyterian physicians share how early experiences inspired them to pursue careers in medicine.

Ask a doctor why he or she pursued a career in medicine, and the likely response will include an inspiring story about a childhood injury or the painful memory of watching a loved one suffer from illness or disease and not being able to help.

The reasons run the gamut — from funny and charming to serious and heartbreaking — but they all offer compelling insights into what makes a person choose to take such a challenging path.

Dr. Roshni Rao, chief of NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Breast Surgery Program, recalls growing up in India, where “we used to have brooms with very long quills. I’d pluck them out, then run around giving ‘injections’ to all of my relatives.” Dr. Richard Isaacson, a neurologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, witnessed several of his family members succumb to Alzheimer’s disease, prompting him to devote his professional life to Alzheimer’s research, treatment, and prevention. For Dr. Ronald Lehman, director of Degenerative, Minimally Invasive and Robotic Spine Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital, a fractured elbow at age 7 sparked his interest in orthopedics.

Here are some inspiring accounts of NewYork-Presbyterian doctors on what motivated them to dedicate their careers to caring for patients, making advancements in research, and helping to create and foster a healthcare environment dedicated to providing the highest quality, most compassionate care.

Dr. Laura Forese

“From the time I was a little girl, I’d say, ‘I’m going to be a doctor,’ even though no one in my family was in medicine. All I knew was, I like people. I like helping, and I like fixing things. I went to college saying, ‘I’m going to medical school afterward’ — and I did. Immediately after college, I came to Columbia to go to medical school and, in some ways, I never left.”

Laura Forese, M.D., M.P.H.is executive vice president and chief operating officer of NewYork-Presbyterian. Dr. Forese has ultimate operational responsibility for the NewYork-Presbyterian enterprise, including 10 hospital campuses and more than 47,000 employees. A pediatric orthopedic surgeon, she is a member of multiple healthcare and civic organizations, and chairs the NIH’s Clinical Center Research Hospital Board.

 

Dr. Ronald Lehman

“When I was 7, I sustained a Type III supracondylar elbow fracture, which is a very bad fracture but also caused a laceration of my artery and nerve. I couldn’t straighten my arm for over three months; nor could I touch my thumb to my small finger because my ulnar nerve was damaged. I didn’t realize at the time how bad the injury truly was, and am lucky to have made a complete recovery.”

Ronald Lehman, M.D., is the director of Degenerative, Minimally Invasive and Robotic Spine Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital and a tenured professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Laura Riley

“My mother worked as the front desk manager at Boston Children’s Hospital, so I spent every school vacation in the emergency room or the operating room. I saw my first neurosurgery when I was 13. I never fainted. I was very committed to becoming a doctor.”

Laura Riley, M.D., is obstetrician and gynecologist-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Dr. Richard Isaacson

“I became interested in studying Alzheimer’s disease because of my Uncle Bob. When I was 3, I fell into my aunt’s pool and sank to the bottom. Uncle Bob, who was in the Navy, jumped in and rescued me, so he and I always had this connection. When I was in high school and applying to medical programs, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at age 70. It just was like, “Wow, we can’t do anything? There’s no treatment?” In all, four of my family members have been diagnosed with the disease — including my dad’s cousin, whom I helped treat and eventually diagnose.”

Richard Isaacson, M.D., a neurologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, is the founder of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic and the Weill Cornell Memory Disorders Program, and a trustee of the McKnight Brain Research Foundation.

Dr. Roshni Rao

“I got hooked on surgery when I saw my first surgical amputation — a leg that had a sarcoma, which is an aggressive cancer. While other kids were at summer camp, I signed up for a course that introduced middle school students to the medical field. They put us in scrubs and I was able to visit an operating room. I was excited by the way surgeons really used their hands and got right in there. I’ve always enjoyed fixing things and working with my hands.”

