Consultant gastroenterologist and hepatologist Professor Laith Al-Rubaiy shares his fascinating journey into medicine – from Iraq to the UK.
I was born in Baghdad, Iraq's capital city. My parents were very hardworking, and had great hopes for me as – their firstborn child – from the day I was born. However, Iraq has been inundated by wars, economic sanctions, political polarisation, and instability since I was born and, arguably, still is today.
We travelled from city to city and from one place to another throughout the Iran-Iraq war. My father constructed a refuge in the house to shield us from shellings and shrapnel; we used to hide in the shelter as kids whenever we heard the siren. My worried parents used to read us stories and recite verses from the Quran to keep us entertained and divert our attention away from the world around us. Although challenging at the time, these memories made me more determined to succeed in life and pursue my dream of becoming a doctor and helping others.
I've always wanted to study abroad, especially in the UK. I would listen to the BBC World Service to help improve my English and I was thrilled and excited whenever I heard the sounds of Big Ben’s chimes on the radio.
In my early years, I spoke English whenever possible (using the limited vocabulary I learned at school). With my parents' encouragement, I put in a lot of effort at high school to prepare to apply for a competitive medical school. I also used to teach small groups of my friends who would gather around me after school to revise for the exams. It was one of my most treasured moments when I was accepted to medical school. My career in medicine has began then, and has been continues to this day.
I completed medical school in 2003, the year of the infamous Gulf War. The war caused final medical exams to be postponed for several weeks, and they eventually took place during the scorching summer season. We studied during the day using natural sunlight, because of the lack of electricity, and we used dim lantern lights to study at night. The insects would, however, fly around the light, and the nights got hot and humid in summer in Basra.
We managed to complete our final exams despite all of these challenges. I was honoured to become the first-ranked medical graduate in Iraq, something I never imagined at the time of war – when all we wanted was to survive and get on with life.
After completing a brief medical residency in the war-torn city of Basra, I was awarded the prestigious Fulbright scholarship to pursue my studies in the USA. After that, I received a highly competitive Chevening scholarship from the British Council. As a child, I had always wanted to visit London, and the scholarship made it possible. At last, I saw Big Ben and once more heard it chime –but I was right next to it this time! In fact, I attended Kings College London's St Thomas Hospital campus, across the Thames from Big Ben and the House of Parliament. This period helped me grow into a young doctor and opened the door to a world of opportunities.
After finishing my foundation and core medical training in London, I was awarded the Welsh Clinical Academic Training (WCAT) grant to pursue a career in gastroenterology in Wales. The WCAT allowed me to pursue an academic career and complete clinical specialty training in gastroenterology.
During this training, I became the secretary and, a year later, the chair of the trainees’ section of the British Society of Gastroenterology. That was an incredible phase of my career. This role allowed me to work across the UK to support the delivery of the gastroenterology specialty training curriculum and organise training workshops and courses. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to interact and bond closely with many gastroenterologists and colleagues across the length and breadth of the country.
I was selected to win the British Society of Gastroenterology's Young Gastroenterologist of the Year award in 2017, which honours young gastroenterologists who show leadership potential and dedication to the profession. I am the first doctor from another country to receive this honour.
I spent 9 years in Wales and saw another side of the UK. I enjoyed the diverse Welsh nature and rich culture. I then relocated to London as a consultant gastroenterologist at St Mark's Hospital, one of the leading gastroenterology hospitals in the UK and Europe. However, I continued my academic work and was appointed as an honorary professor at Swansea University School of Medicine.
Despite being thousands of miles from my home country, I used every opportunity to maintain links with my colleagues back home and share what I have learned in the USA and the UK. I visited Iraq almost every year and worked with charities in the UK to arrange visits to Iraq's rural areas and provide medical help to needy people. This charity work has always given me great satisfaction and is its own reward.
I've had a challenging but great life experience and career so far. Coming from a war-torn country should not stop you from pursuing your dream. The three components of success, in my experience, are passion, dedication and self-control. Life has its ups and downs, but when things get gloomy, I concentrate on the tiny glimmer of optimism and trust that things will turn around soon.
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