Tara Balija will never forget taking her son to a Manhattan hospital 15 years ago and being told by the emergency department physician who treated him for pneumonia that she should never come back because she had no health insurance.
“I was in shock,” said Balija, a single mother of three who will complete a coveted yearlong joint surgical oncology fellowship at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in June. “I wanted to yell at her and say, hey I’m going to Columbia (University) and someday I am going to be a doctor just like you.”
Balija, who was barely out of her teens and living in the Bronx, knew, even then, that she never wanted to follow in this doctor’s footsteps. “Everybody should be treated with respect,” says Balija “It shouldn’t matter where you live or how much money you make. No patient should feel that indignity.”
Now that Balija is midway through her fellowship, which is funded by the Breast Cancer Alliance and is providing her with advanced training to care for patients with breast disease, she says she looks forward to working as a breast surgical oncologist, mentoring other female physicians and giving back to the others less fortunate.
“I have always wanted to make a difference in a patient’s life,” says Balija who at 6 years old decided she wanted to become a doctor because she loved her pediatrician and wanted to help people. “Helping underserved populations and mentoring those just starting out, in addition to being a breast surgeon, will allow me to do this.”
The mother of three children, a 17-year-old son and two daughters, 15 and 12, has been investigating health care disparities – from evaluating triage systems in pediatric clinics in New York City to assessing psychological dysfunction and its effect on body mass among pediatric Latino patients in East Harlem – since her days as an undergraduate.
Before beginning her current fellowship at the Cancer Institute, Balija’s research included evaluating the differences in three-year survival rates between African-American and white women based on how widespread the cancer was at the time of diagnosis. She believes that by exposing disparities, improvements can be made in health care delivery that will lead to better outcomes.
“My strong belief in advocacy lends itself to what I will be doing as a breast cancer surgeon,” says Balija, who lives in Montclair with her children. “I’ll be there fighting for them in what could become a battle for their life.”
Although she might not have thought it at the time she became pregnant and decided to take a break from her undergraduate studies almost two decades ago, motherhood at the tender age of 19 gave Balija a better understanding of economic and emotional hardships and provided her with a greater ability to empathize with her patients.
She was lucky to have the support of her mother who stood by her side and helped with her children. Still, Balija says, she had to learn to juggle her personal and professional life and put the needs of her kids above her own. Now, she thinks, she might not get as rattled as her younger colleagues who don’t have these same family commitments.
“I was willing to do what I had to do to have a family and still become a doctor,” says the 37-year-old Balija, who graduated from Mount Sinai School of Medicine where she was a research fellow prior to serving as chief surgical resident at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “If it meant living in an apartment with no furniture or filing lots of paperwork to get Medicaid for my child, I just did it.”