Roshni Rao, M.D., F.A.C.S., is chief of the Breast Surgery Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the Vivian L. Milstein Associate Professor of Surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Ben Roye

“When I was in college, I observed my father perform a complex spine surgery — that was when my decision to follow him into the operating room took shape. If I had not observed that operation, I might not have gone into medicine. Seeing inside somebody, watching their heart beat and lungs expand, and then to see your father manipulate a crooked spine was pretty cool.”

Ben Roye, M.D., is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Wendy Chung

“As a kid, I was attracted to Encyclopedia Brown books, puzzles, and trying to be a detective. I like things that are solvable problems with definitive answers. And I knew early on that I wanted to be a physician scientist and that I liked genetics.”

Wendy Chung, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified clinical geneticist with a Ph.D. in molecular genetics. She is director of the DISCOVER program at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the Kennedy Family Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Babacar Cisse

“I grew up in Dakar in Senegal, and after I finished what would be middle school, I fell ill with malaria and gastric ulcers. This was my first encounter with the health system in Senegal. I was very disappointed. Hospitals and clinics had very limited resources to care for their patients. It was an eye-opener for me. That’s when I became interested in medicine.”

Babacar Cisse, M.D., Ph.D., is an attending neurological surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, assistant professor of neurological surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine, and assistant professor of neuroscience in the Feil Family Brain & Mind Research Institute at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Dr. Brendon Stiles

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Virginia and thought I was going to be a veterinarian. Somewhere along the way I decided I liked people better than animals, so I changed my career goal. I started my medical school training at the University of Virginia but took two years off to come to New York City to pursue cancer research. I focused on lung and esophageal cancer because of my family history. My grandfather died of lung cancer when I was a baby, and my dad was a lifelong smoker. In 2005, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away relatively quickly. That experience cemented my resolve to focus on lung cancer, both in the clinic and in my research.”

Brendon Stiles, M.D., is an associate attending cardiothoracic surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an associate professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Dr. Renuka Gupta

“I grew up in a conservative, middle-class family in India. No one was a physician, but from the time I was 4, my dad had the idea that his daughter would be a doctor. I grew up with 13 male cousins. I was the only girl, and my parents had very high hopes for me … When I was growing up, the goal, for many women in India, was to get educated, but also to learn how to cook, and to get married to a man from a good family. But my dad said, “No, no household work. She needs to study and become a doctor.”

Renuka Gupta, M.D., is a hospitalist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center who cares for hospitalized patients and does not have an outpatient practice. She is an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Dr. Olajide Williams

“I was inspired to become a doctor on a hospital bed, or more precisely, on a bed in the sick bay unit of my British boarding school. I was 14 years old at the time. To me, the medical staff were unsung heroes, brilliant and selfless people whose kindness made me feel even better than the medicine they prescribed. I remember saying to myself, ‘I would love to be like them one day.’”

Olajide Williams, M.D., is an associate professor of neurology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, director of acute stroke services at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, and chief of staff/chief medical officer of neurology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Dr. Nisha Jhalani

“I have been blessed with phenomenal mentors my entire life, starting with my science-whiz father, who always made my homework more complicated than it needed to be. … I fell in love with cardiology in medical school. What I love most is the instant gratification factor, something you rarely find in medicine. In cardiology, patients sometimes come into the ER on death’s doorstep. Because of the power of the medications and treatments we now have, within a few days most can go home to their loved ones and lead a fully functional life.”

Nisha Jhalani, M.D., F.A.C.C., is the director of clinical and educational services at the Center for Interventional Vascular Therapy at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Christopher Ahmad

“I wanted to be a professional soccer player … but I knew a professional soccer career wouldn’t last long, and I had been interested in sports medicine since the third or fourth grade. I once twisted my ankle so badly that I was crying while I was playing. After I figured out how to put hockey tape around my ankle so I could play again, my dad bought me a book about sports medicine.”

Christopher S. Ahmad, M.D., is an attending orthopedic surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and a professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.