During her two-week medical mission trip to the West African nations of Ghana and Togo this summer, one of the ways in which biology alum Monica Tawadros ’17 helped visiting doctors was by taking patients’ vital signs.
When one woman’s blood pressure registered a dangerously high 220/120, the doctor gave Tawadros a second look. “I’d never seen a blood pressure like that before,” says Tawadros, now a second-year M.D. student at UMass Medical School.
The doctor wanted to put the patient on a high dose of blood pressure medication, which would require monthly follow-up visits. But there was a problem: Once the team of visiting physicians from St. Paul Medical Missions left, there would be no one at the ward to conduct the follow-up visits. They had to choose between putting the patient on a dangerously high dose or letting her high blood pressure go untreated.
“With every patient, there was this balance of how we treated them, which is not something we worry about here in America,” says Tawadros, who was invited to take part in the mission by a doctor from her family’s church. “It helped me realize that medicine isn’t just one 15-minute appointment and they’re off. If you want someone to be healthy, you need to fit into their life. And everyone’s life is different.”
Growing up in Tewksbury, Tawadros “always dreamt of being a doctor,” partly because she loves the science behind medicine and partly because she’s seen firsthand how physicians can change lives. Her parents are from Egypt, and Tawadros describes visiting relatives there as an “earth-shattering” experience.
“My first visit definitely was a culture shock. You don’t know poverty until you leave your home,” she says. “But they don’t feel like they’re lacking. They’re so happy and content with their lives. They wake smiling up every morning.”
Visiting Egypt, and then Ghana and Togo, has given Tawadros a glimpse of what she can accomplish as a doctor.
“They need so much help, and they really do rely on doctors to advocate for them,” she says. “I realized you can do so much with an M.D.—more than just learn the science and treat people. You become someone they look up to and trust.”
With an eye on medical school, Tawadros become certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT) while an undergraduate at UML through the university’s free program with Middlesex Community College.
“I decided that I should get a taste of medicine before applying to medical school,” says Tawadros, who also joined the university’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) program. The hands-on experience, along with monthly talks from the EMS medical director, Dr. Jon Drake, gave Tawadros a head start in medical school.
In one class, students had to diagnose stomach pain. Tawadros remembered Drake describing a serious condition where the abdominal aorta splits. “I was the first student who got it right,” says Tawadros, who was also one of the only students with experience in talking to patients. “I knew how to ask hard questions, because I had been doing it with EMS.”
Tawadros looks forward to taking her licensing exam after her second year of med school and getting into emergency medicine rotations, a discipline she may want to pursue. She also plans to continue helping others abroad.
“Hopefully I can go back and do more,” says Tawadros, who assisted in nine surgeries while in Ghana and Togo, helping an oncologist remove tumors from patients’ neck areas. She also brought a mannequin with her to teach CPR and demonstrate how to use an automated external defibrillator (AED).
One of the highlights of the trip was visiting schools to conduct hearing and skin tests. “The kids were amazing,” says Tawadros, who discovered that there’s one English word that even French-speaking children in Togo know. 
“I walked in with my phone and one of them said, ‘Selfie?’” Tawadros recalls with a laugh. She obliged them with several photos and a game of soccer.
“This is why I want to be a doctor,” Tawadros remembers thinking to herself. “This is definitely what I want to do.”