This Future ER Doctor Speaks Your Language

Senior Mohammed Elassa (third from left) in the halls of St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.

Senior Mohammed Elassa is named NCE's Outstanding Biomedical Engineer

Success in a Snapshot: Senior Mohammed Elassa* of Jersey City will be honored at the 2016 NCE Salute to Excellence as NJIT’s outstanding biomedical engineer. His stellar achievements – a GPA just shy of 4.0, admission freshman year to Phi Eta Sigma, the national honor society, leadership positions with the Honors Student Council and competitive internships at area hospitals – don’t fully capture his singular contributions to life both on and off campus. Since opting out of NJIT’s seven-year optometry program in favor of pre-medical studies, Elassa flung himself full-tilt into his new calling. He spent a summer volunteering in an emergency room at a Level II Trauma Center, observed heart, burn and orthopedic surgeries at a teaching hospital where he also presented research on tissue engineering for heart valve replacements, and is currently coordinating a student team designing an inexpensive, portable device to combat sleep apnea. During his stint in the emergency room, he served as a liaison between patients and anxious family members in the waiting room. When nurses discovered he was tri-lingual – he speaks English, Arabic and passable French – he was tapped to translate. Back on campus, he continued his cultural diplomacy by founding a language program at the Albert Dorman Honors College. Part of healing, he says, is connecting. “My goal as a doctor will be to make my patients as comfortable as possible so they confide in me. This will help me diagnose and treat them.”

Singular Accomplishment: For Elassa, cultural diversity is not merely an ideal – it’s a way of life. When he moved to the United States at the age of six from Oran, Algeria, his family settled in Jersey City, a linguistic melting pot where Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Hindi, Arabic, and Gujarati speakers overlap in classrooms, on athletic fields and at social gatherings. “I have very diverse friends. We speak Arabic at home, but I have a lot of friends who speak Spanish as well. It was really liberating. There was no single standard to conform to, and so we were free to just be ourselves.” It’s an experience he wants to share. Earlier this year, he created a language program in the Honors College, recruiting teachers for beginning and intermediate level language and culture classes in Spanish, Hindi and Arabic, who also talk about their cultures. “We are surrounded by people from other cultures, but is it enough to just know someone who speaks Spanish or Arabic? My thought is: why not go deeper?  Why not learn something about these different regions of the world?” It’s also a career booster, he says. “I know a Spanish-speaking architect who wants to work in the Middle East. Learning about the language and culture will help him interact better with the people there.” A group of students traveling to rural Panama this spring break on a health care mission also came by for a Spanish class and came away with a new vocabulary: medical terms en Espagnol.

Peak Adventures: There is no more dramatic window on the healing powers of a nimble medical team than a chaotic Saturday night at a city emergency room. His sophomore year, Elassa volunteered at his hometown hospital, Jersey City Medical Center, a Trauma II Center where he saw patients reeling from traumatic injuries such as gunshot wounds and stabbings, their lives hanging in the balance. He acted as a liaison between patients and family members relegated to the waiting room, as only two visitors are permitted at a time. When a nurse invited him to accompany her on rounds, she discovered his fluency in Arabic and he was immediately called upon to translate, explaining medical insurance forms to patients and their relatives and assisting their conversations with caregivers. “One of the things I learned is to think of the entire family as the patient,” he recounts. The next summer, Elassa was selected for the Saint Barnabas Summer Surgical Observership, a competitive program that allowed him to see the range of complex procedures at a teaching hospital, from cardiothoracic operations where the room is kept cold to slow down body functions, to burn surgeries, where the room is hot, because injured skin can no longer maintain the body’s temperature. “With my focus at NJIT on biomaterials and tissue engineering, my internship gave me a greater understanding of the instruments doctors use, the materials they put inside the body and the physical conditions of the operating room.” At one of the weekly medical conferences where surgeons discuss cases, he presented his own research on heart valves to physicians, residents and medical students. “They asked me where I thought the field was headed since it’s so new, and I talked to them about the role of nanotechnology for controlling the architecture of the scaffold at such a precise scale.”

Ambition: Elassa is still feeling the adrenaline rush from his summer at Jersey City Medical Center and is heading to medical school next fall to become an emergency room doctor. “The chance to save someone’s life in these circumstances really stayed with me. I can’t think of any greater sense of accomplishment,” he says, adding, “The unpredictability and severity of the cases that I will one day face intrigue me.” In fact, he hopes to practice in that very same room. “I really like Jersey City and so appreciate how the city helped me grow up by making me interact with people from so many cultures. It really molded me as an individual and I want to give back.”

*member of the Albert Dorman Honors College

Tracey Regan