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Faith, hard work propel Bedwan to medical school

by Chuck Gordon

Ghada Bedwan is a self-professed homebody. Hers is an especially tight-knit family, and she commutes to Wingate from the Ballantyne area of South Charlotte, where she lives with her parents and three of her siblings.

“I just love to be able to retreat there at the end of the night, even if I don’t do a lot of conversing,” says Bedwan, a senior. “Just knowing that my family’s around me, that’s enough for me.”

She’d never even gone to a sleep-away camp before, but in the summer of 2015, after her freshman year at Wingate, Bedwan found herself two and a half hours from home, in the Duke University Summer Medical and Dental Education Program, a six-week medical “boot camp.”

Bedwan loved the demanding learning environment. She took classes in the mornings and did chemistry and physics recitations in the afternoons. She took ethics classes and did “standardized patient” exercises, in which trained actors pretend to be patients while the students “treat” them. “It was pretty intense,” Bedwan says. “It was very rigorous.”

Ghada Bedwan works in the lab in the Smith Science Building


Emotionally, the six weeks away were a little challenging. Bedwan was on her own for the first time, and on top of that it all took place during a time when she’d normally be celebrating daily with her family. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown, and the evening meal is an important family gathering.

“I think that added a factor of nostalgia,” says Bedwan, whose parents were born in Palestine. “We were in classes all day and then studying, and then breaking my fast is something that we usually enjoy doing together, so to be alone was, like, ‘This is very depressing.’”

Bedwan soon learned about Duke’s Center for Muslim Life and began joining other young Muslims at sunset for meals and worship, softening the blow somewhat. And she confesses that she “cheated” a bit during her first time out on her own: Her brother was living in Raleigh, just 30 minutes down the road, so in a pinch she could easily see a friendly face.

That six-week program proved to be a trial run for Bedwan, who will graduate as an honors pre-med major at Wingate on May 12 and then in August leave for medical school at the Spartanburg, South Carolina, campus of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, or VCOM. Spartanburg might be just 90 minutes away, but the road to medical school is a grueling one.

“It’s like all the years of hard work have finally paid off,” she says.

‘Home atmosphere’

The sciences didn’t always fascinate Bedwan. She made good grades in all subjects in middle and high school, but it took a biology course to really grab her. “Biology was the first one where I was like, ‘Wow! This is really cool,’” she says.

She’s especially drawn to the biology we can’t see. The building blocks of our bodies – of the bodies of all plants and animals – sparked Bedwan’s imagination in high school and helped lead her to a career in medicine.

She remains in awe of how our bodies work – how each organ is a billion-piece puzzle that functions to keep us moving and breathing.

“I like more of the small, cellular biology,” she says. “This little tiny cell that we can’t even describe with anything here, how small it is, and having an idea what’s inside it, how it functions, and how a lot of those cells make us up, and how certain structures give rise to these functions. It’s cool.”

It was a short hop from digging biology to wanting to be a doctor. But there are no medical schools in Charlotte, and Bedwan knew she didn’t want to stray far from her family, and in fact wanted to live at home during college if possible.

As a senior at Ardrey Kell High School, she applied to three schools: Wingate, Queens University and UNC-Charlotte. Wingate was the clear choice.

“Wingate I knew I liked more, because it’s smaller,” Bedwan says, noting that Ardrey Kell’s student body is larger than Wingate’s undergraduate population. “I didn’t like the idea of a large college. I like this nice, home atmosphere, a community environment. That’s just the type of person I am. I like to be around my family. We’re close.

“I love that, here, after your first semester, you really know who you’re studying with. You know your professors pretty well.”

And they know you, which is how Bedwan wound up at Duke University that summer. Dr. Chris Dahm, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Physics, and Alexandra Finley, director of academic advising, wrote Bedwan letters of recommendation to help her get into the program, which, intentionally or not, helps weed out those who might not be best suited for the demanding schedule of medical school.

"I love that, here, after your first semester, you really know who you’re studying with. You know your professors pretty well." — Ghada Bedwan

Bedwan survived the course, and the experience helped prepare her for an arduous schedule. As a sophomore at Wingate she was loaded down. “I was taking three sciences and three labs each semester, in addition to other classes,” she says. “So I had 18 hours each semester. But three labs is killer. And I’m a Bio 150 lab assistant, so on top of those I had those labs to assist.”

