Touro Medical Student Wins Top Honors At Commencement At The Apollo In Harlem

July 11, 2017

When Payal Aggarwal, DO, was just six years old she visited her grandfather in India in the hospital. He had cancer and she told him the experience of their visits made her want to become a doctor when she grew up. “He said nothing would make him happier,” Aggarwal recalled in a recent interview.

She began volunteering at age 10 for the American Cancer Society. Fast forward to last month when her dream became reality—she donned a cap and gown at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and joined the graduating class of Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine (TouroCOM). Last Saturday she began her residency at Brooklyn Hospital in pediatrics.

“I hope to pursue pediatric oncology, so I was thrilled to match into pediatrics! I can’t wait to see what the future has in store,” she said.

Pediatric oncology entered the picture for Aggarwal after volunteering at a camp for kids diagnosed with cancer, Camp Happy Days, an experience that she wrote about in The DO magazine.

The camp would be one on a long list of challenging volunteer experiences the young doctor would take on during her journey to earning her doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) degree.

“Student DO of the Year”

Her contributions were so numerous and achievements so exceptional that TouroCOM awarded her its highest honor at commencement — “Student DO of the Year” — for her outstanding service to the school, her leadership, research and dedication to the profession.

The award capped off years of volunteer activities throughout her undergraduate years at New York University and more recently as a student at the medical school, where she worked as a teaching assistant and tutor; assumed leadership positions for student government groups, state and national osteopathic medical associations, and global health organizations; published and presented at conferences about her work; and became deeply involved in national service projects like Camp Happy Days to help severely ill children.

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At commencement she was chosen to address her class. She shared with her classmates her recent experience of her father’s admission to the hospital – an event she said taught her more than the hours of lectures at medical school.

“The only thing that helped during that stressful time were the doctors who had a positive attitude, who made it a priority to listen to my dad and who took the time to answer all the questions my family and I had,” she told her classmates. “Going to the hospital is so routine for us that we often forget it is never normal for patients or their families to be there. Understand that after today, you will be the answer to someone’s prayers and be part of the most intimate situations and decisions families will make.”

“Rags to Riches”

Aggarwal traces her hard work and service orientation to her upbringing in Queens and summers spent with her parents and brother in India. “My parents taught me a lot about hard work in America. Besides having a strong work ethic, they also taught my brother and me about integrity and service. Every summer we would go to temples to distribute food, clothing and blankets to people who couldn’t afford them. These were my first experiences with service and my parents always taught me that if you are in a position to help others, you should,” she said.

Organized National Day of Wellness

As part of a national student advocacy group, she organized a national day of wellness for students throughout the country. Osteopathic Medical Student Day of Wellness was celebrated in every osteopathic medical school in February 2016 and helped hundreds of students recognize the importance of mental health. The celebration continued in February of this year.

The idea evolved, she explained, after she experienced burnout following a conference that took place a few days before final exams. She had let the stress of studying and her other responsibilities take over. “I learned I had to take care of myself first. As a physician one sees suffering very closely and it is easy to get consumed by the lives and stories of our patients. Providers must understand that in order to take care of someone else we must also be healthy. This is the message I strived to take to osteopathic medical students,” she said.

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Will Aggarwal be able to balance the next phase of her career and its demands with her pull towards service? She has made tremendous contributions and also learned about her own limits. Still, she expects she will continue to make a difference from her new perch.

“I undoubtedly will continue community service and hope to find a leadership role that’s a niche for me,” she said. “I really hope I’ll be able to recognize health disparities in the community that the hospital serves and be able to tackle them for my patients. Residency is a marathon and not a sprint. I’m going to try to ease into residency before taking on leadership roles but I know that I can’t sit on the sidelines for too long!”
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