Published November 7, 2022
By Dirk Hoffman
Mam Deng, MD, has been inspired by the work of many health care professionals he has encountered along his journey from refugee to doctor.
A member of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences’ Class of 2022, Deng feels “extremely lucky” about his current set of circumstances — training at the University of Massachusetts in a family medicine residency program.
But luck had little to do with it — Deng often made his own good fortune with steadfast purpose.
Born in war-torn South Sudan, he and his family wound up in a refugee camp in Egypt when he was just 3 years old. While his family was fleeing Sudan, three of his older siblings died as a result of poor health conditions or war. Deng says solemnly he has “very little memory of them.”
Two years later in 2001, he immigrated to the United States with his parents and two younger siblings and settled in Buffalo.
Having no English language skills, the family continued to speak their native Dinka at home. Deng was soon enrolled in Buffalo Public School 45 International School and its English as a Second Language (ESL) program.
Deng supplemented his ESL studies through reading and watching television at home — learning English by soaking up episodes of “Sesame Street” and “Reading Rainbow.”
A fourth-grade teacher realized Deng’s academic potential and recommended he transfer to the academically rigorous City Honors School.
A pivotal moment in his young life occurred when Deng was in eighth grade. His father became gravely ill and ultimately needed a liver transplant at Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital.
“One of the factors that made me decide I wanted to become a doctor was because my dad almost died,” he says. “It was incredible meeting some of the physicians involved with his liver transplant.”
Deng had multiple interactions with his father’s doctors in part because he was acting as an interpreter.
“My parents were not the best at English, so I was involved with translation and helping them understand the situation,” he says. “The doctors were very good at explaining what was going to happen so I in turn could tell my parents.”
“It was there that I saw up close how health care changes lives and helps people,” Deng adds.
Another vital influence on Deng’s decision to pursue a career in medicine was the Jericho Road Community Health Center and its founder and chief executive officer, Myron L. Glick, MD ’93.
Glick has known Deng since he was 5 years old. When Deng’s family arrived in Buffalo, it was Glick who conducted their initial refugee health assessment and the family has been patients at Jericho Road ever since. Glick delivered each of Deng’s four younger siblings.
While a high school student at City Honors and later as an undergraduate at SUNY Fredonia, Deng shadowed Glick for entire days at a time to learn about the clinic’s day-to-day operations.
“Jericho Road is an incredible place. I do not think I would have been able to experience medicine like that anywhere else,” Deng says. “I got to see how the office worked, the interactions with patients and the joy that comes with being a doctor.”
Glick says he is very proud of what Deng has achieved.
“I’m excited that he graduated from medical school. That is a huge accomplishment,” he says. “Everyone that graduates from medical school has had a journey, but Mam’s has been especially long and challenging.”
“To overcome the odds of coming here as a refugee hasn’t been easy,” Glick adds. “For him to excel through all that adversity; he deserves all the credit.”
Glick is also enthused that Deng has chosen to specialize in family medicine.
“He and his family have really only had one physician the whole time they have been in Buffalo,” he says. “That kind of long-term relationship can make a real difference in a family’s lives and I think Mam understands that and is looking for that kind of meaning in his life and his profession.”
Jericho Road is heavily involved in global health outreach programs that address health disparities in the home countries of many of its refugee patients.
Glick says he would not be surprised to learn that one day Deng has returned to Sudan to provide medical outreach. “It’s something that Mam has talked about.”
In fact, Deng has already been involved in humanitarian efforts in his homeland.
As a teenager, he and a cousin, Garang Doar, founded a nonprofit organization because they felt blessed by their circumstances and wanted to help others less fortunate.
“One of the core values instilled in me by my parents when I was growing up was to always help someone in need,” Deng says.
“My cousin had a mass on his spine that he needed to have surgically removed,” he adds. “That would not have been possible where we came from, but through the resources we got connected to here in Buffalo, it became possible.”
“Around that same time the war in Darfur was happening,” Deng says. “Our parents helped us where we could raise money and set it up to help build wells and provide water to places that did not have water in South Sudan.”
The non-profit is called Kony Wei Children’s Care Inc. The Dinka words Kony Wei translate into “help breath” as in saving a life, Deng notes.
And even though he was interested in family medicine at a young age, Deng did not finalize his decision to pursue the specialty until late in his medical school career.
“Looking back on it, I think during my later years of medical school I really realized why I wanted to be a doctor again,” he says. “I lost some of that in the first two years.”
“What I value in medicine is taking care of a patient and their family, looking after social determinants of health and making sure the interdisciplinary teams that are needed to keep a family running are all coordinated,” Deng adds.
“I feel I was extremely lucky with where my clinical rotations have been,” he says. “I was able to experience what different types of family medicine look like.”
Deng feels fortunate to have undergone training on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
“I received a quality education inside the beautiful Jacobs School building and had access to all the surrounding institutions, with their state-of-the-art medical technology and engineering advancements.”
“I was at Gates Vascular Institute and saw how amazing the quality of life improved for patients after procedures,” Deng says. “I was in the Erie County Medical Center’s Trauma and Emergency Department where patients are flown in from all over Western New York.”
“Buffalo has all the basics of health care and the patient-doctor interactions you can learn from in an ever-changing world,” he adds. “The Jacobs School also has great teachers who really care about their students.”
David A. Milling, MD ’93, senior associate dean for student and academic affairs, says Deng “has been able to use his experiences to create a solid foundation in which he is able to evaluate and interact with his patients, giving them the opportunity to be heard and using his own insights to provide a comprehensive basis for his treatment plan moving forward.”
“His kind and calm demeanor is always inviting for patients to be able to share with him so that he can provide the best care for them,” Milling says. “His communication style helps to build trust with his patients — to bring out all of the necessary aspects of their personal and family life. That is so important in terms of providing an appropriate treatment plan.”
“Mam’s extraordinary journey to becoming a doctor is an inspiration to all of us at UB,” says Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. “We are honored to call him a Jacobs School alumnus.”
As to where he sees himself in the future, Deng has a clear vision.
“I hope to have the skill set I want to have in medicine to be able to take care of a patient from the time they are born until they die — in terms of basic health procedures and knowing what they need.”