The Ultimate Graduation Gift: Natalie Kukulka Honors Her Father

Natalie Kukulka graduation
Natalie Kukulka, receives her hood from her father, Peter Kukulka, during the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s graduation ceremony on May 18, 2019.

The inspiration to become a doctor is different for every medical student. We asked four students what drew them to medicine. Here is one of their stories.

Natalie Kukulka spent most of her childhood in Poland while the country established itself as a democracy after decades of Soviet-influenced communist rule.

Her father, Peter Kukulka, was an anesthesiologist during a chaotic period for the country’s health care system. It got so bad in 1997 that the nation’s anesthesiologists went on a hunger strike protesting poor working conditions.

Natalie Kukulka at the second annual Autism Awareness Walk
Kukulka speaks to the crowd at the second annual Autism Awareness Walk on April 27, 2019. Kukulka organized the event, which drew more than 200 participants in 2019.

“I remember him coming home, sometimes in tears, sometimes frustrated, often exhausted,” Natalie said. “He would say things like, ‘Don’t ever go into medicine unless you absolutely know this is what you want to do.’ ”

She heard what he said but paid more attention to what he did.

“He would get up the next morning and go to work,” she said. “Sometimes he just stayed in the hospital for days at a time, not knowing if he would be able to come home to his family at night. He would never turn a patient down and always advocated for them. Giving to another person is always what drew him to medicine.”

In 1999, Peter decided he could no longer support his family in Poland. The Kukulkas had previously lived in Chicago for four years — Natalie was born there — so he decided to return to the United States alone. Once he established himself, he would ask his wife and daughters to join him.

Medicine was the family business. Peter’s mother, Janina Kukulka, was a pediatrician who practiced out of her home in Tarnow, Poland, until she retired in her mid-80s. But Peter’s Polish medical degree meant nothing in the United States. He couldn’t afford to start all over again as an American medical student. So he put his own career aspirations aside and found a job as a plumber.

“He sacrificed everything for us,” Natalie said.

Finding Her Calling

Five years after Peter left Poland, his wife, Anetta, and daughters Natalie and Klaudia reunited with him in Chicago. Natalie was 13 and had some catching up to do on American culture.

“All I remembered was Pop-Tarts and Barney,” she said.

Natalie was a talented ballroom dancer and photographer, but when she started thinking about a career, she wanted to follow the path of her father and paternal grandmother into medicine. As an undergraduate majoring in biology and neuroscience at Lake Forest College, she began conducting research on Parkinson’s disease. She quickly became fascinated by the mysteries of the human brain and was among the first students to sign up for a neuroscience major.

“I thought, ‘This is absolutely what I want to do,’ ” she said.

At the MU School of Medicine, Natalie threw herself into research and outreach projects. Raghav Govindarajan, MD, an assistant professor of neurology, received an email from Natalie in January of her M1 year asking to work on a summer research project. He initially didn’t have a spot for her, but when another student dropped out, he contacted her. She came to his office the next day eager to start researching the prevalence of infections suffered by patients with the neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis.

Every time Govindarajan gave Natalie a new objective, she returned with her findings before he even thought to follow up. She earned the MU School of Medicine’s 2016 Dean’s Award for Outstanding Research for the project. That was one of many awards and scholarships she earned over her medical school career. It’s a list that includes the $10,000 Tylenol Future Care Scholarship, which is given to only 10 students nationally per year.

“I’ve had a lot of good students, but she stands out,” Govindarajan said. “It’s not just all the things she has done, it’s the fact she is so humble and so hungry to learn. For me, that’s a big thing. She’s one of the most hard-working students I’ve seen in my career.

“In my culture, we talk about karma. I must have built some good karma, and that’s how I was able to meet Natalie.”

She showed a knack for organization, serving as the director of patient advocacy and referrals and then a research chair at MedZou Community Health Clinic; serving as the co-president of the Student Interest Group in Neurology (SIGN); copy-editing for the American Journal of Hospital Medicine (AJHM); chairing the Dean’s Advisory Committee on Medical Student Research; and organizing the first and second editions of the Autism Awareness Walk at Columbia’s Cosmo Park.

She doesn’t believe in going halfway in her endeavors. The most recent autism walk included food trucks, a bounce house and a petting zoo. A llama led a procession of more than 200 walkers around a 1.2-mile loop.

Peter came down from Chicago to direct traffic and perform other duties as assigned. As the event wore down on a chilly April morning, he considered what it would mean to see his eldest daughter graduate from medical school.

“We never pushed her to be a doctor, because I know how hard it is,” he said. “I’m proud of her. This is what life is all about.”

The Best For Last

In her final year of medical school, Natalie settled on a specialty — pediatric neurology — and learned on Match Day in March that she would begin her career as a resident physician in Washington, D.C.

Graduation was the last big event before she headed to the nation’s capital.

Commencement includes a ceremony in which a faculty member places a hood on each graduate when he or she comes onstage to receive a diploma. In the fall, Natalie wrote a letter to MU’s Office of Medical Education requesting an exemption to allow her father to do the honors when her name was called.

“My father is an incredibly humble and hard-working individual who has sacrificed his passion and medical profession for his family,” she wrote. “If possible, I would like to honor him as my father, the doctor, who has inspired me to be a physician and has enabled me to get to where I am today. It is because of his sacrifice that my whole life has been made possible, and it is because of him that I strive for excellence.”

Her request was granted. On May 18, with the rest of her family members watching from their seats at Jesse Auditorium, she climbed the steps to the stage and was greeted by her father. He capped her medical education with a hood and a hug.

“Simply put,” she said, “it was the best day of my life.”