As a 10-year-old growing up in the Russian city of Novosibirsk, Michael Cohen watched his young cousin become suddenly ill. Nobody knew what was wrong, but his health was rapidly declining.
A family friend, who is a trauma surgeon, was finally able to diagnosis the condition. He determined the child was septic from a ruptured appendix, and he saved the young boy’s life.
“That story is why I became a doctor,” Cohen says. “His ability to save my cousin had an incredible impact on me. I knew back then I wanted to be a surgeon.”
And that childhood passion for medicine has never waned.
During the Cold War, no one was allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Cohen’s father, a computer scientist, sought political asylum for his family in America partly because of anti-Semitism in Russia.
A Jewish philanthropic organization helped the Cohen family come to the United States in 1989, when Michael was 14. His family settled in Boston, where his father still works as a computer scientist and his mother owns a beauty salon and a Russian restaurant.
Michael became a U.S. citizen 10 years ago.
After attending Stanford University his freshman year, he took time off to do volunteer work on a farm in Israel. He returned to America and graduated from Harvard University in 1998 with a biochemistry degree.
When he graduates from the Washington University School of Medicine today, Cohen will have already completed a master’s program in clinical breast reconstruction and a basic science fellowship in limb transplantation.
After a visit to Siberia, he’ll head to Washington, D.C., in June to start a plastic surgery residency at Georgetown University Hospital.
“Mike is a highly motivated, hardworking and talented individual, which is a true product of his upbringing and personal fortitude,” says James B. Lowe III, M.D., chief of facial plastic surgery and assistant professor of surgery. “He possesses a great combination of artistic vision and commitment to excellence based on a foundation of personal responsibility and a work ethic ideal for plastic surgery.”
As a second-year medical student, Cohen became fascinated with reconstructive surgery after a lecture on facial reconstruction following traumatic injury and cancer resection. He then decided to take two years off from medical school to further pursue plastic and reconstructive surgery.
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First, Cohen completed a Doris Duke Fellowship with breast reconstruction specialist Keith E. Brandt, M.D., associate professor of surgery, exploring two types of the TRAM flap procedure, a technique that allows surgeons to use the patient’s tissues to recreate a natural breast.
He then completed a yearlong Howard Hughes Fellowship, researching limb transplantation with Thomas H.H. Tung, M.D., assistant professor of surgery, further confirming his interest in plastic and reconstructive surgery.
“I really wanted to spend time in the OR instead of pursuing basic science in the lab,” Cohen says. “The fellowships really offered me the opportunity to explore plastic surgery and determine it was the right field for me.”
Cohen’s early realization of his interest in plastic surgery, through both his fellowships and involvement in other projects in the division, allowed the department to not only get to know him well, but also to trust and depend on him.
“Michael is one the best medical students we’ve worked with,” Tung says. “He has many qualities that will serve him very well as a physician — he’s dedicated, conscientious, has a good eye for fine details and cares about his patients.
“He would excel in any medical or surgical specialty, and we feel very fortunate that we were able to attract him to plastic surgery.”
And Cohen is equally appreciative of the department’s devotion to mentoring medical students.
“The entire department is really student-friendly and really inspired me to pursue plastic surgery,” he says.
Says Susan E. Mackinnon, M.D., the Shoenberg Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and chief of the division: “Not only is Michael an accomplished physician, but he is also an extraordinarily hard worker.
“His combination of intelligence and dedication will propel Michael wherever he chooses to go and allow him to make an important contribution to plastic surgery.”
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