…Being an immigrant, I’m not surprised that people from less fortunate backgrounds desire to come here. But, I did it all legally. I fulfilled the proper requirements in order to come and stay in this country. I learned the language and have lived up to become a contributing member of this great American society. And, that’s how I raised my kids. I honestly was very moved when we were granted citizenship. I had tears in my eyes. Yes, I’m a Polish woman, and Poland is my mother country. America is my stepmother, but what an amazing stepmother I have.
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 Dr. Katarzyna Tesmer.
Dr. Tesmer was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland. She graduated from the Medical School of Gdansk and interned at Mlava Hospital in Poland. In the late 1980s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Poland was going through an economic depression. During that turbulent period, Dr. Tesmer’s career possibilities were minimal. As a young activist, she also faced constant political persecution. She decided to escape her country with her husband and two kids in 1986. They sought asylum in Italy, where they stayed in a refugee camp for six long months.
On January 9th, 1987, Dr. Tesmer moved to the US, where she led a better life, supported her family, and pursued her dreams of treating young children suffering from illnesses. She completed her Neonatology Fellowship at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and LA County-University of Southern California (USC) and completed her Pediatrics Residency at White Memorial Medical Center in East LA. She started her practice at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, where she now serves as the senior partner.
Dr. Tesmer’s inspiring story of an immigrant family fleeing political oppression and succeeding against all odds to make a positive difference reminds us of the principles which America was founded upon. Every January 9th, Dr. Tesmer and her family open a champagne bottle and celebrate the day they came to the US.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Warsaw, Poland, to parents who were doctors and I became a doctor myself. I always dreamed about seeing the world. During medical school, I was involved in politics. That’s because I was completing my Medical School in Gdańsk, where the Solidarity movement started. Of course, I got involved, and I was very passionate about making changes to our socialist country. We were not successful initially, and there was a time that I learned that there were minimal opportunities for me because of my involvement in politics. The last straw for our decision to immigrate was the event, which took place in Chernobyl, Russia. The government did not disclose to us what happened for the first few days. We couldn’t protect ourselves against this radiation cloud. And that was the last nail to the coffin, which made us to seriously consider leaving the country.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
The trigger point was Chernobyl. I’ve been to 40 different countries before I even left Poland, and I was always very, very envious of the West. I was shocked at how beautiful it was, even the gas stations were so clean and surprisingly pretty for a better lack of words. Poland was an impoverished country. There was nothing in those tough times; you could buy in the store a carrot, cabbage, vinegar, but that’s about it. Pregnant women and children were only allowed to have a 100-gram bar of chocolate per month. There were limits for how much meat, sugar, and alcohol one family can consume in a month. It was becoming quite impossible to live a normal life. So, yes, there were economic and political reasons for why we emigrated.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
We arranged an escape from Poland. We did it in a very safe way, with my husband and two kids. We arrived in Rome, Italy, and we applied for political refugee status, in which we were granted. They told us that we could go to Australia, Canada or the USA. However, the word was that Canada and Australia were helping new immigrants tremendously. But in America, we would have to pound the streets to look for work. This was the fastest way for us to leave Italy though. So, we decided to go to the US. Although our kids were only 2 and 3 years old, we were young, and decided that we would manage and could do it. We got the visa, and we arrived here on January 9, 1997. As I always say, this is a special day for our family. No matter what day of the week, on January 9, we always open a bottle of champagne and thank God for allowing us to come to this wonderful country.
Amazing. What’s your experience like so far?
I’ve been nothing but happy here in America. It was a great deal of hard work, but this is one place on Earth where one can come and be accepted. I did spend some time in France, Italy, and England. Unfortunately, as soon as you mention to them that you would like to stay, you become a competition, and nobody wants you there. I was incredibly amazed though at how welcoming Americans were, and that remains until now. I’m still shocked about how kind, polite, and helpful people are here. It’s heartwarming that Americans always wish you success and are happy to see you successful.
That’s so great. Now is there a particular person who you’re grateful towards who helped make a move more manageable for you?
Nothing could have been possible without God. So, He is the first one to thank. Then, I would have to say, my husband, Darek. We met in high school and we are about to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. We’ve actually been together for 50 years. He is the ultimate lottery of my life. My husband has always been very supportive of me. Whether it’s with my practice at the hospital or at my Laser & Skin Care clinic, Visage. It is truly because of him that I am where I am now.
