Education, family, and community are huge factors that make it possible to achieve the American dream. Every woman I interviewed for my book said the same thing. The key is to persevere and accept support from all three areas if possible.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bilha Chesner Fish, MD. She is an Israeli-American immigrant and distinguished radiologist who journeyed from Israel to medical school in Italy, to New York City’s most esteemed hospitals, and to Long Island, where she founded Manhasset Diagnostic Imaging, a multidisciplinary radiology practice, and Pathways Women’s Health. Dr. Fish established the women’s health center to provide a holistic approach to treatment, with wellness programs and a regular series of free health-related lectures. She also created the Unbeaten Path, a program to help teenagers cope with eating disorders, depression, and other relevant topics.
A longtime advocate for community service and women’s empowerment, Dr. Fish’s first book, “Invincible Women: Conversations with 21 Inspiring and Successful American Immigrants,” aligns with her commitment to stand up to hate, racism, and fear born of misinformation. She holds master’s degrees in studio art and art history and is a member of the Women’s Forum of New York, which champions leadership, empowerment, and education for women. Dr. Fish lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Haifa, Israel and attended Alliance Francais school from when I was 6 until 18. I became fluent in French and English, but my native language is Hebrew. My father, a physician, was my role model and inspired me to become a doctor. I was ten years younger than my siblings, so I grew up as an only child with all its advantages and disadvantages. I was focus of all of my parents’ attention and their love encouraged me to pursue a career that would ensure my independence.
So after serving in the Israeli army, at 20 I embarked on a journey to become a physician. I went to the University of Bologna in Italy and became a “temporary ‘immigrant” for the six years I spent in medical school. I had to learn Italian to prepare for all the oral examinations, which were performed in front of a large audience.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
I met my future husband, an American, in medical school and I willingly followed him to the United States. That’s where I completed my education — internship, residency, and fellowships, to become a licensed and certified radiologist.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
We arrived in New York and I took some time to prepare for the exams that were required of foreign graduates. I struggled to get accustomed to multiple-choice tests, a big change from the oral exams I was used to. The learning curve to understand how medicine is practiced in the United States was steep! I also had to adjust, like all immigrants, to a new community and culture, just like I did in Italy. But I felt sheltered because I was in a hospital environment with other students, and we were all working hard. That helped me focus fully on my dream.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Certainly, having an American husband was a big plus. He made it easier to adjust to life and also helped me on the path to citizenship. And working in a hospital in New York and being a part of a team gave me great comfort and a sense of security that can only be found through friendship. There was a professor at Cornell University Medical Center who was a pioneer in radiology. He gave me opportunities to learn about emerging areas in the field and that knowledge gave me the professional strength to help me persevere.
So how are things going today?
I feel accomplished! I’m still practicing radiology and last year I published the book “Invincible Women,” which tells the stories of twenty-one inspiring women. They are all American immigrants who struggled personally and professionally and yet achieved great success. They came from countries including Serbia, Haiti, Brazil, China, and Korea, and have contributed globally to a range of fields — the arts, science, law, and philanthropy. My book presents role models who can provide the encouragement many young immigrants need to reach their dreams. In my free time I paint, read, enjoy my friends, and write.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
By writing my book, I’ve been privileged to give voice to a vast community of women refugees and immigrants who too often are made to feel like “the other.” That’s not unlike the way I and the women I interviewed felt when we first arrived in the United States. I believe that by reading these courageous stories, a new generation of women will find guidance, that they will see they are not alone on their road to success.
I’m also proud of the good work that grew from the private radiology practice I started on Long Island and the women’s center that empowered women to be proactive about their health. Physicians from my community volunteered to offer several weekly lectures on topics such as nutrition, breast health, and fitness. Cancer patients had access to free group therapy. We also had a program for adolescents, as part of a high school health class, to help them deal with eating disorders, bullying, substance abuse, and other issues. They had group sessions with a full-time psychologist.
On a larger scale, I belong to the Women’s Forum of New York, a philanthropic network of women thought leaders and entrepreneurs that supports women in need with education and mentoring programs. And I am on the board of Friends of Rabin Medical Center in Israel.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
More Americans should sponsor individuals for citizenship. I’ve done that several times and learned how the system is severely flawed. I wrote about one women’s experience in my blog. I saw how she and other immigrants can find themselves at the mercy of immigration lawyers who benefit from dragging out the process. We need more oversight and regulation.
Second, many immigrants and refugees come to the United States to escape dire poverty and/or persecution. How can they be expected to navigate a complicated system and meet the significant financial burden that comes with applying for citizenship? The pressure of that situation can lead to a rise in crime that further exacerbates the sense of xenophobia to common in this country. It shouldn’t be so expensive to become a citizen.
Finally, so many immigrants have shown their bravery during the pandemic. They continue to perform front-line functions in nursing homes, hospitals, grocery stores, and delivery services, risking their lives to save ours. We need to be more open minded about the important roles they fill. We need to be nicer.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1. There is no higher reward than helping others. As a physician I have been fortunate to contribute to people’s well-being without regard to gender, race, or religion. If a little girl walks into my clinic with pain in her leg and I diagnose her malignancy early, I have given her and her parents new hope. You cannot begin to imagine that wonderful experience. People should do whatever is in their power to help. And you don’t have to be a doctor.
2. Education, family, and community are huge factors that make it possible to achieve the American dream. Every woman I interviewed for my book said the same thing. The key is to persevere and accept support from all three areas if possible.
3. America is unique in its embrace of philanthropy and the desire to give back. Many organizations, including the Women’s Forum, offer opportunities to develop friendships, discover new areas of learning, or become part of a network that helps establish financial independence. Become involved, either as a contributor or a beneficiary.
4. We all know the challenge of being a professional woman and a mother and performing both jobs adequately. But fulfilling that dream is possible and important. A working mother — and that includes women whose work is taking care of her family — is a role model to her children. We need to continue to support women financially and emotionally to achieve their goals.
5. It is important to follow one’s passion, and I’m lucky to have dedicated a big part of my life to the practice of medicine. But there came a time when I realized how fast the years pass and that I needed to add to my life journey in a new way, with an artistic endeavor. I took art and literature classes, and now I paint and write. I turned to the right side of my brain and have been so happy. And that’s how I was able to write ‘Invincible Women’. A couple of paintings are in the book!
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- The election of Vice President Kamala Harris makes me very optimistic that we are moving fast in the right direction for full women’s equality.
- Immigrants have proven themselves an essential part of our economy and our communities throughout the pandemic. The more that Americans interact with immigrants the more they will treat them with gratitude and compassion. They might also see themselves reflected in the faces of dedicated, hard-working people.
- The new administration’s belief in science, commitment to solving global warming, and investing in renewable energy will enable America to rejoin the world’s efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have breakfast with Hillary Clinton, and dinner with Michelle Obama! Both have worked hard to fulfill their professional dreams, and both are deeply committed to community. Michelle promotes racial justice and Hillary long ago said, “It takes a village.” The have inspired my professional growth and dedication to community service.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
You can also buy my book Invincible Women on Amazon.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!