Sima Vazquez, SOM Class of 2024, Faces Adversity with Positivity
Born with a rare condition in her brain, Ms. Vazquez was inspired to follow in the footsteps of the surgeons who operated on her.
Sima Vazquez, School of Medicine (SOM) Class of 2024, is no stranger to adversity. Diagnosed as a child with a Chiari malformation, a rare condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal, Ms. Vazquez underwent two surgeries by the time she was 14 years old. Despite the surgeries, she adopted a positive attitude to excel at whatever she puts her mind to, whether it’s her hobbies or her pursuit of a medical degree, with the eventual goal of being a neurosurgeon.
Living with a Chiari malformation, which can cause problems with motor skills, coordination and severe headaches, was a challenge for Ms. Vazquez. She remembers the condition hindering her everyday life as a child when it came to running or walking for long periods of time. While on vacation in Rome when she was six years old—before her first Chiari decompression surgery, which involves removing a small section of bone in the skull to increase room for the brain—she recalled how the constant walking and climbing steps gave her unbearable head pain. “I remember telling my mom it felt like my head was going to pop off my shoulders,” Ms. Vazquez said.
The pain prompted her parents to seek medical attention, eventually receiving a diagnosis of the malformation. Ms. Vazquez then had her first decompression at age six and her second at age 13 but despite the pain, she fondly remembers how dedicated the surgeon and operating teams were. “Both times I knew my surgeon and the [operating room] team were working to make me feel better. To fix my symptoms, not me. That was a very powerful feeling, and I didn’t realize the impact it had on me until I started applying to medical school,” she said.
For Ms. Vazquez, becoming a physician was always a possibility as something she wanted to pursue. However, she had several other strong interests and considered becoming a professional writer or an English literature academic—she even got her Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Chicago. Yet, something still called her to apply for medical school. She attributes it to her experience as a child, her undeniable passion for learning and leaving a positive mark on the lives of others.
“The question becomes ‘What will you leave behind?’ And the only answer I’ve ever felt okay with, is ‘A mark on the lives of others,’” Ms. Vazquez explained.
A mark was left on Ms. Vazquez when she first visited NYMC, which played a large role in her decision to pursue her medical degree here. “There was a genuine interest in me and my story that I didn’t feel anywhere else, and I thought to myself, ‘This is how I want to make others feel,’” she said.
Ms. Vazquez took the leap and joined NYMC, yet once again faced adversity. Like millions throughout the world, she became infected with COVID-19 during the initial outbreak of the virus but suffered long-term side effects far beyond the common symptoms. For about eight months she suffered from muscle weakness that made it difficult to physically exert herself. Ms. Vazquez even had trouble going up stairs and getting out of chairs—all during her first year at NYMC. Since NYMC moved to virtual learning in wake of the pandemic, she flew home to Miami, Florida, so her family could help her. “My mom took me to at least 20 doctors’ appointments for scans, blood draws, every and any type of diagnostic test,” Ms. Vazquez said.
Currently, Ms. Vazquez is completing her second-year in the SOM, having beat back the lingering effects of COVID-19, the stresses and struggles that come with being a medical student and side effects of her Chiari malformation which still affect her, albeit not as severely, to this day. Increased physical activity still causes headaches but she says she has learned to live it with it, whether it’s managing her headaches or taking a rest when she needs to. She is an avid runner, which can cause her headaches to flare up, but she doesn’t let that stop her because she loves to do it, which is a central theme of how she lives her life.
She chooses to push through her studies, even when it becomes difficult, because she has a goal of continued learning, teaching and becoming a neurosurgeon. “The field has an infinite number of questions waiting to be asked, requires physical skill and endurance, and allows you to make an impact on the lives of patients and their families—an undeniable impact, if I can speak from experience,” Ms. Vazquez said.
Ms. Vazquez maintains that her desire for bettering herself is engrained in her person and is intertwined in her pursuits—both educational and professional, recalling the saying “It isn’t what you know, but what you do with what you know.”