“St George’s meant more to me than just a Medical School."
Published: 19 October 2021
Alumna and ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgical registrar, Dr Maya Shahsavari, joined the St George’s Graduate Entry Medicine programme in 2009 following a degree in Biomedical Science and a Masters in Genetics. The story of her path from political refugee to surgeon has featured in The Scotsman and on BBC news online. She spoke to us about her journey into Graduate Entry Medicine, how St George’s prepared her for a career in Medicine and what she has gone on to do since.
Dr Shahsavari was born in Iran, where her parents had been political activists campaigning for free speech. Her parents were arrested several years after they had stopped campaigning, and made the decision to flee Iran and move to the UK due to concerns for the family's safety.
When Dr Shahsavari joined a school in London at the end of Year 7, she struggled with the transition from her life in Iran to her new life in the UK. She explains, “We had gone from living relatively comfortably to not having enough money for a bus fare, and I was also adjusting to learning a new language which meant that I went from being top of my class in Iran to being at the bottom. By the time I took my GCSEs, I did very well but it had been very hard work in the years leading up to them.”
A conversation with her father led her to think about her future and the impact she wanted to make. Dr Shahsavari says: “My father would remind me that whatever else we had lost, we had gained freedom, which is priceless. He encouraged me to think about doing something that would make me happy while giving back to the community.
“I thought about what I could do which would make my parents proud while contributing to society, and by the age of 13 I already knew I wanted to study Medicine and become a surgeon.”
Initially, Dr Shahsavari applied to study Medicine three years in a row but unfortunately was not accepted. She chose to study Biomedical Science, followed by a Masters in Genetics, at the University of Hull. Following her time at the University of Hull she then applied for a place on the St George’s Graduate Entry Medicine programme and was accepted onto the course. Speaking about what motivated her to study at St George’s, Dr Shahsavari says, “I knew St George’s had the oldest Graduate Entry Medicine programme in the country and it was a place I’d set my sights on for some time. I’d wanted to study there since I decided I wanted to be a surgeon at the age of 13, so it felt like an incredible achievement when I was accepted onto the programme.”
Reflecting on her time on the programme, Dr Shahsavari says,
“St George’s meant more to me than just a Medical School. It was such a close-knit community, where I made lifelong friends. I'm still very close to several classmates - I was delighted when one classmate and close friend, Harriet, chose me to be Godmother to her daughter, Brie."
Speaking about how St George’s helped shape her career, Dr Shahsavari says: “The people at St George’s were fantastic and you were encouraged to take on as many opportunities as you wanted outside of the classroom. I achieved a huge amount during my time there and it opened up a lot of doors. During my time there, I even co-edited a book with Philip Adds (who recently retired as a Reader in Anatomy at St George’s). ”
During her time at St George’s, Dr Shahsavari came to the realisation that she wanted to specialise in ENT after observing St George’s ENT consultants Michael Lee and Tunde Odetuye performing a procedure. She says, “After watching them operating, I knew straight away. This was what I wanted to specialise in. I really am following in my teachers’ footsteps, as I went on to work on the same rotation as Michael Lee and move into his old registrar post!”
Reflecting on how her time at St George’s helped prepare her for the last 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Shahsavari shares: “Graduate Entry Medicine at St George’s is one of the most hands-on programmes in the UK, and this prepares you for applying Medicine to real-life situations. The Clinical elements, the interpersonal skills you learn and the way you are taught to handle the unexpected help equip you with skills that make you a good doctor from Day One. This is something that sets St George’s graduates apart from other Medicine graduates and is something that has helped me feel equipped to deal with the last 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“As a surgeon, you might be a last hope for someone and I am proud to be able to use my skills and expertise to do my bit. As part of the surgical airways team, ENT specialists are often the last resort for patients suffering from Covid. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to have been a part of this, and to have given my patients a second chance.”