From the Killing Fields to the healing arts
WORCESTER — As the celebration unfolded before them, their thoughts drifted to the remarkable journeys that had carried them there.
One journey was a bloody nightmare that stretches back half a lifetime ago into the hellish Killing Fields of Cambodia, where a madman named Pol Pot emptied cities, banished religion, and abolished money in service of an agrarian utopia that left nearly 2 million dead.
The other has been pursued by the son of survivors of that fanatical Khmer Rouge regime, which between 1975 and 1979 had sought to purge intellectuals and businessmen and Buddhists.
Those journeys intersected at the University of Massachusetts Medical School on Friday, a day of triumph and applause. Of hugs and handshakes. Of poignant celebration. Of survival and against-all-odds success.
“A lot of what I do is for my parents,’’ said Steven Em, 29, who on Friday learned that his medical career will now carry him to New York Medical College at Metropolitan Hospital Center of New York. “I think they went through a lot just to get here. My being born? The chance of that was slim already. And my becoming a doctor was slimmer than that.’’
And then, speaking as if to his parents, he said: “You guys went through something really tough and you made it out. And it’s not for naught. You managed to get out. And now your son is making the absolute best of what you gave him.’’
It very nearly did not happen.
Steven Em’s parents are Kosal Em and Veth Huorn, who were children when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia.
Kosal Em was separated from his family for more than three years, forced into labor and inhumane conditions that his father, brother, and grandparents did not survive.
Veth Huorn was the only member of her family to survive the Killing Fields. At least 22 of her loved ones perished in the madness of the Pol Pot regime.
When they both were 17, they arrived in the United States, eventually settling in Revere, where they met as neighbors, married as high school seniors, and began to build a family.
After Steven was born in 1990, he shared a queen-sized bed with his parents in a single room in a family friend’s apartment. When a second child arrived, the family moved into a finished attic apartment down the street, where they still live.
Kosal Em rose early each morning in time to arrive at dawn for his job at Burger King at Logan International Airport. Veth Huorn, who found work at an accounting firm, dropped Steven off with a babysitter, a woman he sometimes called Mom and whose children he considered his cousins.
“I can remember going to school,’’ he recalled, “and being around other kids from different neighborhoods and I’d always wonder, ‘Oh, why can’t I have that?’ Or: ‘How come my situation’s not similar to theirs?’ Clothing. Material goods. Growing up, it was like, ‘Oh, they have a trampoline. And I have one-third of a bed.’ The grass is always greener.’’
All the time, his parents reminded him how lucky he was. Their message: “You’re here. Make the best of it.’’
He was a self-described troublemaker in high school, but finished at the top of his Revere High School class in 2008. He grew up on the streets. One friend survived a drive-by shooting. Steven, a high school gymnast, was injured when he slipped from the high bar and slammed into a concrete wall.
His doctor told him, “You’re going to be fine.’’
“I very much wanted to be a part of that,’’ he told me.
But life almost never unfolds in a straight line. There are detours and dead-ends and disappointments. Plan A evaporates. And, suddenly, it’s time for Plan B.
His first attempt at medical school in 2013 ended in failure. He had only one interview. He was nervous. He was unprepared. And he was unsuccessful.
That’s when Dr. Deborah Harmon Hines entered his life. And changed it.
Hines, now retired, ran a program at UMass Medical School for students from underrepresented groups or those from disadvantaged backgrounds. She took one look at Steven Em and saw something special: a diamond in the rough.
“There’s no direct line to medical school,’’ she told me. “And that’s what our program provided. It provided an alternative route to get into medical school. This is for students who have the ability but they don’t understand the system of applying to medical school.
“They have to retake the medical college admissions test. They have to go through the whole process of applying again. They get coached in all of these things. Steven was like a sponge. Whatever was put before him, he soaked it up.’’
He certainly did.
When Steven Em walked into orientation for Dr. Hines’s program, there were just four other people in the room. They shared classes with medical students. They learned how to burnish professional skills. They were assigned tutors. They got a second chance at medical school.
“Without this program,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t be here.’’
Friday was Match Day at UMass Medical School and medical schools across the United States, the day medical students learn where they’ll be for the next three to seven years of their training lives.
Dr. Michael F. Collins, chancellor of the medical school, remembers his own Match Day in 1981, the rite of passage that sent him to St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton. He knows what everyone in attendance on Friday knew.
Inside every medical student lies a powerful story about the transformative nature of higher education.
“They’re on a pathway now,’’ Collins told me. “You look at Steven, living in a one-room house with his mom and dad and now in an attic. I want to make sure students like that feel comfortable in our classes; that they don’t feel like they don’t have enough money. Some kids go on spring break and these kids go back to Revere. If they need a little something extra, we take care of that little something extra so that there’s not any feeling that they’re not a full member.’’
On Friday, Steven Em, the kid who grew up in an attic, embraced his full membership.
He cast his mind back to the beginning of his journey, to those unsettling days when success seemed a mirage.
“Everyone has that moment where they say, ‘I don’t know. Am I meant to be here in med school? Do I belong?’ ’’ he said.
But then he looked at his mom and his dad and recalled their harrowing escape from those Killing Fields.
“I get emotional when I speak about it,’’ he said. “Once I told them: ‘You guys have been through a lot. But I’ve never been hungry. I’ve never been cold.’ And it’s interesting because, culturally speaking, we’re not super-emotional.’’
But on Friday when Kosal Em and Veth Huorn watched their son achieve the dream he had long pursued – a dream whose roots can be traced to that nightmare in Cambodia – their pride in their son’s success was unmistakable.
“Beyond proud,’’ Veth Huorn told me as her son wiped away tears. “I could never imagine that my son would grow up to be a doctor. All the educated people in Cambodia were killed by the Khmer Rouge. These are happy tears today.’’
Like many medical students, Steven Em is taking some time off next month before his residency begins.
On April 10, he will make his first visit to the land his parents fled: Cambodia.
“I’ll be there not as Dr. Em just yet. But just a few weeks before. My parents love sharing that, of course.’’
That parental pride was quietly on display here Friday afternoon.
No one had earned it more.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.