On the road less traveled, Brit flourishes in residency
“Charming” is how colleagues describe UW Medicine plastic surgery resident Ashwin Soni. His dapper, pocket-squared sensibility is augmented by a refined British accent – for which he thanks his mum: “She would correct me when I did not say my T’s properly.”
But Soni embodies more than charm, says Jeffrey Friedrich, director of the plastic surgery residency program.
“He represents the type of doctor we are trying to train here. He excels in surgery but is also humanistic and relates well to both patients and other providers. Plus he’s pretty courageous to take the path he has and immigrate in order to get the best training possible. I don’t think I’d have the courage to do that,” Friedrich said.
Born and raised in London, Soni entered medical school at Imperial College straight out of high school. (In the U.K. and other nations, students can skip the four-year undergrad degree and apply to a six-year med-school program.)
In medical school, Soni contemplated finishing his training in the United States. He did summertime observerships in bariatric surgery and urology in New York. After graduation, while his colleagues began their careers as doctors, Soni moved back home and volunteered at a hospice, all the while applying for U.S. research jobs.
“I didn’t know anyone from the U.K. who had applied to the U.S. before,” he said. “I bought books and guides to residency. It was tough but I knew my long-term goal.”
Persistence paid off. Soni landed a one-year research fellowship at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he published peer-reviewed papers and book chapters but was barred from operating due to visa regulations.
He then matched at Johns Hopkins for a one-year preliminary residency in general surgery. There, he said, his goal was to prove he could meet the U.S. training standards.
“I have never worked so hard in my life,” Soni said. “Their hours are intense and I got to operate a lot as an intern there. I really built up technical skills that year.”
At Johns Hopkins, Soni heard that UW Medicine’s plastic surgery department was adding residencies. He applied and was one of 10 people invited to interview. One question went to the heart of his goal: “Why are you taking such a big risk to train in the U.S. when the U.K. has such a good program?”
Indeed. Why submit to more intense training in a place where you know no one? How could he hope to be chosen over a U.S. citizen?
“The training in the U.S. supersedes that in the U.K.,” Soni reasoned. “I’d have more autonomy in the OR, especially in my younger years. I’d also see more diversity. At the University of Washington, we cover the whole Northwest. I don’t think you can match that experience anywhere else.”
A month after his sixth interview, he heard back.
“It was the greatest moment of my life,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so emotional, but I had to control myself on the phone. We are quite proper in the UK and I didn’t want my future boss to think he’d hired a lunatic.”
Soni is halfway through the six-year program and, Friedrich says, has completely integrated into his tight-knit residency family.
Now Soni is trying to pay it forward. He gets calls and emails from students asking how he did it. He is quick with advice and encouraging words.
“People said I couldn’t do it: You are a foreign graduate. To get into this system, especially a specialty like plastic surgery, is extremely challenging. I feel privileged for the opportunity.”