She has also been doing research with Dr. Brian Odom, associate professor of biology. They are trying to figure out whether it’s possible to engineer viruses to kill bacteria, as an alternative to antibiotics – which are quickly becoming less effective in patient care.

What some might consider an overly burdensome schedule the affable Bedwan laughs off as a virtual necessity to satisfy her hunger for activity. “I love being always on the go,” she says. “Every once in a while it’s nice to stop. But if I stop for too long I don’t know what to do with myself.”

Choosing the DO route

Where others might see differences, Bedwan sees similarities. The optimistic, good-natured Bedwan looks for commonality, not division. When it comes to religion, she believes the religion she follows, Islam, isn’t that much different from Christianity.

And in her nascent medical career, Bedwan sees little difference between the degree she’s focusing on, doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO), and the more commonly known doctor of medicine (MD). DOs make up only about 9 percent of physicians in the United States, but that number is set to grow substantially over the next few years as more schools begin offering DO degrees.

Bedwan considers the two types of physician to basically be fraternal twins. “They’re the exact same thing, except DOs have an extra 200 hours of training that MDs don’t,” she says.

Osteopathic medicine started in the late 1800s as the practice of physically manipulating the musculoskeletal system in order to allow the body to heal itself. It was created as something of a reaction to established medicine. But in the intervening decades, the practice has taken on more and more attributes of traditional medicine, while traditional medicine has co-opted practices of osteopathic medicine, to the point where the two are virtually indistinguishable.

Bedwan gives the example of a patient who is admitted to the hospital for pneumonia. A DO and an MD would each prescribe identical medications, but if she chooses to, and if there’s time, the DO can give some additional treatment that could speed up the healing process. “A DO doctor has in her back pocket a set of tools, osteopathic treatment, where she could use a technique that helps to break up mucous,” she says. “Whereas with just medication, a patient could be in there five to seven days, that could be brought down to three to five days with those treatments.”

The “whole body” approach of osteopathic medicine fits Bedwan’s personality well.

“She is tremendously driven to give back to others through serving as a physician and found osteopathic medicine to be an excellent fit for her career goals and personal philosophy of how she wants to live her life,” says Dr. Alison Brown, a Wingate biology professor who has worked closely with Bedwan and serves as her adviser. “I feel Ghada is such a well-rounded person and has the ability to connect to a wide variety of individuals.”

“She is truly one of the most driven pre-medical students I have known and has never wavered on her decision to pursue medicine.” — Dr. Allison Brown

With biology and pre-med being two of the most popular majors at the University, Wingate signed an agreement with VCOM in 2016 in which VCOM will accept up to 30 Wingate grads each year. Bedwan is among the first to take advantage of Wingate’s affiliation with VCOM, and even though she was accepted into other DO programs, she thought VCOM was the best fit.

But first Bedwan had to sit for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT. If you’ve ever taken the ACT, SAT or GRE, think of the MCAT like that, except that it contains much more Latin and takes about twice as long. During the nearly eight-hour exam, test-takers get two 10-minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch.

Bedwan discovered how well prepared she was for the MCAT when she took a test-prep course. She says: “When we were going through the biology section, I felt like all the courses I had taken at Wingate were very related to the text, whereas the other girls I took the test with were like, ‘Oh, our bio-chem teacher didn’t teach this,’ or ‘Our chemistry teacher didn’t teach this.’ I was like, ‘Go Wingate!’”

And go Ghada. As much as Wingate has helped get her into medical school, her own ambition has been the driving force.

“She is truly one of the most driven pre-medical students I have known and has never wavered on her decision to pursue medicine,” Brown says.

And behind that is a desire to take a sledgehammer to two stereotypes: about women in Arab culture and about Muslim women in wider society.

‘A smile all the time’

The headscarf can be a controversial item of clothing in some parts of the world. Wingate alum Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi has even founded With or Without, a nonprofit devoted to helping Muslim women deal with restrictive laws concerning employment in her native Germany.

In the United States, many Muslim women don’t feel safe going out in public wearing a headscarf. Politics often inflame the situation.

