I was inspired to become a physician while growing up in Albania, where I witnessed how a lack of resources and medical care can impact people’s lives. In 1999, when Kosovo refugees were forced to leave their homes and immigrate to Albania, medical workers and physicians were integral to helping provide care for those in need. I saw the difference healthcare providers can make in a community — and so began my dream to pursue medical training in the United States.
It might’ve been luck, destiny — or both — but my family won the green card lottery, enabling me to move to the United States as a permanent resident right after finishing high school. As the airplane flew farther from Albania until the land completely disappeared, I looked into the sky not knowing what was ahead of me. But I believed in my potential to make a difference where I was headed.
Soon after I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of South Florida, I was faced with the unknown again. When I was applying to medical schools, I heard about the UCF College of Medicine (COM) enrolling its first class in 2009 — with a full-ride scholarship for each student. When I arrived at COM for my interview, I met motivated faculty who had confidence and fire within them to build the best medical school in the country. As I heard Dean Deborah German describe her vision for UCF’s medical school and the Medical City in Lake Nona, I envisioned my future: graduating with the best medical training and working in Medical City.
Although there was no medical school building yet, I was excited for the opportunity to be part of the founding class. There were no established or traditional ways. As students, we had great mentorship from the faculty while providing our own feedback on the college to help shape its foundation. Once the medical school building was completed in Summer 2010, it was a state-of-the-art facility that provided us the resources needed to succeed. My time at COM was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pursue the medical education that I had dreamed of while contributing to the future of a burgeoning healthcare community. That education led me to complete my internal medicine residency at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and then a cardiology fellowship and an advanced cardiovascular imaging fellowship at the University of Virginia Medical Center.
After completing my medical training, I returned to Medical City. The growth I saw realized what Dean German envisioned when I started medical school, and I was shocked at how fast it had happened. In just about 12 years, UCF COM went from having no building to having its own Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, an internal medicine residency program, the Lake Nona Medical Center — UCF’s teaching hospital, which opened a year ago — and the UCF Lake Nona Cancer Center, which was completed at the end of 2021. Last year, I realized my vision to work in Medical City when I was hired to build the advanced cardiac imaging program at the Orlando VA Medical Center (OVAMC). One person dies every 36 seconds from cardiovascular disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and heart disease is the leading cause of death in the nation. Advanced cardiac imaging plays an essential role in appropriately diagnosing various heart diseases, which means my position at Medical City allows me to fulfill an integral role for my community — just like the medical workers I saw in Albania.
Since my return to Lake Nona, I’ve also had an incredible opportunity to work with UCF med students and residents during their cardiology rotations. It is heartwarming to continue to hear great news about COM and its successful match of internal medicine residents to cardiology, and other, fellowships. My hope is to be a great mentor to these future healthcare professionals, similar to the great mentors I had when I was a COM student.
Now as a practitioner in Medical City, I envision COM to one day offer fellowships and expanded residency programs to grow its ability to train exceptional physicians that will continue to provide the best medical care for our community. I believed in Medical City when it was only a vision, and I continue to believe it will become one of the best destinations and referral medical centers in the world to receive care.
Elona Rrapo Kaso ’13MD is a cardiologist and cardiac imaging specialist at the Orlando VA Medical Center and a graduate from UCF’s College of Medicine charter class.