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‘This Has Always Been the Dream’: Dr. Matei Banu’s Long Journey to Columbia

Dr. Matei Banu
Dr. Matei Banu

Some 4,700 miles from New York City, 19 years ago, in a fourth-grade classroom in Romania, a little boy named Matei Banu had something surprising to say. He told his friends and his teacher that he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up—a neurosurgeon, training in the United States.

The dream stuck. Eventually he enrolled in medical school, at Carol Davila University in Bucharest. He excelled there, graduating as valedictorian, first in his class of 600.

But even for a valedictorian, the odds of doing advanced training, or residency, in the U.S. weren’t good. Because approaches to teaching medicine vary around the world, it’s unusual for graduates of foreign medical schools to be accepted by hospitals in the U.S.

Dr. Banu dug in. “I saw it as a situation where you either give up right from the start or come up with a plan and stick to it no matter what,” he remembers. “I needed to give it everything I had. Most obstacles can be overcome.”

He developed that plan. “I spent countless hours trying to identify the right books and study material,” he says. “I studied every night.” His United States Medical Licensing Exam went well. And so he kept going.

Soon Dr. Banu was invited to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for a summer internship in neurosurgery. Then another opportunity arose to work for two years at the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center in New York City. While there, immersed in neurosurgery research, Dr. Banu had to tackle another problem most aspiring doctors don’t have—getting a green card.

“I had to prove that my research was in the national interest,” he explains. “I obtained letters from scientists across the country. About a year and a half after starting this process, I finally got a green card, and one of the last obstacles to training in the U.S. was overcome.”

By this time, brain tumor research had become Dr. Banu’s passion. “We need to keep trying to find a cure,” he says. “We will eventually get there.”

His hopes crystallized around working in one lab—The Bartoli Brain Tumor Lab, run by Dr. Jeffrey Bruce and Dr. Peter Canoll at Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. “I repeatedly came across their cutting-edge glioma research, reading papers and listening to talks at conferences,” remembers Dr. Banu. Joining them seemed like the best way to take his skills and his research to the next level.

He wanted to be part of Dr. Bruce’s lab so badly that he took an unusual step. “I just showed up at Columbia one morning and approached Dr. Bruce with my story.” Dr. Banu found himself welcomed. Dr. Bruce put his trust in me and took me on in his lab. I gave everything I had for the two years I spent there,” he recalls.

Dr. Bruce and Dr. Canoll were phenomenal mentors, and I truly owe everything to them. Dr. Bruce continuously guided me on how to become the best residency applicant possible. And Dr. Canoll was an invaluable mentor as a scientist and researcher. I also got tremendous help from Dr. Adam Sonabend.

Columbia was my number one choice for residency. It was the place for me to train, with incredibly dedicated mentors, compassionate and immensely talented surgeons, and phenomenal research opportunities. It was worth any sacrifice.”

Finally, Match Day 2016 arrived. At exactly noon ET, medical students all across the country would find out where they would go for residency. Almost every student would open an envelope during a ceremony with school officials, friends and family. (Read more about Match Day here.)

But Dr. Banu was not in a Match Day ceremony. He was in a research meeting with Dr. Bruce. Dr. Banu was nervous, and he wasn’t the only one. He recalls, “My family was anxiously waiting, thousands of miles away across the ocean, to find out. My girlfriend was anxiously waiting to hear from me as well.”

The meeting paused at 11:59—early by one unusual minute that Dr. Banu had surely earned. “Dr. Bruce stood up from the table, shook my hand and simply told me: ‘You made it. Welcome to Columbia neurosurgery.’ ”

“Dr. Banu’s background is extraordinary,” says Dr. Bruce. “He has followed a highly improbable path to becoming a neurosurgeon in the United States where training is the best in the world. His success is a testament to his intellect, initiative and character. We have great expectations for him to make great contributions to neurosurgery.”

Dr. Banu reflects: “I was going to be part of my dream residency program for the next seven years. With tremendous support from my girlfriend, family and mentors, I had finally made it. Now I can start paying back all the trust invested in me.”

We in the Department of Neurosurgery are confident that Dr. Banu will do that and more. His arrival here is exciting for us as well, and we consider ourselves privileged to attract such dedicated, qualified residents.

Learn more about Dr. Bruce on his bio page here.

patient journey

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