“It has been my family’s legacy to use our hands to create, build, and most importantly, to positively impact those around us.”
Harsimran “Simmy” Panesar comes from a multigenerational family of craftspeople. Whether working with wood, metal or cotton, her ancestors were known throughout northern India for their precision and technical skills to bring forth their vision.
Panesar herself, due to graduate with her M.D. degree in the spring, will be the first doctor in a family filled with masterful artists. But her goal of becoming a surgeon is merely an extension of her roots. Brought up in a Sikh family, Simmy’s parents taught her early the value of providing service to humanity through skillful hands-on work.
“I’ve always seen my father and grandfather utilizing their hands,” said Panesar recently, in conversation. “That was something familiar to me and I too wished to have an intervention-based practice that would allow me to directly and immediately benefit the trajectory of my patients’ course.”
“Simmy is a really promising physician,” said Jeffrey Boscamp, M.D., the dean of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “She’s a dedicated healer already, and she will only continue to grow into her career.”
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Panesar is in many ways living the “American Dream,” as she describes it. She was born in India and came with her family to New Jersey at a young age. Her upbringing instilled in her a rigorous work ethic from the earliest school years, and she always had big dreams. In grade school, she was ready to take off as an astronaut.
Her passion to enter into the world of medicine began when she had the chance to shadow some clinicians at a community hospital, Overlook Medical Center.
While at Overlook, Simmy met a patient, an elderly man with a tracheostomy tube in place.
“He was clearly in discomfort while seated in his big blue chair,” Simmy recalled. The nurse came in, adjusting the trach and encouraging the patient to cough. The young Panesar, just a teen, felt timid being in a new environment. She averted her gaze in hopes to give the man some privacy. She felt compassion for the man because of his current pain and likely difficult clinical course in the future.
A thought passed through Panesar’s mind: “Why are we prolonging his life? He’s suffering.”
“And then while I’m thinking this, his daughter comes in, carrying his granddaughter – and he sees them come in and his eyes gleam,” Panesar remembered. “And then it clicked: medicine can give a person the opportunity to see a little bit more of his life. We have the instruments, the knowledge, and the technology to give them those extra minutes, hours, days, and years to close their story on their terms.”
Being raised with the values of Sikhism, Panesar was taught the importance of service to humanity. Panesar’s Sikh upbringing also stressed the concept of Vand chhako.
“This is one of the three main pillars of Sikhism and it signifies the importance of sharing and consuming together as a community,” she explains.
That’s why medicine was so appealing to her; she saw it as a means to educate and give back to her community, she said.
FROM AMBULANCE TO ANATOMY LAB
Her path determined, Panesar immediately started volunteering at age 15 – the earliest age possible – with the local EMT squad where she lived in Morris County. For her, it was a trial: could she see suffering and loss – and respond to it in time to help?
She found she could.
Now at 10 years and counting, she is a crew chief. She has been out on hundreds of calls, even through the COVID-19 pandemic. These experiences include every kind of emergency you can see working nights and weekends as a community first responder.
“I came to learn that medicine can be a very ‘hands-on’ kind of experience. You see the patient, but to treat the patient you need to know how they are feeling and be their guide on that journey,” she said. “Coming into medical school, having all of this EMT experience, I was very comfortable navigating difficult and uncomfortable situations.”
The transition from undergraduate experience at Seton Hall University to the state’s newest medical school at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine was a natural one. Panesar found herself volunteering in all kinds of capacities, because there were new opportunities seemingly everywhere. During her participation in the Human Dimension program, she helped a single mother who had recently arrived in this country address the challenges presented by her child’s developmental disabilities. During the recent pandemic, she helped establish the COVID Care team, a student-run program which helped Hackensack Meridian Health team members by providing babysitting and online lessons to children, dog sitting, grocery shopping, and other tasks. She also became a teaching assistant in the School of Medicine’s anatomy lab, helping Dr. Anthony Pagano. She is the founder and president of the Women in Surgery student organization, which is now part of a chapter of the national Association of Women in Surgery organization. Other student groups and organizations also benefited from Panesar’s time and efforts.
“I’m definitely a person who tries to seek all of the open doors – I’m a person who tries to take a small opportunity and make it into something big, which everyone may benefit from,” she said.
Panesar has also conducted clinical research within Hackensack Meridian Health network. Working with vascular surgeons, she has helped assess the risk factors for deep vein thrombosis and blood clotting in COVID-19 patients. In addition, she has co-authored two book chapters on vascular trauma. She has also worked on a project designed to assess prenatal imaging to potentially predict childhood obesity and risk factors for intrauterine growth restriction.
TOWARD THE FUTURE
Several goals remain for Panesar in her remaining time at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. She is working to finish publications and presentations for several of her ongoing research initiatives. She is also looking forward to participating in the traditional rite of passage of Match Day in March, when she will find out where she will be doing her residency, before commencement in June.
“Just tying up my journey here at SOM is going to be the mission. I had a great opportunity to grow my roots here,” she said.
Next, the future: matching at the best program possible – and becoming a surgeon.
What free time she has is spent painting sunflowers and other natural themes, and playing tennis or hitting the gym with her younger brother. A particularly valued tradition – when it can happen these days – is a sit-down dinner with her whole family. She values each of these chances, she said.
“Sitting down for family dinners is a special occurrence. Time is not going to stop and while I am busy building my career it is extremely important to connect with those who got me here,” she said.