Winter 2015

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Northwestern is the quarterly alumni magazine for Northwestern University.
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Alumni Life

Mourning Seema

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Samina Hadi-Tabassum ’93 is assistant professor of literacy and elementary education at Northern Illinois University.

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Alumna remembers a Northwestern friend and the cultural bonds that brought them together.

by Samina Hadi-Tabassum

A year ago, my friend Chris Linert ’93 emailed me about Seema’s death.

I had known that Seema Gupta ’93, ’98 MD, ’01 GME was in a coma, but like many of us who get trapped in the day-to-day madness of life, we forget about those not taking part in the everyday.

Sensing an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and loss, I shut off the computer and just sat there in the dark, thinking about the moment that I had met Seema. It was a hot August day in 1989, and the freshman class had gone to see a football game at Ryan Field. None of us knew each other well and there were plenty of awkward moments of polite encounters in the bleachers and bathrooms — hoping nobody would sense our deep anxiety while desperately seeking newfound friends.

I was one of a few South Asian Americans in the stadium and felt even more estranged from the maddening crowd. Unlike the other South Asian American girls who often looked away when making eye contact, Seema did the opposite. She was standing behind me in line for the bathroom and started a conversation.

I was so relieved — two desi girls having a moment together felt reassuring. We talked about where we were from and what our parents did and laughed at our stories: a year’s worth of Indian food mashed into Tupperware, all our aunties and uncles warning us of the opposite sex in the co-ed dorms, and the constant pressure to go premed, with the hopes of getting into the honors medical program. At the same time, Seema and I were very different: she came from a highly educated Hindu family from Gujarat, India, and I came from a poor Muslim family from Hyderabad. Neither of us was the pretty Indian girl in a Bollywood movie and we took solace in that fact. We were on the fringes of two cultural worlds, not even aware of what boundaries we were about to cross and on our way to becoming the women we admired.

Freshman year I did not see much of Seema — just off and on as we trekked from the south end of campus, where our dorms were, to the north end, where the science classes were held. It was not until we both moved into Foster-Walker for the next two years that our friendship grew, especially as my friends became her friends and her friends became my friends.

It was my job at the cafeteria to check everyone’s card when they entered the Marriot dining room. Seema, Chris Linert, Suzie Tam ’93 and Masha Alexander ’94 all sat at the round table next to my machine and became the greeters and ambassadors of Foster-Walker. For hours we would sit, eat and talk the night away until it was time to close, eventually heading back to our rooms and to talk even more. Sometimes I worked the dish room, and the whole gang would write me secret messages with corn kernels and other alphabet-like food. It was also the age of Goth music, and Seema and I both underwent a metaphysical transformation — we wore only black, sported Doc Martens everywhere, spiked and colored our hair and went into the labyrinth of the city to find the best mosh pits and dance floors. There is a wonderful photo of Seema standing on the lakefront during Armadillo Day wearing a black Morrissey T-shirt, smiling and holding the chain around her neck, happy that we made it through senior year still intact.

We all parted ways after graduation but stayed connected as much as possible, given the fact that we were not yet on Facebook in 1993. Seema graduated from the Feinberg School of Medicine in 1998, while I left medicine and joined Teach for America — both of us wanting to give back to society in some shape and form. She completed her internal medicine training at Northwestern in 2001 and then completed a hematology-oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

According to her obituary, Seema fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a doctor specializing in blood cancer and was an ambitious researcher and academician. In 2005 Seema attended a medical conference in Italy and had an anoxic brain injury which she sustained from a severe allergic reaction to seafood. The pasta she had ordered was cooked in a dirty pot that had not been washed after it was used to cook seafood. Within minutes, we had lost some part of Seema. News of her condition came back to the United States, and as friends, we kept each other updated on her status during the past decade.

Her loving parents, both doctors, took care of Seema till the very end. They had left India behind, just like my parents, with the hope of a better life. Seema was the embodiment of that hope.

Seema Gupta died Nov. 27, 2014, at her family’s home in Orange Village, Ohio. She was 43.