Salutatorian of her high school class in Las Vegas. Graduation with honors from medical school. Chosen as Intern of the Year last year by internal medicine faculty. Selected by faculty and peers as chief resident of internal medicine for next year.
At first blush, Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV resident physician Dr. Sadaf Fakhra’s ongoing journey to a successful career in medicine appears to be following a straight line. Each accomplishment smoothly following yet another achievement, with everything seemingly going according to plan.
But the more you learn about this young woman, the more you realize that drawing a conclusion based on the limited information of a formal paper trail only serves to prove once again that appearances can be deceiving.
In fact, her backstory reveals that it has been grit, determination, perseverance, and the love of her parents that have enabled her to ultimately thrive and succeed in a life full of twists and turns, peaks and valleys, setbacks and obstacles.
Dr. Fakhra’s childhood years weren’t uncomplicated.
Born in Iran, her parents — dad was an auto mechanic and mother a stay-at-home mom — decided that she and her older sister both could attend school as youngsters and should be able to one day have an opportunity for a higher education, something they couldn’t have in Iran because the family did not have a religious faith that the country’s Muslim leaders approved of. When Dr. Fakhra was 10, the family moved to Turkey for two years before immigrating to the United States and Las Vegas, where her father had the promise of a job. During those two years in Turkey, neither Fakhra, who became fluent in Turkish as well as her native Farsi, nor her older sister could attend school because they were classified as refugees.
When the family moved to the United States, Fakhra recalls that she found herself at Sig Rogich Middle School in Las Vegas. “I had been an all-A student in Iran and now I was in school not even understanding what subject was being taught…I felt like I wasn’t going to excel at school. The toughest part was the pressure I felt even as a young child to make this move worth it. I could see the challenges my parents faced moving to a whole new country in their early 30s and I wanted them to know they did the right thing.”
With the help of English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers and her own study late into the night, she learned English well enough in middle school — “I spent most of my middle school years adjusting to this new life in the US and getting back to being a top student” — to become an all-A student at Palo Verde High School, graduating second in her class with a 4.7 grade point average. It was at Palo Verde that she found she enjoyed doing dissections and decided that she wanted a career related to anatomy and science.
While her work in high school earned her scholarships to UNLV, she soon found that success in the university classroom wasn’t easy for her to come by. The independent time management for study that is necessary for college, where you take responsibility for thinking through and applying what you have learned, hadn’t been as stressed in high school, where last-minute work on papers and cramming for tests calling for recitation of facts could still regularly produce highly positive results.
“I wasn’t equipped with the best study habits for undergraduate work and I took too many classes at first,” Dr. Fakhra said. “That was hard for me to admit at the time. I didn’t do well in my classes the first few semesters of school and my GPA dropped for the first time. I dug a hole so deep before I learned to study correctly that I knew it would be difficult for me to get into medical school. It was very difficult for me to deal with emotionally…I went through a lot of personality changes.”
Today, Fakhra, who received her bachelor’s degree in biology from UNLV in 2012, doesn’t view her time as an undergraduate at UNLV as a negative.
“I know it’s a strange thing to say, but the high point of my time during my undergraduate career is every time my grades weren’t exceptional at UNLV. t’s a high point because it reminds me of my persistence. Despite feeling hopeless at some point about my chances of becoming a doctor, I didn’t stop trying. I was very fortunate that my parents kept encouraging me. Their support when I really needed it helped me become who I am today.”
Her undergraduate years at UNLV actually solidified her desire to become a doctor. “Shadowing a rheumatologist and seeing what he did for patients had a huge effect on me. I remember this woman who had rheumatoid arthritis, who was in a wheelchair and had a difficult time even doing the simplest tasks – whether it was getting from place to place, combing her own hair, or even going to the bathroom without help. Within a year of treatment and care, she was able to cook for her husband and walk around her apartment. She told me that the doctor gave her her life back. I thought this is the kind of thing I want to do for people. It made me find my own passion for medicine. It’s a life that has meaning.”
Because of her academic performance, however, medical schools weren’t opening their doors to her. To show that she was now on the right path, she pursued and received, a master’s degree in anatomical sciences at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, which was also the home of DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine, where she would be admitted in 2016. There , she developed a strong sense of self-confidence, excelling academically and in extracurricular activities. She became vice president of her class and graduated with honors. “I worked so hard, fueled with the resilience that I had gained by every failure I had as an undergrad.”
Returning to Las Vegas in 2020 for a residency in internal medicine through the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, Fakhra, who plans on pursuing a fellowship in cardiology following her stint as chief resident, finds true purpose in the 80-hour work weeks she has as has resident. “I know it sounds unusual but I do not feel work stress or burned out. I almost didn’t become a doctor and that is a driving force to help me keep a positive attitude and maintain motivation. Being in the position I am is a blessing that I don’t take for granted.”
Her work continues to receive plaudits at the medical school. Says Dr. Aditi Singhan associate professor of medicine and program director of the internal medicine residency: “Throughout her training, Sadaf has been a role model…her work ethic is impeccable, she consistently maintains a wonderful attitude…She was awarded best intern and selected as chief resident due to her enthusiasm, excellent patient care, and her advocacy.”
As Fakhra, who has cared for many COVID-19 patients, continues her medical training, she can’t help thinking about her parents, how they wanted to give her and her sister (who received a doctorate in optometry) an opportunity for higher education they never had.
“Education was our whole purpose of moving to the United States. Since I was very young, my mom put all of her attention on our education. At every step, my parents, while proud of me, also looked to see where I was going next. It was pretty clear in our house that getting your high school diploma, bachelor’s degree, even master’s degree was just the start. I appreciate this push for education from my parents when I wasn’t mature enough to understand the benefits. Now I get to see the benefits of having amazing parents that support and push you to be the best version of yourself.”