That’s such an amazing story. So how are things going for you today, right now?
Honestly, it couldn’t be better. I love my life. After coming to this country, I did need to redo my residency, which I did in pediatrics. I followed that by a fellowship in neonatology, which I finished at the Children’s Hospital of LA. I joined the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, where I currently serve as a senior partner. Along the way, I always dreamt of owning my own businesses, which was impossible in my country. I was able to develop the Visage Laser and Skin Care Center. It is the pride of my life. I cherish my work as a neonatologist because nothing can give you more satisfaction than saving babies’ lives. Honestly, there is nothing that can fulfill me more. However, I’m proud of Visage because I built it from the ground up. We have an incredible reputation because we deliver exceptional service. There are about 3000 5-star reviews about us. That’s because my staff and I put all of our efforts in taking care of our clients. Having invested in the most technologically advanced devices coupled with being an intensive care physician, I’m not afraid of using the combined power, hence, why we are successful. Thank you, Lord.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am a mother, and there is nothing more important than raising your kids uprightly. I know that the tremendous influence on my life were my parents, who were very respected doctors. My father was a surgeon, and my mom was a pediatrician. And, I became a doctor myself. I clearly love medicine. And, I think the love and passion for my career rubbed off on my children. My oldest one is an anesthesiologist. My middle one is a psychiatrist, and my youngest is currently in medical school. It’s likely because they can see how much fun, and excitement practicing medicine gives me. They look at me as a successful neonatologist who is a board member of the March of Dimes of Orange County, the Secretary of the Children’s Medical Care Foundation, an international organization helping Eastern European neonatology. I’m also the Director of NICU at Orange County Global Medical Center for almost 15 years, and in the Medical Executive Committee.
When I would come home, my kids would see how I would still check on the sick babies at the NICU. They also saw me simultaneously growing a successful business and think, “who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?” That’s why at the beginning of this interview, I stated that my life couldn’t be brighter. I do work hard, but you know, I truly love what I do. I like it when I’m needed. At the hospital, they call me for the complex procedures; to perform the complicated deliveries where babies are at risk. It’s an adrenaline rush. On the other side, I go to Visage. I work with people from all walks of life. Some are mourning a loss of a partner, or experiencing whatever life challenges, a myriad of situations. We also see people who spent all their time taking care of a family and finally decided that now it’s their time. Whatever the situation is, we will always accommodate to give them the best service and experience. It gives me tremendous satisfaction to see their transformation and to see them happy.
You have first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, what three things would you suggest that would improve the system?
Being an immigrant, I’m not surprised that people from less fortunate backgrounds desire to come here. But, I did it all legally. I fulfilled the proper requirements in order to come and stay in this country. I learned the language and have lived up to become a contributing member of this great American society. And, that’s how I raised my kids. I honestly was very moved when we were granted citizenship. I had tears in my eyes. Yes, I’m a Polish woman, and Poland is my mother country. America is my stepmother, but what an amazing stepmother I have.
Thank you for your contribution here in the US. Can you share five keys to achieving the American Dream that others can learn from you?
First, may God be on your side. Second, make sure to choose a supportive partner. Third, hard work, there are no short cuts. Fourth, perseverance and lastly, love what you do.
We know that the US needs improvement, what three things make you optimistic about the US future?
Well, I was always very interested in American history. It’s hard to believe, but when I was in high school and President Reagan was elected, I was happy about it. I knew that good changes would happen to Poland. Because of the partnership between President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, we saw positive change happen. I came from a socialist country. So, I am a bit concerned about the socialistic turn this country is taking. I’ve been educating people about what socialism is. I’m not trying to make it a political interview. But, in all honesty, I will tell you that I love the country to which I came, and sincerely hope it will stay this way.
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 whom you would love to have a private lunch with and why?
I would like to have lunch with Mr. Buffett. I have to say that the most challenging thing in life was building my business. Whether I was in medical school or getting my residency or fellowship, I only had to depend on myself to make it happen. And as a hard-working woman, I knew that I would be able to accomplish it sooner or later. However, when you have a business, you have to rely on other people. And this is such a tricky thing, to motivate them, and keep them happy. You have to build a great team and lead them. I read a few books of Mr. Buffett, and he never ceases to impress me. He always mentions that you can only build a successful business if you adhere to the most important principle, to be of good integrity.
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Thank you so much for the interview today Dr. Tesmer.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my story.