MU graduate honors father at School of Medicine convocation

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Ninety-four medical students were hooded at the School of Medicine graduation ceremony Saturday afternoon in Jesse Auditorium.

As the hoods were passed down the line of faculty members, one was put in the hands of Peter Kukulka. He placed the hood over daughter Natalie’s head, and the two embraced.

This was a special moment for both of them.

Kukulka, a physician himself in Poland, was never able to practice in the United States. But he could pass the torch to his daughter.

Earlier in the year, Natalie Kukulka sat in the lounge for medical students, thinking about the letter she wrote to the Office of Medical Education.

She was wondering if her father could participate in the hooding ceremony during graduation.

Peter Kukulka, Natalie’s father, emigrated from Poland to America when Natalie was 8. In Poland, he was chief of anesthesiology at a hospital in Debica.

After he arrived in the United States, the difference in licensing requirements meant he could not continue his practice. He ended up finding work in construction and plumbing.

For his daughter, having her father place the hood on her shoulders was more than a simple request.

“It’s the least I could do from my standpoint,” she said. “It’s a way for me to honor him and honor his medical degree.”

Michael Hosokawa, the senior associate dean for education and faculty development, was the one who told her that her father could participate in the ceremony.

“I thought that I misread it, or that I was dreaming, or that I was hallucinating from lack of sleep,” Natalie said. “That is the greatest moment of my entire medical career.”

Hosokawa called it a “story of three dreams coming true.”

“Natalie’s dream, her father’s dream and the American dream came true,” he said.

Natalie was raised around more than one practicing physician. When she was small, she watched her father’s grandmother hold a clinic downstairs in her home in Poland.

“I grew up with her cooking dinners upstairs and seeing patients downstairs,” Natalie said.

Although many of her family members live in Poland and Chicago, she said they remain incredibly close. They understand the stress that comes with medical school.

“One day my family is in Poland, and the next they are here with me on the stepping grounds of my medical education,” she said.

But her father impacted her most, she said, relinquishing a career for his family.

She said he would bring her dinner when she worked late nights in the lab at Lake Forest College outside Chicago. When her sister, Claudia, worked an EMT shift, he would do the same for her.

Natalie organized the first Autism Awareness Walk in Columbia, and her father drove from Chicago to be there. He did it again this year when she organized the second walk.

“If I need to only sleep two hours, he’ll call me in two hours and wake me up,” she said.

After graduation, Natalie will complete her pediatric neurology residency in Washington, D.C.

“I hope I can impact the future of our patients with some other contributions either in research or advocacy like I have been able to do here at Missouri,” she said.

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