History Project: The first female Emirati surgeon is fighting fit

A passionate desire to bring better medical treatment to the UAE has driven the career of Houriya Kazim.

Dr Houriya Kazim, the first female Emirati surgeon and a cancer specialist at the Well Woman Clinic in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National
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“I knew I wanted to be a surgeon,” says Dr Houriya Kazim, the first female Emirati surgeon.

Medicine is a tradition in her family, with more than 80 members in the profession, including her father, also a surgeon.

What kind of surgeon was decided later in her career.

“It was not until I was working as an intern at the Rashid Hospital in the late 80s, where I saw the most advanced cases of breast cancer,” she says.

“It was these unfortunate women, and their sad demise, that made me specialise in the treatment of breast cancer.”

One reason why many seriously ill women in conservative cultures like the UAE struggled in silence in the past – and some still do – is their reluctance at going to male doctors for treatment, whatever their ailment might be.

“It was very difficult meeting women with advanced breast cancer, who came to us so late that there was nothing we could do. I was horrified and felt helpless, as they did.

“The reason they came late was a combination of lack of awareness, fear and modesty – there were no female surgeons for them to go to,” says Dr Kazim.

At the time, the young doctor had graduated from medical school at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, studied microbiology and physical anthropology at the University of Toronto and obtained a master’s of public health in epidemiology and disease control from the University of Texas.

What she saw at the Dubai hospital pushed her to go to the UK to obtain a fellowship in general surgery before specialising in surgical oncology and, in particular, breast surgery and reconstruction, at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.

“I never had any problems convincing my seniors here in the UAE that surgery was a good option, as they knew the need was so great. I did my residency in London, and it was actually difficult convincing people there. They would tell me to go home, get married and have kids,” she recalls.

“If I was shortlisted for a job, I would scan the room and knew that I had to be better than all the male applicants and then all the British women. I was really at the end of the list but alhamdulillah, I did it! I still have some male colleagues who treat me like I’m in kindergarten, but it doesn’t bother me.”

Taking up a challenge is what Dr Kazim does best. She worked as a volunteer surgeon in the Caribbean before coming back home to Dubai in 1998 to take up a post as a breast surgeon at a private hospital. Then in 2006, she set up the Well Woman Clinic, a multidisciplinary clinic staffed by women for all women’s health needs.

“My patients, whether they have breast cancer or not, are anxious and fearful, so I wanted to set up a clinic that wasn’t clinical. Somewhere that felt like your own living room, friendly and welcoming. Somewhere to help them relax and feel comfortable.”

The UAE has come a long way in its health care. Today there are dozens of public and private hospitals and clinics, offering every kind of speciality. But a few decades ago, the isolated inhabitants of what was to become the UAE had only traditional medicine treatments and techniques handed down to them to help them in times of sickness.

Some cures were effective, others less so. Cancer and its many forms always existed, and tumours, while often fatal, were treated with what was called Al Lessah, the thief’s mark. A traditional Arabic coffee cup was placed upside down on the tumour and the tip of a hot iron rod was used to cauterise the skin around the cup in a series of dots. Then the cup was removed and the tumour itself cauterised.

“Health care as we know it was very nonexistent in my grandparents’ time,” says Dr Kazim.

“My paternal grandfather was a hakim, or faith-healer, whom other people would visit for basic poultices, herbs and prayer,” she recalls.

“In my parents’ time, clinics and hospitals were built to care for the citizens. But initially, it was basic health care. People would still go abroad for major surgery and cancer treatment. And now we have a health system that can deal with the majority of health issues as good as any centre in the West.

“The inspirational side is that in a short time span, all the awareness talks and programmes that I have done are actually working. Women now will check themselves rather than wait for something to happen to them. I now very rarely see advanced cases of breast cancer, like the ones I used to see when I was an intern,” says Dr Kazim, who also founded and still runs a breast cancer support group and charity in Dubai called Brest Friends.

“And the treatment of breast cancer in this country is now on par with the West. Patients can now see that early detection and good medical treatment means you don’t have to die from breast cancer.”

She is also a freelance writer on women’s health issues and is married to an American television journalist. They have two daughters, who are 12 and 14.

One of the things Dr Kazim would like see is a better approach to how workplaces take motherhood into consideration.

“I wish there was an easier way to balance my work with my family. When I returned to the UAE, there was no possibility of having a part-time job so that I could spend more time with my babies. The attitude was that you are either working or not.

“None of the government hospitals would give me a part-time job. I eventually worked in a private hospital, which did, but only initially and then they changed their practice,” she says.

“So when I had my next child, I only had six weeks of paid maternity leave. This is crazy when you see what other developed countries are doing to keep women in the workforce. This needs to change.”

What has helped women the most in the UAE, according to Dr Kazim, is education and “the freedom to be educated and to obtain a government scholarship to do so with the prospect of a job when you get home.

“So, the only thing I had to worry about was studying hard and passing my exams so that I could be the best surgeon I could.”

Her message to future generations of female doctors is clear: “Work hard to serve your people and don’t give up. It’s a long and difficult road and a challenge to balance work with home life. But it’s possible.”