Dr. Nicola Mertsaris: A Greek Immigrant’s Journey to His American Dream

By Anastasia Kaliabakos

Everyone is familiar with the phrase “American Dream,” but what does it really mean? Is it a white picket fence in a suburban town? A brick house with a formidable garden? A stable office job, providing for a wife and two children (one boy, one girl) and a golden retriever?

The American Dream is sometimes glorified by those who haven’t lived it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t special or real. I am fortunate enough to be able to know someone who has fully lived the American Dream and who, in fact, represents it in every possible way.

My grandpa, Pappou Nico, was born in Athens, Greece to the neighborhood butcher in 1933. Growing up in a time of war, famine, and instability, life was anything but easy for him and his family. Of course, there are stories he tells me about his childhood in Greece that make me long to experience what he did—climbing fig trees with his friends, journeying to cold water springs in the mountains, experiencing the hustle and bustle of Athens. But there’s also the reality that not everything was perfect. In order to achieve his dreams, my pappou had to leave his homeland to study abroad in Italy.

Initially, he was set on becoming an engineer; however, upon realizing that he did not have a passion for it, he decided to become a doctor. It was in medical school, the University of Modena, where he met my grandmother, my late Yiayia Evangelia. He was taken by this strong, confident, and beautiful woman who also came from Greece to pursue her dreams—an especially amazing situation, because in the 1950s, not many women were traveling to different countries to become doctors. Eventually, they got married, and moved to Switzerland to pursue their careers. While there, they worked in a tuberculosis sanitarium, treating countless patients with the disease.

MERTSARIS on the grounds of the University of Modena, c. 1958. Photo courtesy of the Mertsaris family.

Not long afterwards, my grandparents decided to move to America, a place they considered a glorious land of opportunity. My mother was born soon after they moved here, followed by my uncle, who was born with severe cerebral palsy. Because my uncle was, and is, unable to walk, speak clearly, or perform many tasks that seem ordinary to most people, my grandparents decided that my yiayia should stay home to care for him and my mom. She dedicated her whole life to his success, helping him through law school and supporting both her children (and later, me) until the day she died.

My pappou immediately began looking for work when he came to America. He could not simply get a job as a doctor right away, since he was moving from a different country. Having almost no knowledge of English, he threw himself into working and providing for his family. Initially, he performed surgical research on animals, and, after an arduous few years of acquiring all his American certifications, began working as an Obstetrician-Gynecologist. I have heard many stories, both from my pappou and from my mom, about how he would just constantly be working. He worked endless hours at the King’s County Emergency Department, and, overcoming many obstacles, he eventually achieved his dream of also opening his own practice. He was committed to all his patients, and never let anyone down. He would make many sacrifices to be there for a patient during difficult times—he even continued to deliver babies when he broke his leg and was on crutches. By the time he finally decided to retire, his private practice had made him a legend in the Greek community of New York City, and the respect he had garnered at Downstate University earned him the position of Assistant Clinical Professor, a role he utilized to train and shape the trajectories of hundreds of medical school students. Over his six-decade career, he cared for thousands of patients, saved many women’s lives, and delivered hundreds of babies. He even went to court on countless occasions to be an advocate for women who were victims of rape and abuse.

When I was young, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, like my pappou. As I have gotten older, I’ve developed passions for subjects in the humanities, and science and medicine have become less interesting to me. But, through my own academic journey and over my 19 years of life, I have realized an important lesson—I don’t want to be a doctor like my pappou, I just want to be like my pappou.

Although I grew up with the privilege of being born an American citizen, I also grew up as a witness to an immigrant’s struggle to achieve the American Dream. The idea of the “American Dream” means something different to everyone—what does it mean to you?

Anastasia (Stacey) Kaliabakos is a graduate of the Brearley School and is currently a Dana Scholar at the College of the Holy Cross majoring in Classics and Philosophy. She is a features editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper, The Spire, associate editor of the Parnassus Classical Journal, and an avid matcha latte consumer. Anastasia has contributed to The WestView News since 2018.

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