Saad Kenderian, M.B., Ch.B., is a Mayo Clinic hematologist, Senior Associate Consultant, and an Assistant Professor of Medicine, Immunology & Oncology. He specializes in bone marrow transplant and has a K award from the National Institutes of Health for research on chimeric antigen receptor t-cell therapy (CAR T). He is an inventor on several CAR T cell therapies that are being currently used and investigated for the treatment of blood cancer. His current laboratory program is focused on developing new CARs and creating more ways of fighting cancers.
Dr. Kenderian is a well-respected provider and researcher. His passion for working with cancer patients and groundbreaking research on new ways to treat blood cancers are part of what makes Mayo Clinic special. What makes his story unique is how difficult and dangerous his journey to practicing medicine was:
Your patients, and coworkers, may not know that you grew up in Bagdad, Iraq and you studied medicine during wartime. Would you mind sharing more about what that was like?
I am originally Armenian, but I was born and spent most of my life in Iraq. During the 2003 war, I was a medical student at the University of Bagdad School of Medicine. It was quite an interesting… and unique experience. School was only interrupted for a few months due to the war, but life always had a way of continuing on.
How dangerous was it practicing medicine during the war?
Practicing medicine at that time was difficult. I was a medical student, and later I was briefly an intern before leaving Iraq. We had extremely limited resources and high patient volume due to the trauma that was happening all around us. The medical students and interns played a large role in helping care for the traumas caused by war. When there was an accident, they would call every physician to the ER, and too often it still wasn’t enough. Most of the trauma we treated was not caused by U.S. and Iraqi soldier confrontations, but by terror attacks and suicide bombers on innocent citizens.
Our daily life included a bombing here, an explosion there, and kidnappings happening everywhere. There were things we never took for granted. We simply went off to school, not sure if we were coming back home or not… I remember once when I was on call, a suicide bomber attacked a floor on our hospital. Their main motive was to just destroy medicine, destroy healthcare, and simply destroy education.
How did you and the other medical staff handle an attack like that in the moment?
We all ran to the scene without hesitation. People there were so used to these incidents they would just run to the scene to use their medical expertise and training to help as best they could. At that time we had no government, little protection, but we just kept going.
Despite all of these obstacles, you completed medical school.
I finished in 2004. I always wanted to come to the United States. When I left Iraq in 2005, there were no embassies or airports at the time. I, along with many others, had to take a 24-hour road trip to Jordan. It was an extremely risky road to travel. Not only was it all desert with nothing around, but we had to be concerned with bombs and being stopped along the way. Fortunately, we were lucky to never be in any danger during the trip .
What happened when you made it to Jordan?
I obtained a student visa to come to the United States to pursue a Masters Degree. At that same time I studied for my boards. That was a way for me to get to the US. I passed boards and did my residency program with Michigan State University, McLaren Hospital
You said you always knew you wanted to practice medicine in the United States, was there any part of you that thought you should stay?
If you are physician there, you are a target to be kidnapped, or worse. It was always a concern, even as a medical student. So it was a combination of the opportunities in the United States, but also that it was not safe in Iraq.
How did you stay focused on medical school despite all of the dangers around you?
You just get used to it and try to do your best each day. I also give a lot of the credit to my mom. My dad passed away in a car accident when I was only a year old and my mom helped direct me in to medicine. My mom is a great role model for my brother and I and continues to push us to do our best.
How has growing up in Iraq, going to medical school during a war, and taking a dangerous journey across the desert molded how you care for patients today?
My whole perspective is different. If you look at third-world countries, there is often such a lack of access to healthcare compared to the west. I hope that is something we can continue to improve. I have an appreciation for the access to resources we have here, especially at Mayo Clinic, and I strive to take full advantage of that access to help patients as best I can.
Did your family also come to the United States?
A few years after I came, my mom and brother both joined me here. My now wife also moved two years later. My wife and I now have two kids and we love it in Minnesota. My mom lives only about a mile away from me and is a great help with my kids and family.
When Dr. Kenderian is not practicing medicine, his favorite thing to pass the time is traveling with his family and seeing different parts of the world.
In the fall I like to go to the northeast, New Hampshire area to see the color change. I have a large extended family as well that tries to get together in a unique place once a year. We tend to get about 100 people together each year. We pretty much take over wherever we are staying and it tends to be a great time.
Dr. Kenderian reflected on his journey over the past 15 years and had this to say:
I’m really happy. Where I was just over a decade ago in the middle of a war and now being here at Mayo Clinic as a clinician and researcher, I’m grateful for the whole transition.