By Hana Muslic
Maja Cartwright and her family have been seeing “The Bosnian Doctor” at the Women’s Clinic in Lincoln, Nebraska, for more than a decade.
Cartwright came to the United States as a Bosnian refugee when she a teenager, so she was appreciative to find a medical professional who spoke the same language and understood the practices of both countries.
“There’s a familiarity with her,” Cartwright said. “She’s able to answer questions my mom has about health and procedures because things were done differently in Bosnia. She does a good job of explaining how things are done here and why.”
Other Bosnians have been seeing Dr. Svjetlana Dziko for the same reasons, Cartwright said.
And although Dziko sees patients of all nationalities, the woman who is known by many as “The Bosnian Doctor” is an important figure in the Bosnian community.
But her medical career path wasn’t a smooth transition — in fact, it was full of obstacles: Five years to get a medical from the University of Sarajevo; four years working toward passing her boards; the Bosnian War; fleeing to Germany and then immigrating to the United States; passing her boards — once again — in the U.S.; and receiving residency.
Dziko grew up in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she was good at school and loved to study science. She also liked to challenge herself.
Following ideal path
After graduating high school, studying medicine seemed like the ideal path for her to follow in college. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, students choose their vocational school right after high school.
“I chose medical school because it was the most difficult college,” she said. “But at the same time, I was always very social and wanting to help people, and I just fell in love with the idea of practicing medicine.”
At the time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, students who graduated medical school had to spend two years as a general practitioner before they could be considered for residency. In order to get residency, students must pass exams similar to those they would take to pass medical school. When they pass these exams, they apply for residency and are matched and assigned to a city where they can specialize in the medical work they do.
Dziko chose to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology. She was matched at the Medical Center and General Hospital in Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She spent four years there before passing her boards and becoming certified to practice in 1990. Dziko moved back to Sarajevo with her husband Jasmin, a lawyer, to practice as an OB-GYN shortly after.
Then, in 1992, everything changed. Sarajevo came under siege by the Army of the Serbian Republic as part of the Bosnian War, where ethnic tensions that had been brewing between the three ethnic groups — Muslim Bosniaks, Serbian Orthodox and Catholic Croats — had come to a head. The next four years would be the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare.
The Dzikos, who now had two young children — daughter Vedrana, born in 1986, and son Neven, born in 1991 — knew that they had to escape the country. Svjetlana was a Serb while Jasmin was a Bosniak, and mixed marriages were socially unacceptable during the war.
Svjetlana Dziko and her children fled to Germany after being given refugee status, while Jasmin stayed behind in Sarajevo. During her time in Germany, she served as a nurse in a private clinic. Despite her almost 10 years of experience as an OB-GYN, her credentials did not transfer over to a new country when she did.
Her husband joined the rest of his family three years later and from there, the family’s immigration to the United States began. Then-President Bill Clinton had opened up a program allowing those from mixed marriages to enter the United States as refugees from the Bosnian War in a streamlined process.
“We arrived in Omaha in August 1997,” she said. “I was happy to be safe and to have my family together.”
However, like in Germany, her experience as an OB-GYN meant little in the United States without the proper certifications. But the decision to go back to school in a new country and get these certifications was an easy one for her.
“Medicine and my profession is part of my existence,” she said. “And this is the only country in the world that gives you the opportunity to be who you are and do what you want to do.”
American medical process
The first step in the process of returning to practice was getting her degree from the University of Sarajevo to be recognized. Through a Philadelphia-based program called the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, she was assessed for readiness and licensed for residency here in the United States.
Then, she had to pass the same United States Medical Licensing Exam that all medical school students in the U.S. have to pass. “Step 1” of the process, as it’s referred to, is to pass an eight-hour computer-based test taken in a single day. It is composed of seven 40-question sections with a maximum of 280 multiple-choice questions.
After passing this, “Step 2” comes in two parts: assessing the clinical knowledge and clinical skills of the student. For international students, assessing English proficiency is also required. Dziko had to travel to Philadelphia to complete these boards.
Once she passed, she was able to apply to do residency all over again. She said it was not an easy process. The hardest part was that she felt her age was a hindrance.
“I was 42 years old at this point,” she said. “They thought I was too old to be an OB-GYN, so no one invited me for interviews.”
For Dziko, the obvious solution was to apply for family medicine residency, as it offers the option of practicing obstetrics occasionally.
“(Obstetrics) is what is in my heart and I couldn’t go away from that,” she said.
In 2001, Dziko finally received residency at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. She transferred to a hospital in Lincoln, a city that had captured her heart.
“I loved the community,” she said. “I moved my whole family here.”
Lincoln is rich with foreign cultures because it has long attracted refugees and immigrants — and many of them refugees came from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After she finished residency in 2004 and was offered a job at the Women’s Clinic of Lincoln, she began influencing this community right away.
“To be honest, at the beginning she was known as ‘The Bosnian Doctor,’” said Cartwright. “That’s why my parents started taking me to her.”
Now, years later, Dziko has delivered Cartwright’s son, Max, and will deliver the baby girl she is expecting. Dziko was able to answer the many questions Cartwright had as a first-time mother.
‘Knew how to take charge’
“I don’t think that process would have been as good had she not been there,” Cartwright said. “She just knew how to take charge and get things done. “
Dziko worked her way up to become the director of the Family Health Care Center of Lincoln, a partner of the Women’s Clinic of Lincoln, before she acquired the building in 2016, opening her own practice. At this practice, the Family Health and Wellness Center P.C., she specializes in wellness, weight-loss, obstetrics and pediatrics.
Through years of hard work and despite hard times, Dziko persevered thanks to her determination and passion for medicine. This is what keeps her going back to work every day.
“I feel very fortunate that I am where I am right now,” she said. “As a young girl, this was something I only hoped for in my wildest dreams. I certainly am proud of my family and friends after all we went through. You come here pretty late in life and you try to do your best and it is a great feeling to have the community accept you.”