Ali Khalifa was fairly certain by the age of 7 that he wanted to be a doctor. Then he got malaria – often – while first visiting, then later living in Sudan.
“It’s a dreadful disease,” Khalifa says, but he realized later that it had meant spending extra time with his uncles, both doctors, who helped care for him.
“That had a huge impact on me,” he says. “Seeing that spirit of giving back and of compassion definitely stayed with me. All those experiences cemented my plan.”
In between malarial bouts and even afterward his uncle, an anesthesiologist, often brought him along when he worked. “He knew I wanted to be a doctor. I would carry a little doctor bag around with me.”
Through his years of globetrotting with his parents, sister and brothers (his father was a Sudanese diplomat), Khalifa stayed true to his goal.
Upon graduating from high school in South Korea at age 16, the Denver native flew home alone to start school at University of Denver, where he earned a degree in molecular biology.
“It was a little terrifying at the time,” he says. “But I knew I wanted to come back to the U.S., and my father had gotten his PhD at DU.”
Despite being exposed to anesthesiology early on, Khalifa, 24, did not expect to enter the field. Then he did the short anesthesiology portion of the surgery rotation. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “I felt I could really practice medicine in an operation room and live a life filled with urgency and acuity.”
Anesthesiology provides a nice balance of medicine, physical anatomy and psychology for Khalifa, who will perform his residency at Baylor University in Houston.
“Going under the knife is traumatic for people, and it’s up to me to guide them through it and guard their life through the surgery. To me that is an amazing responsibility.”
Staying in academia is also tempting to him. “I don’t see myself going into private practice,” he says. “I’m excited about embracing the mentor role and seeing how I do with that. If I feel that I can actually teach and feel passionately about it, then I’ll stay in academics. “
And what does his original teacher, the uncle who remembers Khalifa as a boy carrying around a little doctor bag, think of his plan?
“He’s extremely excited,” Khalifa says laughing. “I think he would love it if I came there and helped out. There is a shortage of anesthesiologists there. I would love to go back some day and do pro bono work. It’s close to my heart.”