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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / February 

Medical student keeps up academics and diversity work in spite of his own cancer diagnosis

March 5, 2018

Omar Salman
Third-year student Omar Salman outside of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine

As a medical student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Omar Salman had learned a lot about cancer: from what goes wrong at the cellular level to cause it as well as patient risk factors and treatment options.

Through the school’s patient-centered curriculum, Salman had explored real patients’ cancer experiences through clinical, scientific, and emotional lenses.

But cancer became something new when Salman got his own diagnosis of bone marrow cancer near the end of his second year of study. “I didn't know what to do next. The school administration is great, but what am I supposed to tell them? I might be dying? It was weird,” Salman said. “You are torn between feeling like you are asking for special treatment but then you realize, I have cancer. Why am I so worried about school?”

Despite the diagnosis, Salman completed his second year of study, even passing the first phase of his national board exams, while undergoing treatment. This year, Salman’s third year of study, the school administration worked with him to rearrange his clerkship rotations in various medical specialties to help with his recovery.

The treatments have been successful and Salman is cancer-free. But the experience has given the future physician a window into the complex realities of recovery for patients.

“The only way I can think of the experience is that it was very humbling,” Salman said. “You realize there is so much outside of ‘You're better now.’ Because what is ‘better?’ I think we in medicine often define ‘better’ as you no longer have cancer or high blood pressure because you took a pill or did chemo or radiation. Shouldn't we also consider better to mean that our patients are coping well emotionally with what happened to them? That was, in the long run, the harder piece for me.”

Salman has relied on his classmates to help with both his physical and emotional recovery. “A lot of my classmates really stepped up. They would help me figure out how to work my oxygen tank and other medications or equipment. A big part of it for me is continuing to check in with people and being able to tell them when I'm not okay and recognizing that it is fine to have some good days and some bad days.”

Despite the whirlwind year, Salman received two big honors for his efforts in medical school, both in and out of the classroom.

In June, Salman was selected as a Point Foundation Scholar, recognizing his work to support the LGBTQ community. “For me, being part of an organization that is made up of LGBTQ people for LGBTQ people is particularly special,” Salman said. “I have a community of people who are similar to me with similar aspirations and who provide a network of support.”

When Salman came out as gay while an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University, he faced some challenges, including his family cutting off ties with him. Since then, he has advocated for the community, particularly in regards to health disparities.

While at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Salman became chair of LGBTQ+ Issues for the American Medical Association and founded the VTCSOM Student National Medical Association, which focuses on diversity issues in medicine.

“Studies show there are better patient outcomes when patients feel like a provider is someone who understands them culturally or ethnically or religiously. We all can benefit from being in a more understanding and accepting society. We can be part of that as future physicians.”

Salman also volunteers for the Roanoke Diversity Center and is associate director for the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation (MSV), a philanthropic organization dedicated to improving patient access.

In October, the MSV Foundation awarded Salman a 2017 Salute to Service Award for Service by a Medical Student or Resident, recognizing him for his community involvement and work to advocate for health care equality. (See video about Salman and the award.)

Beyond his experience as a gay man, Salman saw health disparities firsthand growing up. He immigrated to the United States, the son of two Palestinian refugees living in Kuwait and then Jordan, when he was 8 years old. “I'm interested in the intersection of culture and medicine,” Salman said. “Where can we find the connection to create good health, not just the absence of illness, but the active prevention of illness.”

When Salman graduates in May of 2019, he plans to pursue a career in pediatric hematology and oncology to treat patients with diagnoses like his own and to help their families cope with their treatment, all while continuing his work to help underserved populations.

Salman also spends a great deal of time completing an in-depth research project in pediatric neurology. He is working with Stephanie DeLuca, research assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and assistant professor of pediatrics for VTCSOM, on medical device research for children with cerebral palsy, in collaboration with Alan Asbeck, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“It is interesting when the body is fine but the brain is what is making the problems happen. For me, unraveling that mystery is really exciting and interesting. Especially with child neurology, you get a lot of diversity of conditions that show improvement with a mix of medicine and lifestyle modifications.”

Salman is one of two students this year to receive the VTC School of Medicine Charter Class Scholarship, a fund started by the school’s first class that graduated in 2014. These are the first scholarships to be awarded from the fund.

"As a member of the charter class and VTC alumnus, it is so great to see that our scholarship fund is starting to provide some support for current students,” said Matthew Joy, plastic and reconstructive surgery resident for Carilion Clinic-Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “The entire charter class benefited from scholarship support during the formative years of the medical school, so I know we all appreciate how much it means to medical students who can potentially be facing a mountain of educational debt as a result of their desire to pursue a career in medicine. Since we were so fortunate to have that support from the institution, I think it's fitting that our class has its own scholarship to give some back."

For Salman, scholarships give him an opportunity to reflect on his journey. “Sharing stories is really powerful. It keeps us human and accountable to our patients and to each other and to ourselves as future doctors,” Salman said. “For me, even applying to a scholarship is me writing out my story and reminding myself of what I want to do. Maybe someone will read your story and they can relate and see themselves pursuing something similar.”