Getting through medical school was no small feat. But after the many years of long hours I invested in learning and studying for my desired specialty — infectious disease consultant — the time and care I can now give to my patients to help them on their road to recovery makes it all worthwhile.
I was born and raised in Jeddah, the youngest of four siblings. My father, Abdul Aziz, was a lecturer in King Abdul Aziz University’s Department of Mathematics and my mother, Enayat Assad, was the first pediatrics physician in Saudi Arabia.
Our home has always been cozy and warm. Our parents encouraged us to pursue our own dreams — and yet the career paths my sisters and I chose were very much influenced by them.
After graduating from Manarat private school for girls in Jeddah, I enrolled in the School of Medicine at King Abdul Aziz University. I initially wanted to study math, just like my father, but my mother dreamed of one of her daughters becoming a doctor — and that dream landed on me.
I accepted the idea and though I was very much influenced by my mother, medical school presented a tough challenge. I graduated thanks to the support I received from my family. My mother stood by me from the start and helped me come to terms with the workload, supporting me throughout all the studying.
I then moved to the US as part of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. I lived there for eight years, first in Washington DC and then Boston, where I completed my residency at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, which is affiliated with the Tufts University School of Medicine.
Through my interactions with patients during my residency I came to realize that I did not want to specialize in anything other than infectious diseases. I wanted to be close to my patients, build a bond with them and provide them with the proper treatment.
I received my American Board of Internal Medicine certification and completed a fellowship in infectious diseases at the Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital in Virginia. The work was satisfying but grueling. I felt burnt out and exhausted, and was aware that another stage of my life was approaching — and it felt like a fork in the road.
I was married by this time but still living in the US, apart from my husband, Nael Al-Ghanem, who was a computer engineer in Riyadh. I was plagued by indecision about what was the best way forward: should I endure two more years away from my husband and family for the sake of my studies, or return home to Saudi Arabia?
A demanding career in medicine can be difficult but the people around you and the environment in which you work can make it easier.
My mother secretly contacted my colleagues and asked for their help to encourage me to continue my fellowship. My husband was very supportive, too, and also gently pushed me to go for it. It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make but, with so much support from everyone around me, I chose to remain in the US.
What made my time there easier was having family nearby. My aunt and cousins lived in northern Virginia, and every weekend I would spend time with them. My husband and parents frequently visited as well and that, along with a large group of friends and colleagues, made my stay quite comfortable.
When I returned to Riyadh and my husband, I worked at the King Fahad Medical City for three years as an infectious diseases consultant, before moving on to another medical institute.
The experience in my field of study that I gained in the US was unique and invaluable, but upon returning to the Kingdom I realized that I faced a whole new challenge. I had studied medicine for 15 years — first at medical school, then my internship, residency and fellowship — and gained a lot of experience through the years. However, medical school does not teach you how to become a doctor. That is something that comes from post-graduate training and practice.
I am able to balance my career and family life well because of a great working environment. The level of expertise at the institute where I work, and at KFMC before that, has allowed me to maintain some sense of normality in my life. The medical field keeps all of us who work in it on our toes, but I still enjoy the simple things in life.
I never had a good relationship with the gym in the past, but I have added it to my daily routine after work and it has become a new-found interest that I enjoy. The kitchen is my new domain as well; I never had the time or energy for cooking in the US but now, more than ever, I enjoy it very much and can be very creative in my choice of dishes.
It is difficult to picture how much of the rest of my life will be spent as a doctor, but I believe in continuity and in giving something back to my community. There is a lot more to being a doctor than simply treating patients. It is also important to educate as many people as possible about the importance of health, and ensure the message is delivered, shared and spreads to raise awareness and help build a healthier society. This requires patience, focus and developing the skills to become a good speaker, as well as building a reputation as a trusted voice that people will listen to.