Adam Shehata has been inside the Hospital for Sick Children hundreds of times in his 36 years.
First, as an infant, struggling to survive in the hospital’s NICU after being born 16 weeks too early and on the threshold of life.
Then, as a child, during weekly visits for his many follow-up appointments.
And later, as an adult, Shehata found himself back at Sick Kids for an unexpected visit, during which he and his wife learned their longed-for first pregnancy would have a devastating end.
But this week, Shehata entered the hospital, not as a patient or a parent, but as a doctor-in-training, a step toward fulfilling his long-held dream of becoming a pediatric surgeon at the renowned hospital.
“I’m fortunate for so many reasons, and much of it has to do with the care I received at Sick Kids,” Shehata says. “And now it’s a really nice feeling to know I can start to give back.”
Shehata, a third-year medical student at the University of Toronto, started his six-week pediatrics rotation at Sick Kids on Monday, Nov. 26.
That morning, during his subway commute to the hospital, Shehata found himself reflecting on what it meant to go back to the place that once saved his life. This time, and against the odds, he would be the one helping children.
Shehata hadn’t planned on making his thoughts public. But once he saw the big, illuminated Sick Kids sign towering above the main entrance, Shehata snapped a photo of the building’s facade and posted it on Twitter, along with several tweets briefly outlining his health journey.
His Twitter thread, which includes the following statement — “We can never truly know the impact we will have on other people’s lives” — has since been ‘liked’ more than 2,000 times and has generated dozens of comments. This is a lot of online attention for Shehata, who has roughly 350 Twitter followers.
“I think it’s the kind of story that people are longing for,” he says. “People are always rooting for the underdog. And though I don’t see myself in that position now, I certainly was an underdog when I was a baby, born at 24 weeks, with such long odds for survival.”
At 36, Shehata is a bit late to medical school; many of his classmates are in their early 20s.
But Shehata, who applied five times to med school before being accepted by the University of Toronto in the spring of 2015, knows he brings a host of skills.
Shehata is a professional pilot with a university degree in aviation business management. He also has a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.
While in his 20s, Shehata focused on his passion for aviation, earning his Class I Flight Instructor rating, which allowed him to teach commercial pilots how to fly, and then acquiring his airline transport pilot licence, which is needed to captain large commercial airliners.
But in 2010, at age 28, Shehata decided to become a doctor after a lifechanging experience that took place with his wife, Christina.
The pair, who had married the previous year, had been referred to Sick Kids after learning their unborn baby — their first pregnancy — had a severe heart defect. Shattered by the news, the couple were comforted by a pediatric cardiologist, who spent two hours helping them understand what it meant for a baby to have such a condition.
“We ended up losing that pregnancy,” Shehata says. “But that conversation with that physician inspired me to consider a career in medicine. He didn’t make the situation medically better for us, but the time he took and the way he explained things to us and his kindness … I knew I could be that person someday.”
Within months of their loss, Shehata was acquiring the high school and university credits needed to get into medical school. But despite top grades and his extensive aviation experience, Shehata didn’t make the cut at various schools.
Shehata then turned his attention to the law, another profession he believed had the power to change people’s lives.
He excelled in his studies at Osgoode Hall and was called to the bar in 2016. But still, he could not let go of his dream of being a doctor.
Shehata applied one last time to medical school. The same month that he was offered a job in aviation law at a downtown Toronto firm, he was admitted to the U of T’s faculty of medicine.
Three years later, and starting his pediatrics rotation at Sick Kids, Shehata knows he’s on the right path.
Shehata’s mother, Mona ElSayeh, is proud of her son and remains in awe of his success given the grim outlook at birth.
ElSayeh, who is executive director of a small Toronto charity called Access Community Capital Fund, recalls her and her husband’s fear in the moments after Shehata’s birth on June 7, 1982. Her son, born at 24 weeks and weighing just 660 grams (one pound, seven ounces) was unbelievably tiny and frail, his skin nearly translucent.
Doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital rushed the baby to Sick Kids, where doctors in the neonatal intensive care unit did everything they could to save his life.
Shehata, who initially relied on a ventilator to help him breathe, spent more than 120 days in hospital, and faced multiple health crises, including one remedied by a lifesaving blood transfusion.
Each day of his stay, ElSayeh or her husband made the hour-long trek from their home in Pickering to visit their son.
ElSayeh, who was heartbroken every time she had to say goodbye to Shehata, sleeping in his incubator, believes the constant care from the NICU staff has helped her son thrive — not just as a baby but throughout his life.
“Even though I was there every day, I couldn’t be with him 24/7. But I knew the nurses would take him out and cuddle him and treat him like any baby wants to be treated. I think that went a really long way in his development.”
After four months, Shehata went home on Thanksgiving weekend with his parents and older brother, Kareem.
Through much of Shehata’s childhood, ElSayeh continued to take her son to Sick Kids for weekly appointments with specialists to monitor his hearing, eyesight and growth and development. Doctors warned ElSayeh that Shehata would likely have physical disabilities and serious developmental delays due to his prematurity.
But though he needed extra help for some tasks, especially with his fine motor development, and did have to repeat third grade, Shehata surpassed everyone’s expectations.
ElSayeh says she knows he will make a good doctor, just as he is already a good son, husband and father. Shehata and Christina have a 7-year-old daughter, Amelia, who ElSayeh calls “the apple of my eye.”
After his first week of training at Sick Kids, Shehata is even more sure of his dream of being a pediatric surgeon at the hospital that once saved his life.
He knows it is a longshot. Once he completes medical school, Shehata faces at least seven more years of training and stiff competition for the handful of pediatric surgery spots in Canada.
But he also knows that he has beaten the odds once before at Sick Kids. And that he’ll be helped by his personal experience — as a patient and then as a parent at the hospital — coupled with his technical skills honed while a pilot and a lawyer.
It’s time, he says, for him to start paying forward all the kindness and care he has received in his life. And he wants to start at Sick Kids.
Megan Ogilvie is a Toronto-based data reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @megan_ogilvie
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