How I learned that “Leave no one behind” is more than an unofficial motto in the MIT EMBA program

Dr. Mehra Golshan is a Distinguished Chair in Surgical Oncology at the Dana Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center at Harvard Medical School and a member of the MIT EMBA class of 2019.

When I started the MIT EMBA Program, I heard this saying a lot: “Leave no one behind.”

To me, it meant that students and staff support each other and do everything possible to help everyone cross the finish line. That sounded great and I appreciated the sentiment, but it did not really resonate with me at the start. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with cancer that this unofficial motto became the real deal for me. It proved to me that it really is a strong component of the MIT culture and embodies the spirit of everyone – students, faculty and staff.

When I was shockingly diagnosed with colon cancer the September of my second year, I was faced with the reality of my difficult treatment plan, which would include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and ultimately surgery. This would take 9-12 months.

As I processed this information, an immediate question was whether I would (or could) stay in the EMBA program. It was clear that I would need to pause my clinical practice as an oncological surgeon and I also thought about taking a leave of absence from MIT. After all, this is a rigorous program that expects a full commitment. However, having completed half of the EMBA program, I decided that I would commit to finishing the program and I set the goal of graduating with my class.

When I made the decision to continue at MIT, I decided to be open about my health setback with everyone. There would be times when I would be sick, absent, or need a break. I needed to prepare everyone about what I would be going through. I wrote an email (with help from students and the EMBA staff) informing my classmates and professors of my diagnosis and that my goal was to participate as best as I could. The reaction I received was beyond amazing. 

Almost every single person that I had come to know reached out to me. They were caring, empathetic, encouraging and hopeful. They reassured me that they would do everything possible to accommodate and support me during this very difficult year.

During my chemo regimen, there were times when I was very sick and fatigued due to lack of sleep and side effects of the drugs. To accommodate me, the EMBA staff kindly offered their offices for naps and informed me that I could use the prayer and meditation room at MIT Sloan. I had not even realized MIT had prayer and meditation rooms, but they are very peaceful with noise cancelling devices and futons. These rooms became my haven when I needed rest.

Knowing my emotional and physical state would change as treatment progressed every week, the EMBA team (Renee Benjamin in particular!) would reach out to see how I was doing and what I would need, even if it was as simple as saving me a seat on the side of a classroom.

I had surgery on May 1 and an unexpectedly long stay in the hospital meant I couldn’t physically attend our last class session, Leading with Impact. Knowing this, the professors and my classmates made sure I was part of the team remotely. I used FaceTime to participate with my team in the field and remotely watched our classroom sessions. In one of the last classes, a few of my team members announced to everyone that I wasn’t in class, but that I was watching live remotely. Everyone turned around and clapped for me. That was so incredibly touching and meaningful to me.

MIT revealed its true essence again on graduation day when the Disabilities Office facilitated the process for me. They made every accommodation for me that day so that I could attend for a short period, sit in a shady area, and join my classmates when they went on stage right before receiving diplomas. Without this accommodation I would not have the strength to attend this most memorable graduation event.

Today, I’m back to practicing medicine, conducting research, and trying to impact the world through breast cancer care. The skills I acquired at MIT and the knowledge I gained there will allow me to make a hopefully more significant and more meaningful impact. I am truly appreciative of the support I received from the students, professors and staff by showing me their true commitment to “Leave no one behind.” I have an even more special bond and a deeper friendship with my cohort as a result, for which I am most grateful.

Click here to read an article about how Mehra’s experience with cancer impacted his medical career.