Antigua-based disaster-assistance team  says its diversity is its strength

The diversity among students and graduates from the American University of Antigua’s Medical College was apparently a catalyst for their camaraderie: They comprised millennials and Generation Xers, Pakistani-Americans, Indian-Americans and others with origins in South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

Together they formed the team that offered succor to those ravaged by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

The team leader, Dr. Bilal Khan, 34, a sleep medicine fellow at Norwalk Hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut and a critical care and emergency physician, acknowledged that none of the baggage they carried to their relief mission contained any political, cultural or religious issues. Their camaraderie proved so strong, in fact, that the team intends to serve as the core group of CHAMP—Community Health Alliance of Medical Professionals—a rapid response team aiding after natural disasters.

Khan is Pakistani-American, born in London to parents from Karachi. The point person in Puerto Rico was his Stony Brook University classmate and AUA colleague, Dr. Pedro Torres, a Queens, New York native who is Puerto Rican. Torres is completing his final year of emergency medicine in Ponce, before returning to New York to start a critical care fellowship. In fact, Torres experienced Hurricane Maria first-hand.

The other key AUA alumni team members included Indian-Americans, Drs. Rachna Patel, a geriatrics fellow at Mount Sinai in New York, Kevin Ramdas of Florida and Kirill Alekseyev, a Brooklyn native from Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn.

Khan told India Abroad that AUA’s environment encourages the kind of camaraderie that has spilled into their recent teamwork in Puerto Rico. While at AUA, he said, “we acquire a knowledge of the world and the culture and religions of other students that are outside of medicine through your colleagues. And, it’s interesting when you put that altogether through the friendships that are made and meld it with the fact that all of the students and later when they graduate, are people who really want to succeed in medicine and genuinely want to care for people.

“It’s so nice to be around that,” he said.

Khan said that this was manifest during the team’s work in Vieques. “When you go on these trips, you get to understand people instead of telling people how they should be. For example, in a lot of countries, or in a lot of cultures, there are certain things that they must have, regardless of proper health or hygiene maybe, and so, it’s important to understand that you can’t change these things,” he said. “You have to work with them and it helps to understand people better. Now that I am back in the States, if I have someone of South Asian origin, or Vietnamese origin, or Puerto Rican origin, I understand from where they are coming from.”

The bonding experience “gives you a closer sense that everyone is really people and we are all similar in a lot of ways,” he said. AUA educators ensured that the student doctors took their time caring for the local people on the island. “And so that itself was a global health mission throughout our schooling there.”

Khan said as an undergraduate in New York, he had majored in economic and business. Upon graduating he worked for J.P. Morgan Chase and became very interested in business. But, he said, he also worked as an EMT volunteer “and then realized that I liked the medical world better.” To further those studies, he applied to AUA, which was taking admissions three times a year.

Khan also recalled how after losing touch with classmate Torres he was, by a twist of fate, joining him in the same medical program at AUA. While in Antigua and playing football, a friend of his had been severely injured, puncturing a lung. He had rushed his friend to the emergency room, where Torres was the paramedic.

While they kept catching up on their college days, Torres had expressed his desire to apply for medical school, since like Khan, wanted to become a physician. Khan had urged him to apply to AUA. Fast forward to Hurricane Maria: Torres was doing his residency in Puerto Rico when Maria struck with a vengeance. Khan was looking to get over there so he hooked up with his friend —and CHAMP was born.

“Evidently, in some sense, all of the stars were aligned,” he said. AUA alumni and friends like Patel, Ramdas, Alekseyev and others “came together and how now everybody wants to keep the momentum going.”

Last year, Neal Simon, founder and president of AUA, established in 2004, told India Abroad in an interview that its diverse student population of nearly 1,400 out of a pool of applicants always double the number admitted, comprised largely second and third generation Indian-American students in addition to white and African-Americans, indigenous Antiguans and others from several other countries. He also said that AUA also owes its growth and success to its collaboration with Manipal University —India’s top private university and its flagship Kasturba Medical College — and his meeting with Manipal’s president and chancellor Dr. Ramdas Pai.

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