June 18, 2019

Hebrew University-UCLA exchange program aims to expand med students’ horizons

For the past three months, a trio of sixth-year students from the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem saw patients at UCLA and participated in grand rounds, during which they reviewed each patient’s status with the attending physician, residents and other medical students. 

You could say it made their Jewish mothers proud — except only one of the three is Jewish. 

Dima Hijaze, 25, is a Muslim-Israeli Arab from Tamra in the north of Israel. Tahani Sheikh, 25, is a Druze from Abu Snan, also in the north. Only Michael Schapira, 29, from Sunnyvale, Calif., is Jewish. (He made aliyah without his parents as a lone soldier in 2003.) 

Local philanthropists Jane and Marc Nathanson — she’s a therapist, he’s the chairman of Mapleton Investments — started The Erika Meldola Fallek Hebrew University-UCLA Medical Student Exchange Program in 2008. They got the idea at a social dinner with Gerald Levey, former dean of UCLA’s medical school, and his wife, Barbara.

“He said it was his dream that students from Israel, from Hebrew University, the top students, could come to UCLA medical school for one semester so they would be well versed in the latest techniques, share ideas, etc.,” Marc Nathanson said. 

“We are longtime and strong believers and supporters of the State of Israel. We had already done some charitable work, an endowment, with the Weizmann Institute [of Science] there in Jane’s father’s name, Fred Fallek, and we wanted to do something in her mother’s name. Her mother was a medical doctor. When this idea came forward, it just seemed to fit.”

This year’s group of students reflects the diversity of the student body at Hebrew University, which draws from over 70 countries and where approximately 10 percent of the student body is Arab. Nathanson said he’s all in favor of the multiculturalism represented by this year’s trio. 

“We are very interested in helping Israel in the medical field become stronger and stronger, and we embrace everyone who is in Israel and supports the State of Israel.”

Since the program began, three medical students have arrived every winter from Israel and immersed themselves in four different specialties of their choosing. This could mean fields they are seriously considering as a career, or areas they are just interested in. 

Sheikh, for example, did a rotation in plastic surgery even though she is near certain she will specialize in neurology. And she was quick to point out it wasn’t what you think of when you think of plastic surgery and Los Angeles. Many of the patients were children with malformations. “It’s beautiful, actually,” she said of what doctors can do. 

Schapira found his stint in infectious diseases especially gratifying, as well as his time in the OB-GYN clinic, and is considering both. And Hijaze, who foresees doing something in internal medicine, was able to dip into four sub-specialties, including hematology and cardiothoracic surgery.

The three are among the top of their class of 170 and were selected to participate in the program based on a number of criteria, including academics, extracurricular activities and English fluency.

Their days started as early as 5-5:30 a.m. during surgical rotations, and often they worked until 7 or 8 p.m. It is different in Israel, they said, where most medical students need to work to pay their tuition and, often, support families. Sheikh and Hijaze are both nurses back home. They work nights, while Schapira does medical research. 

There are other differences in the systems, too.

“In Israel, if you complain of a cough, you come to the hospital,” Hijaze said. “You don’t have to pay for it. The cases here are more selective.” 

And the patient population is very different from Israel’s. The future doctors saw a variety of ethnic groups they would rarely, if ever, see back home, and each has associated risk factors and certain diseases more common to it.

“We’ve been able to see some cases that are unique,” Schapira said. “It’s been a very educational experience.”

“You get exposed to things you don’t get to see back home,” Hijaze added.

Because of their accents, the students naturally fielded many questions about their backgrounds. This was especially true for Sheikh, as many Americans have never heard of the Druze religion. 

“Druze can be Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian or Israeli. Those are the main four countries we live in,” Sheikh said. “We believe in God. It is a secret religion. Only Druze religious people can get closer knowledge of the religion. … There are about 200,000 [Druze] in Israel. It is a very closed community. Druze people marry Druze people. They live near to each other. There are 16 [Druze] villages concentrated in the north [of Israel].”

During their stay, the trio had the opportunity to meet the Nathansons and do a little sightseeing. They also were hosted at several Shabbat dinners by local families active with American Friends of  The Hebrew University.

“When you’re so far from home, you don’t have this family feeling,” Sheikh said. “They gave us that.”

Their time here is over now, but the students all say they may come back to the States to do their fellowships, a practice common among Israeli doctors. But they all plan to practice in Israel.

“It is much needed there,” Hijaze said. “We have a shortage of doctors in Israel. This is my community. This is my way of giving back.”