War, Polio and Family’s Selflessness Lead to Medical School

‘MY JOURNEY TO MEDICINE ACTUALLY STARTED BEFORE I WAS EVEN BORN.’

Lemaat Michael began her life half a world away, in the African country of Eritrea, two years before the official end of a 30-year war between it and neighboring Ethiopia.

As a child, Lemaat Michael coped with effects of polio

As a child, Lemaat Michael
coped with effects of polio

Her path to medical school as a member of the MD Class of 2019, however, began even earlier, when her mother fled the violence and went to a rural village while pregnant with Michael. As a result, Michael did not receive the polio vaccine on time and ended up contracting the disease when she was about a year old.

Relatives of Michael who had immigrated to America found a doctor in Atlanta willing to sponsor the young girl for treatment. Unfortunately, the government of the newly independent Eritrea would not let either of Michael’s parents leave with their young daughter.

To give her the best possible chance at recovery, Michael’s parents made the wrenching decision to send her 16-year-old sister, Meseret, with the 3-year-old to America.

“Every single thing I’ve done with my life, I credit to (Meseret) and her ability to grow up before she needed to and to raise me like I was her own daughter,” Michael says. “When I say that she is like my second mother, she really is.”

Planting the Seeds of a Dream

From the beginning, Michael’s interactions with the pediatricians, orthopaedic surgeons, nurses and physical therapists at Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital in Atlanta made a strong impression. The young girl started telling her family that she, too, wanted to become a physician.

“Of course, children say a lot of ridiculous things, and … I also threw in that I wanted to become a singer, an actress, and other things like a chef or wedding planner,” Michael says with a laugh. But the idea of practicing medicine never strayed far from her mind through her years of treatment.

In the beginning, no one knew what Michael’s treatment would entail or how long it would take, so the two sisters thought they might return to Eritrea. However, the process of treating Michael’s polio included many steps, and the political situation in Eritrea remained unsettled. When Meseret married and moved from Atlanta to North Carolina, 12-year-old Michael came with her. By then, she had also developed scoliosis because of her polio-induced limp and needed surgery to treat that as well.

As time passed, other members of Michael’s family started making their way to the United States. Michael completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University, then spent three years working in public health before deciding to apply to medical school. That was in 2014, the year her father—the last member of the “Michael migration”—came to the U.S. Michael’s parents and six of her eight siblings lived in North Carolina, so she focused on medical schools in the Southeast.

A Place to Transform

“It was really important to me to reconnect with my family and rejuvenate the relationships I had not had a chance to develop,” Michael says. “I was really impressed when I came to visit Wake and felt at home. … I got a sense that this is where I would transform into the physician that I eventually want to become. And all of my expectations have been met so far.”

Michael credits the School of Medicine with carefully selecting students and teaching them to work well together, a critical skill in the highly collaborative, team-based environment of medicine today.

Michael has not decided what avenue of medicine she wants to pursue, partly because there are so many intriguing options. The school also has faculty and mentors in place who create a supportive environment that encourages students to ask questions and discover and pursue interests, she says.

For Michael, meeting Julie Linton, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics and proponent for refugee and immigrant health, opened her eyes to new avenues to explore as a physician.

“Because of my background as a refugee and seeing (Linton’s involvement), I realized I can pursue my interests and advocate
for people while also becoming a physician,” Michael says. “Medicine can have huge impacts … and as physicians, we are really responsible for many things beyond the scope of simply caring for patients.”sunset in Ethiopia

The Journey Continues

As far as her journey has taken her to this point, Michael recognizes that she is still in the early stages. When she pauses to reflect on her life, she acknowledges the obstacles she has faced to achieve her dream of medical school—polio and its effects, separation from her family—but she chooses to see the value of those experiences and to look forward at what she still has to accomplish.

She has an idea of what to expect.

“When you do finally get to a place where you can take a step back and really reflect on your journey, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished and how much more you have yet to accomplish,” she says. “And at how valuable every single step of the way has been.”