August 2018 — Some of Yasmine Dakhama’s pre-medical school experiences include typical choices: shadowing a geriatrician, volunteering to work with children in a pediatric ward, and performing clinical and bench research.
But she pursued less obvious options, too, such as developing English curriculum for the children of immigrants, in Torcy, France, a suburb east of Paris. Dakhama, whose family is from Morocco and immigrated to Canada, then the United States, is a fluent speaker of Arabic and French.
She also volunteered for several years with the Cherry Creek Diversity Conference, beginning when she was a sophomore in Overland High School in Aurora. Recalling her family’s experience dealing with stereotypes after 9/11, Dakhama compares her family’s immigration experience to “a particle in the ocean, going wherever the water is taking us,” she says moving her hands in wavelike motions.
The field of psychology was her first interest while at the University of Colorado Denver.
“I found myself gravitating towards tutoring students after I took a course in behavioral biology,” she said. “The course focused on neuroanatomy, neurotransmitters, and the inner workings of the mind, but it also invoked many philosophical questions; I fell in love with it.”
Considering a medical career, Dakhama joined a clinical research team that was studying the use of steroids on women with a high risk of premature labor to see if the drugs would help the respiratory system of their newborns. Dakhama learned about the emotional and moral side of clinical research as she watched researchers wrestle with wording of the consent form “at such a delicate time in a woman’s life.”
Dakhama’s bench research experience was in a neuroscience lab, where she appreciated the “beauty of strictly following protocol and the mundanity of bench research,” performed in a manner that she found artistic and full of creativity.
In a senior clinic she shadowed Evelyn Hutt, MD, associate professor of medicine, who interacted with patients “with this really deep recognition that this person has lived a full life, and the habits that they have at this point are relatively ingrained.
“Dr. Hutt compromises with patients without breeching boundaries; she is very thoughtful when it comes to conversations revolving around her patient’s quality of life and social support system.”
Dakhama felt comfortable around older patients because as a little girl she struck up a friendship with a neighbor who had multiple sclerosis. “When my family moved here from Canada we had no relatives in the U.S. Mary became a mentor, and I considered her my best friend, my older sister, my favorite aunt; she was immediately a part of the family.”
Watching her friend Mary’s physical and mental abilities wane, Dakhama became aware of how intertwined medicine, life and art are. The relationship influenced Yasmine’s journey towards trying to understand more about the human condition, psyche and to forge authentic relationships with others.
Volunteering with children at Denver Health was a highlight in her undergraduate years. Her job was simply to play. “I loved that. I felt really fortunate to be with them during a temporary escape from their reality of being in a hospital at such a young age.
“I would leave the hospital internally reconciling various thoughts because I would feel this deep unfairness that exists in life. It can be based on where one is born, what particular war is occuring at that time, or on the various events that unfold within one’s life. However, I suppose it is how we respond (at an individual and social level) to such things that makes the difference.“
Traveling to France to work with the Higher Education Department of the French Ministry of Education was an uncommon pre-medical school experience, but Dakhama says, “a distinction between ‘what is medical’ and ‘what is not’ no longer exists for me; everything we experience in this life is connected and sometimes it is through art, literature or nature that this interconnectedness is better portrayed or felt.”
She enjoyed getting to know and learning with the high school students, whose parents mainly immigrated from Algeria and who were curious about America, particularly politics, education, net neutrality, and gun control.
All these experiences invited reflection, and Dakhama said the broad range gave her the confidence to pursue medicine, despite never having met a female Moroccan physician.
“It took me a little while to appreciate the fact that medicine is going to look very different for each person who enters it. I think for a while I had an idea of what a physician looks like, what it means, and that for me was at times discouraging because I didn’t see myself fitting the mold of a field that I myself had falsely constructed,” Dakhama, 23, said. “When I finally celebrated that medicine looks different for everyone, I looked at my experiences and thought to myself, ‘These parts of my life are going to manifest themselves and intersect in ways I’m not even aware of now.’”
There is not one central theme to her life, but she believes in the journey. “Steve Jobs said you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”