From malaria to med school, new doc cements childhood dream

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

As a child growing up in Denver and Sudan, Ali Khalifa used to carry a little white doctors bag with a red cross and a toy stethoscope.

His parents were diplomats who traveled the world. Suffering through multiple bouts of malaria as a child in Sudan, Khalifa admired uncles who were doctors and cared for him in their homes as he struggled through weeks of fever and nausea.

Seeing that spirit of compassion and sacrifice left a life-long impression on me, Khalifa said.

Now 24, Khalifas dream of becoming a doctor moved one step closer to reality on Friday during match day when the University of Colorado medical student learned he will be continuing his medical education as an anesthesiology resident at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Khalifa hugged his younger brother, Wael, 22, and tears streamed down his face after he opened a simple white envelope. Khalifa joined about 130 fellow medical students in a downtown Denver hotel ballroom who learned their fate at 10 a.m. sharp.

Its all a little overwhelming. Its all the work Ive put in. Its culminating in this, Khalifa said, dabbing at tears with a cloth napkin. This could change the rest of my life.

Ali Khalifa, 24, learns about the next phase of his medical education during “match day.” The University of Colorado medical student will study anesthesiology at the Baylor College of Medicine. As a child, he suffered from malaria and admired uncles who cared for him and let him accompany them to work.

Baylor was one of Khalifas top choices, just behind staying in Colorado. The urgency of working in operating rooms was attractive to Khalifa. He also liked the idea of anesthesiology because he felt he could calm people as they had one of the most stressful experiences of their lives: surgery.

Wael said that his brother never wavered in his goal to be a doctor. Wael joked that his brother was Doogie Howser, the teen doctor of TV sitcoms.

He wouldnt play when we were kids. He was so focused, Wael Khalifa said. He chose a profession where he had to be focused on school. A day like this is beautiful.

Born in Denver, the boys and their family lived in Colorado until Ali was about 12. They then moved to Sudan, North Africa and Asia. Ali completed high school in South Korea, then returned to Denver by himself at age 16 to attend the University of Denver, where his father had earned a PhD and he earned a degree in molecular biology. Khalifa then went straight to medical school, allowing him to finish at just 24.

Ali Khalifas medical mission was inspired by the positive experiences of uncles who cared for him and took him with them to work, along with the sorrows of losing other relatives to health problems. Three of his mothers relatives died within two years of each other from kidney disease.

Ali said the lack of resources in Sudan undermines the health system. At some point, he hopes to return to work or volunteer there.

Im going to go back. Ill do whatever I can to help, he said.

Here in the U.S., Khalifa looks forward to providing culturally appropriate medical care. Most doctors are white, while the number of patients who are immigrants and minorities is growing across the country. During his research, Khalifa focused on the importance of providing information about medications to Spanish-speaking patients in their native language. Khalifa speaks Arabic and some Korean and is eager to greet immigrants with a face that might look more like their own.

For now, graduation in May is on the horizon, then a move to Houston. Khalifa said there were struggles along with way with tough classes and hefty financial commitments. Like many of the young doctors, he has loans that hover close to $140,000. Despite those challenges and the endless studying, Khalifa said its all been worthwhile.

The little toy doctors bag, a gift from Ali Khalifas parents, has long since disappeared. Now, hes ready for a real one.

I feel so blessed.