Editor's note: Tsering Dhondup, M.B.B.S., was a child when his parents fled Tibet and settled in Northern India. From that beginning, Dr. Dhondup's journey included a return to Tibet, where he cemented his passion for medicine and caring for patients. Now he's is a fellow in the nephrology training program at Mayo Clinic School of Graduate Medical Education. He shares his story here.
By Tsering Dhondup, M.B.B.S.
My childhood memories take me back to Dharamsala, a small, idyllic town in north India. I was born to Tibetan parents who had fled Tibet and settled down as refugees to make India their new home. Like many of our community members, my parents were struggling hard to adapt to a new land and a new way of life. They were dealing with tremendous social and economic hardships, but spared no effort in providing us a relatively comfortable and an affectionate upbringing.
Our parents had never attended formal school themselves. Yet, they valued education as a key determinant of success in life. My brother and I were happy playing and attending refugee schools, oblivious to their struggle, until I grew up. Gradually, I became more aware of the unique background, history and the challenges of my parents, and my community. These served as my inspiration to do better at school and take life more seriously. Lessons and lectures at school would motivate us to become more compassionate, well-rounded and educated members who could contribute positively to community.
Life in medical school in one of the premier Indian medical colleges was not a special experience for me. Although I enjoy learning new things, it was tough, with endless lectures, assignments, presentations, clinical rotations and tests. However, by then, I was mentally prepared and ready to take on any challenge. I tried to learn as much as I could, with special emphasis on procedures that I deemed potentially lifesaving and vital to someone practicing in far-flung communities with limited resources.
As my medical training and internship drew to a close five-and-a-half years later, I joined the Department of Health of the Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamsala. I wanted to give back to my community. After working a few months there with a senior physician, I was appointed medical officer of the largest Tibetan refugee settlement located in India. It had a population of close to 15,000 people, with over 5,000 monks and nuns, and over 1,200 school-age children in three different schools. I was 24.
Often working with just one or two physician colleagues, and a team of nurses and community health workers, I quickly learned to prioritize things. I was overseeing the implementation of basic preventive health programs, such as a childhood immunization program, tuberculosis control program, maternal health and safe pregnancy program, seeing general outpatients in office and inpatients, and providing emergency medical services.
Working late hours and taking emergency calls at night were routine. As much a grueling schedule as it was, the satisfaction of being able to help deliver a child in the middle of night or relieve breathlessness in a patient helped me overcome the tiredness and fatigue. Limited resources and knowledge did not seem to deter us from giving our best. The wonderful team of nurses and community health workers always made our work look better. As for the community members, most of them were appreciative of our work and expressed gratitude.
I made good friends and acquaintances with many wonderful people whom I cherish to this day. Some of the kindness and warmth that I saw among my colleagues have left an indelible mark on me. Looking back, several years of my life spent there were the most gratifying experience that I ever had. I learned several valuable core lessons of life, such as teamwork, honesty, diligence, empathy and warm-heartedness.
Fast-forward to today. Coming to the U.S., the successful completion of an internal medicine residency and my acceptance into the nephrology fellowship training program at Mayo Clinic all seem like a distant dream come true. Over the course of the last few years, I have come across many beautiful, warmhearted people among colleagues, mentors and patients who make every day better and every challenge more worthy.
Years of working in settings with limited resources have helped me become appreciative of the excellent facilities and the clinical and administrative support available at Mayo. The absolute ease with which you can interact with different specialties for patient care and the collegial atmosphere here is marvelous. At the same time, my previous experiences have helped me become more patient, empathetic and compassionate during interactions with my patients.
Since Mayo Clinic draws people from all over the world, it is not surprising to find a great deal of diversity of the health care staff here in terms of their background. However, the shared values of putting the needs of the patient first unite all of us here. The work culture here respects everyone for the work they do, regardless of their race, ethnicity or country of origin. I have never been treated differently because of my background and have always felt well-supported. Everyone has been very supportive and friendly.
I also feel that my unique background and knowledge is valued here.
In my opinion, the exceptional facilities are important, but what really makes this institution great is the quality and dedication of its staff. Of course, I am aware and appreciative of the excellent education and training that I receive here every day. Like many others, I, too, feel a deep sense of honor and privilege to be associated with Mayo Clinic, an institution that strives to be the best in providing high-quality care to its patients. My wife, who is my best friend and critic, tells me that I have come a long way. I couldn’t agree more — a long way indeed from my humble beginnings in the foothills of Himalayas to the mecca of modern medicine.