By Tien-Shun Lee
Now the director of the internal medicine residency program at the Forest Hills hospital, Shah, 40, manages 38 medical residents, 36 of whom were educated in foreign medical schools. Last month she was one out of nine immigrant New Yorkers selected by the City Council and Emigrant Savings Bank to be honored for the outstanding service and leadership they have provided to their local communities.
“I applaud Dr. Shah for her ongoing excellence in providing high-quality health care,” said City Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) at a ceremony in City Hall on Dec. 10. “Without her contributions and those of our other distinguished guests, New York City would be at a significant loss.”
Shah said she grew up in Bahrain among Rolls Royces and Jaguars and people who had tremendous respect for her father, a top surgeon in the country.
“When I saw my dad, I always wanted to be a doctor,” Shah said. “I was 17 when I went to medical school in India.”
Shah, who is fluent in English, Hindi and Gujarati, another Indian dialect, studied medicine for 4 1/2 years at a medical school in Belgaum, India. She met her husband, Minal Shah, a native of India who grew up in New York City, in school and moved with him to Queens in 1987.
During her first year in the United States, Shah gave birth to her first son, Neil, now 16, and took the exams necessary to apply for medical residency within this country.
In 1988, Shah joined Flushing Hospital as an internal medicine resident. Although she had originally wanted to become a gynecologist or surgeon so that she could treat patients using her hands, she ended up going into internal medicine because it was a field that was open to immigrants.
After finishing her residency, Shah and her husband moved to a small town upstate where they planned to raise their children. But after a year, they decided it was too cold and culturally different.
The family moved to Syosset on Long Island and Shah went back to Flushing Hospital, where she became a member of the faculty of internal medicine.
Her husband, also an internal medicine doctor, went to work at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Hospital in Winthrop, L.I.. Shah's children, Neil, Devan, 12, and Karishma, 8, attend public school in Syosset.
At the age of 32, Shah was promoted to director of the internal medicine residency program at Flushing Hospital, making her the youngest program director in the country.
Shah came to North Shore at Forest Hills in 2000 after a change in management at Flushing Hospital caused her to feel dissatisfied with the administration there.
As a mentor for internal medicine residents, Shah said she always tells her physicians in training to realize that one of their own family members might be a patient.
“My goal is patient safety and to protect the quality of care, and that's how we train our residents here,” Shah said.
Compared with doctors in India and Bahrain, Shah said physicians here are more geared toward getting proof through laboratory tests.
For example, in India, doctors usually diagnose heart murmurs by listening to a patient's heart using a stethoscope, Shah said. In this country, doctors send the patient for an echocardiogram, a test for the heart that uses an ultrasound machine that is not available in many parts of India.
“The simple things that you could diagnose bedside, those clinical skills should not disappear,” Shah said.
Another difference between the medical system here and in India is that medical students in this country spend short periods of time learning one medical specialty, then rotate to another hospital or department to learn another specialty. In India, medical students spend all four years of their training working in one hospital.
“It's better to be in a long-term, structured learning program,” Shah said. “Most of the time here, the people are playing hooky because they know they're going to leave in a month anyway.”
Cristian Popesca, the chief medical resident who helps Shah run her program, said most of the residents in the program are foreigners because there are more positions open for medical residents in this country than there are American medical school graduates, and most American medical students prefer to do their residencies at university hospitals.
Though she sometimes misses having patients of her own, Shah said she sees training future physicians as a higher mission. In the future, she would like to become a dean or chief academic officer.
“If I won the Lotto, I would stop everything and just do charity work,” Shah said. “For now, I just take it one day at a time and move on. I get a lot of satisfaction out of what I do. I like to motivate people to do things.”
Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.