The brave, healing hands of surgeon Zahrah Taufique

As a medical student, Zahrah founded a clinic which performs health evaluations of people seeking asylum in the U.S.

By Danielle Vania Bonus

Dr. Zahrah Taufique grew up spending her summers in India and the Philippines where her parents are from. These memorable holidays also exposed her to poverty in these countries and ​developed in her  a desire to help the underprivileged. 

A Chief Resident Surgeon of ENT (ear, nose and throat — also known as Otolaryngology) at NYU Langone Medical Center, Zahrah has made it her life’s work to treat diseases of the head and neck.

Her residency will continue for five more months right before she makes her way to the University of Minnesota to do her fellowship in Pediatric ENT and Craniofacial Surgery.

Most of Zahrah’s time is spent “scrubbed in” as a surgeon, but her various positions at NYU Langone coincide with her job as an ENT doctor in the last five years. She is a Resident Representative of the ENT PAC Board of Directors, as well as Co-Chair of the NYU House Staff Patient Safety Council. These additional roles allow her to interact with leadership in the hospital getting a much broader scope on ways to improve hospital safety. 

Though she knew medical school was in her future, she studied Political Science at Columbia University where she was a Dean’s Lister for three years. The bachelor’s degree gave her the foundation to better appreciate the intersection of politics and medicine. Her curiosity led her to take a year off for Genetics Clinical Research followed by an MD/MBA back at Columbia. Business school gave Zahrah the answers on how to effectively utilize resources for high-quality and sustainable care. 

Performing cleft lip surgery while on a mission trip in Guatemala.
She plays the electric violin for two bands, among many skills.

“I became interested in health systems ​and ​h​ow this impacts ​an ​individual’s health,” she said in an interview with The FilAm. “This comes in part from my interest in global health ​but also ​my interest in scientific ways to deliver the best, the most efficient, and most effective quality care using research, and that’s why I went to business school.”

One of her early accomplishments is ​she started ​an Asylum Clinic ​ ​as a second-year medical student. The clinic provides medical, gynecological and psychological evaluations for people seeking asylum in the United States.  She ​was ​stressed ​by the difficulty of the task, but she saw it through and continued her journey through medical school. This clinic is still up and running.   

Her interest in surgery emerged while she was doing clerkship where students are rotated among the different services, for instance, internal medicine, pediatrics, or psychiatry, to see where their real interests lie.

“I realized I was interested in surgery. I like using my hands and being very active and seeing the impact quickly. It was very enticing for me, very exciting,” she said.

Multiple travel grants have allowed her to do volunteer work in foreign countries. In 2017, she participated in a Children, Cleft Lip and Palate Mission to Antigua, Guatemala. Last year, she traveled to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for a Head and Neck Surgery Medical Mission trip. Last February, she visited her mother’s homeland, the Philippines, to continue bringing aid to impoverished communities.

With family, from left, sister Mahrah, brother Yusuf, her Lola Bett, and mother Cecilia. At back, brother-in-law Daniel and Zahrah’s husband Billy.

Quick learner

Having a knack for learning quickly, Zahrah did not waste any time and took every advantage of developing herself.  She attributes these skills to her parents who raised her and her two siblings — sister Mahrah and brother Yusuf — very richly in both Filipino and Indian culture. Her father worked at the World Bank for many years; her mom Cecilia Calleja works in financial services.

At the age of 3, Zahrah’s mom put her in violin classes which required a 45-minute drive out of town and started at 6 in the morning before school.  After school, she would continue to practice daily for an hour. This tenacious approach was transformative for young Zahrah and became her foundation for learning new things, like playing an instrument, a sport, or choosing to be a surgeon.

Later in life, she picked up new activities such as snowboarding, skiing, soccer, rugby, and surfing.  Husband Billy Cooke taught her how to ski, which came easy because she already snowboarded. Billy, who comes from Upstate New York, owns and works for his own company, 3Forge, which provides data visualization technology to investment banks.

“We married two years ago but we’ve known each other for 11 years,” said Zahrah. “Billy is a huge skier.”

She occasionally plays the violin for two bands – the Bedroom Band and Crooked Thumb – that perform in bars around Manhattan. 

At 32, Zahrah has built an extraordinary reputation for herself without ostentation.  She credits her parents for being the individual she is today: A confident young woman dedicated to global health and humanitarianism and focused on the work in front of her.

© The FilAm 2020

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