Bedwan is one of the few students at Wingate to wear a headscarf. Wingate’s roots are firmly Christian, but Bedwan has loved her time at the University and feels a part of the school’s faith community. She sees Christianity and Islam – you could probably throw in Judaism as well – as much more similar than different, a point of view she shared during a speech she gave at Wingate's Baccalaureate ceremony in May.

“I’ve always been told that we’re all Abrahamic faiths, so we have more in common than we do differences,” she says. “GPS 110 (Scripture) was great, because to me, I think, ‘Prophet stories? Great. They’re all the same prophets!’”

In fact, the “faith” portion of Wingate’s motto, “Faith, Knowledge, Service,” was one of the primary aspects of life on the Wingate campus that attracted Bedwan to the University in the first place. In addition to Wingate’s proximity to her home, she liked the Baptist history of the school, its family-like atmosphere and the small campus.

“It’s been awesome,” she says. “I don’t know too much what I was expecting. I just know I wanted this home environment, and in that respect it exceeded my expectations. I’ve just really loved it. Everybody’s very welcoming – students, faculty.”

Ghada Bedwan speaking at Baccalaureate 2018

That’s not to say that she doesn’t feel eyes on her. “You always get stares,” she says.

Often, she says, it’s a generational thing. “My freshman year, I was in the library a lot,” she says. “When they’d bring people in for tours, the students wouldn’t care that I was sitting there, but the parents were always like” – here she whispers – “Oh my God. There’s somebody over there wearing a head scarf. I feel like a lot of times the parents were more caught off guard that there was a Muslim girl wearing a headscarf in the library. The students couldn’t have cared less. I just give the occasional wave at them – ‘Hey guys. I’m OK.’”

As a young girl playing tennis, Bedwan says she encountered some animosity in junior tournaments. But she says tennis was ultimately good for her. In high school, she played in the top six for a state-finals squad at Ardrey Kell, wearing a headscarf made out of especially breathable fabric.

“Tennis was a good avenue for me,” Bedwan says. “It showed that as Muslim women wearing the headscarf, we can play sports and we can succeed at them.”

Although she’s encountered little resistance at Wingate, Bedwan knows that in a way she is a representative of Islam. “You get used to wearing a smile all the time,” she says. “There’s no downtime.”

Breaking stereotypes

Bedwan says she has encountered no one at Wingate who has tried to convert her to Christianity or who has belittled her because of her faith. “I love coming to campus,” she says. “I tell people all the time, when I’m not on Wingate’s campus, ‘I love Wingate, because people there have faith.’”

She’s even taking a class, taught by Dr. Dahm and Dr. Cathy Wright, about the intersection of science and religion. In that class, she often makes general comments about faith – about her personal faith, without mentioning Islam – and she gets nods of agreement from non-Muslims. And she finds herself agreeing with others in the class as well.

“There are so many things that are so similar when you have faith and you believe in a higher power,” she says. “We just kind of tend to put the two religions against each other, when in fact we shouldn’t.”

Bedwan is a member of the Muslim Student Association, but she’s more active in the Biology Club, of which she has served as secretary for the past three years.

She’s propelled by two primary goals: within general society, to break stereotypes about Muslim women; and within the Arab community, to break stereotypes about women in general.

Bedwan says there is a feeling in Western society that Muslim women are not allowed to get an education. “The prophet actually promotes this: To give your children an education and let them be active in sports and school and whatever it is,” she says. “Here I am, I’m at Wingate. Here’s my first four-year degree, and hopefully just to keep going on upwards.”

That leads straight into stereotype No. 2. “Putting religion aside, within the Arab community is the concept of, ‘OK, fine, get your four-year degree,’ but they want to see women get married and have children,” she says. “I’m not opposed to that. But my number one goal right now is my education, to become a doctor. Because at the end of the day, the majority of women prefer woman doctors, no matter what the specialty is. Whether that’s in American culture or Arab culture, we feel more comfortable with the same gender, especially women.

“I do want to go into medicine, and yes it is going to take a long time, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get married and I don’t want to have children. I guess my priorities are just a little shifted from what the culture would typically want.”

She has her parents’ support in that endeavor. “They instilled in us the values of hard work, compassion, dedication, and responsibility,” she says. “Without them being at my side during my journey, I don't think I could have made it.”

There’s little doubt she’ll be successful as that journey continues, even now that she’s finally leaving the nest.

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