On Match Day — the day thousands of graduating medical students find out where they will complete their residency training — Yousef Abu-Salha’s mom didn’t exactly hide her top choice.
“I think she really wanted me to match at UNC because she had actually purchased light blue balloons.” Abu-Salha grinned with visible deference to his mother, who has always encouraged him to pursue a life of service to others.
He recounted the moment not too long ago, with his mom and dad hovering eagerly over each shoulder, when he opened his email to find that he had earned a sought-after spot in UNC Hospital’s urologic surgery program.
“My parents were ecstatic. It was the happiest I’ve seen my mom in a long time. She was throwing rose petals and dancing,” he said. “We were all very excited that I’ll be staying here because the culture at UNC is spectacular. It’s one-of-a-kind, I think.”
Abu-Salha will graduate from UNC School of Medicine on May 11 before embarking on a five-year residency, during which he will train under some of the top urologic surgeons in the country, mastering everything from minimally invasive procedures to robotic surgeries. He’ll also learn from faculty in other services, from general surgery to trauma and ICU.
“It’s a graduated sense of responsibility and autonomy. You know, I’ll be holding a pager, and I’ll be the first line of communication for patient issues, so it’s going to be a steep learning curve but should be a lot of fun,” he said.
Abu-Salha is among the 156 Carolina medical students who will begin their residencies this year. More than 40% of those UNC School of Medicine graduates will complete their residency training in North Carolina.
With a major milestone just ahead of him, Abu-Salha is quick to express that he did not get here alone; he has been learning from mentors and friends at Carolina since he first enrolled as an undergraduate in 2011.
“I’m eternally grateful to my [faculty] mentors, without whom I don’t think this would have been possible, and I hope to be able to pay that forward one day,” he said. “And I remember getting to know my [medical school] cohort and from day one, just seeing that UNC’s mission was to bring in a class of not only these outstanding, brilliant achievers, but also really diverse, down-to-earth people who love giving back.”
They’ve been, he said, “like a family.” And family is everything.
Abu-Salha’s sisters, Razan and Yusor, and his brother-in-law and best friend Deah Barakat, were killed in their home in Chapel Hill in 2015. They were 19, 21 and 23, respectively. Barakat was a Carolina dental student at the time. Barakat’s wife, Yusor, planned to attend the dental school.
“I would always tell people, even though I was older than my sisters, that I truly looked up to them because they were just wonderful people,” Abu-Salha said. “They genuinely cared about others, and they woke up every morning thinking about how to help other people.”
Razan, an architecture student, excelled at using her talents for good: cooking huge trays of food for the homeless on Friday nights and hand-delivering meals on Saturday mornings, or selling her artwork to raise funds for underserved communities both locally and abroad.
Yusor and her husband Deah were deeply involved in various communities, having traveled to the Syrian border in Turkey to provide dental care to displaced pediatric patients and to raise money for future care.
Abu-Salha returned to Carolina when the tragedy occurred. Every long day in the clinic or late night in the library, he dedicated to them.
“When I came back to UNC, I felt that I was lucky because UNC offers so many opportunities — no matter what your passions are — that I was able to walk in my late siblings’ shoes and figure out how I could serve my community here.”
Inspired by his loved ones, Abu-Salha and a colleague, Nicole Damari, led the UNC chapter of Physicians for Human Rights, focusing on refugee health in North Carolina. Together they established a clinic to help refugees living in central North Carolina achieve their U.S. naturalization.
With support from the NC Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, the clinic has treated more than 60 clients. While Abu-Salha moves on to residency, new student leaders have stepped up to continue their efforts.
As a doctor, Abu-Salha hopes to find a way to continue serving the underserved. It’s simply what his family does.
“I’m really blessed to be able to pursue a career in which I’ll be helping others and relieving suffering, so that in and of itself is very humbling,” he said. “I’m excited to learn more and to contribute to science during my residency. But right now, I’m just leaving the doors open and enjoying the ride.”