Finding Career Inspiration at HMS

In 2013, Nikhil Rajapuram, MD, a bioengineering student from the University of Pennsylvania at the time, came to HMS for a one-time visit. He immediately fell in love with our HMS community and applied to be a volunteer shortly thereafter. Over the course of his time with us, Nikhil volunteered to work alongside our Physical Therapy department and created a club for fellow Penn students to do the same.

Since then, Nikhil has traveled the world and has landed his dream job in California as a PGY-1 Pediatric Resident at the Stanford School of Medicine. Read more about Nikhil, his experiences at HMS, and how his time with us has helped to inform his career trajectory today.

It’s great to reconnect with you! Tell us more about you and what you’ve been up to.

Hey! I’m Nikhil and I volunteered at HMS when I was a college student at UPenn way back in 2013 through 2015. I grew up in the Bay Area, California before heading out east for undergrad. After college, I spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar in India building assistive technology for families of kids with Cerebral Palsy, before returning to California for medical school at UCSF. Now I’m a pediatric resident physician at Stanford University in California, my dream job! I spent my time outside the hospital playing volleyball, teaching/mentoring students, and cooking vegetarian feasts for my friends and family.

You were an active volunteer with HMS for some time! Can you tell us more about what drew you to HMS School? What were some of your favorite activities you participated in or helped with?

I still remember the first time I went to HMS School on a tour back in January of 2013. I was preparing for a trip to Hong Kong to learn how to build orthotics for children with CP, and our class came to HMS to learn more about what Cerebral Palsy was. I admit I was very nervous. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to connect with them, but I couldn’t have been more wrong! I instantly fell in love with the whole community and that week applied to be a volunteer in the Physical Therapy department. Seeing how dedicated all the therapists, staff, and administration teams were really inspired me to immerse myself in HMS; before long, I saw my time more as hanging out with friends than any kind of work. Whether it was painting with Eiko in Art Therapy, shadowing Speech Language Pathology with Marianne, helping kids get in the lift with Mary and Deb in PT, or playing UNO after school with Bill, I valued every part of my experience at HMS.

Reflecting on your time with us, is there a lesson, moment, or experience that has stuck with you?

Oh my gosh, so many! Since I can’t choose, I’ll share a few. As a bioengineering student, I was tasked with completing a Senior Capstone project. I proposed that my team focus on the needs of students at HMS for our project. Together, we built a device for Josh that allowed him to play computer games while also improving his shoulder stability given his athetoid movements. Seeing the joy in his face as he was able to better engage with video games that he loved so much made every moment of work worth it.

Penn Cares for Kids will always have a special place in my heart. I started the volunteer program because I was surprised that I had never heard of HMS during my first years at Penn, and yet so many Penn students complained to me that it was hard to find a fulfilling volunteer experience near campus. Seeing HMS students meet new Penn undergrads every week while building social skills and new relationships was absolutely incredible. The moment I’ll never forget is when we had Penn Masala, a famous a Capella student group, come perform for the kids and everyone was so excited and enriched.

Finally, building A Different Kind of Expression, a Humans-of-New-York style photo series highlighting the stories of the HMS community was truly magical. So many students, staff, and teachers sat down with me to be interviewed, and hearing each of their stories showed me the love they had for working there. The project was even featured in Philly Mag!

Photo shared by Nikhil: “Our first Penn Cares for Kids afterschool program at HMS” (2014)

How has your volunteer experience with HMS School impacted your career path and/or professional development?

My time at HMS completely changed my career trajectory. Before, I knew I enjoyed building cool devices, but I didn’t feel a strong sense of purpose. Spending time at HMS showed me that I wanted to help care for children with chronic diseases. Because of HMS, I applied and was accepted to a Fulbright Scholarship in India and spent a whole year traveling through urban slums and rural villages engaging with families of children with disabilities. I learned about the challenges of pushing mobile chairs through poorly built roads, finding employment as an adult with disability, and the lack of access to the crucial health care these families need. I have spent the years since thinking about how I can care for these families, by offering direct care to children, building new technologies, as well as advocating for them through systemic reforms.

So, what are you up to now? Can you tell us more about that?

As a training Pediatrician, I spend up to 80 hours a week working at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and various clinics in the Bay Area caring for children. I have a particular interest in congenital heart disease as well as intensive care and plan to specialize in Pediatric Cardiology. I use the skills I learned at HMS every day, whether in making sure families have the education they need about their child’s condition to best care for them or ensuring non-verbal patients have the AAC devices they need to communicate their symptoms.

What advice would you give to someone who was interested in volunteering with HMS School?

I can think of few activities more fulfilling/important for young people than working with students with special needs. I believe exposure is key to education and acceptance – whether it be exposure to new cultures, ideas, languages, or abilities. Too often we build a binary in our mind of “disabled” vs “abled”, “typical” vs “atypical”, but by working with people with special needs we understand that there truly is a spectrum of function. Students at HMS taught me so much and accepted me despite my shortcomings. As a college student it can be easy to spend so much time worrying about grades and future job prospects (I know I did), and whenever I walked into HMS those worries melted away. The advice I have for any new volunteer is go in with an open heart and an open mind. Don’t be afraid to mess up and always ask questions. Finally, watch out for the pranksters, you might find yourself tricked!