The road from Damascus

Professor Abdallah Al-Mohammad talks about his journey from school boy in Syria to professor of cardiology in England.

One evening in 1974 my little sister suffered a life-threatening event. I watched with my frightened parents as a doctor in the emergency department of our local hospital in Syria skilfully made the diagnosis and acted decisively to save her life. That night, I told my mother I would become a doctor.

Five years later I entered Damascus University’s medical school.

This equality of access at the point of need made me fall in love with the National Health Service, fuelling my determination to choose the UK as the destination for my postgraduate training.

Professor Abdallah Al-Mohammad

During an elective period in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital in 1983, the first two patients I encountered on a medical ward had alcohol-induced liver disease. They were given the same time and afforded the same respect by the medical staff; irrespective of one being a millionaire and the other being homeless. This equality of access at the point of need made me fall in love with the National Health Service, fuelling my determination to choose the UK as the destination for my postgraduate training.

When I came to the UK from Syria, as a doctor in 1987, I faced some hurdles: learning to read medicine in English; sitting the PLAB test when the pass rate was 12%; persuading people to employ me with a lightweight CV with the only redeeming feature being some good marks from a foreign medical school; being told the night before presenting a unique case that I discovered, to pass the presentation on to a local registrar because his pronunciation in English was perfect, unlike mine, an instruction that I ignored; and being discouraged from pursuing cardiology perhaps for very similar reasons.

Nonetheless, dwelling on hurdles is prohibitive and counter-productive. These were opportunities that helped me grow into the doctor I am today. In medicine, I was blessed by the many wonderful mentors who went out of their way to support me in my career, and by numerous excellent colleagues who welcomed me as a friend. This has been compounded by many thousands of patients and their loving families who trusted me as their physician since I was a junior doctor, and by over a thousand patients in Aberdeen and Sheffield who have helped and continue to help me with my research.

Do not expect the road into medicine to be laden with roses. But do not just recall the difficulties either — be positive and remember to look at the full picture. Difficulties are part of everyone’s life; it is only the doses of those difficulties that may be larger for some of us. Remember those larger doses may play to your advantage, making you stronger.

I am driven to work hard by the example of my parents, and by realising the privilege I have in being trusted by my patients to be one of their doctors. As for teaching medicine, I feel a moral duty to share the experience I have gathered before I say goodbye to a life I have been blessed thus far to enjoy.

Would you like to share your experience of becoming a doctor? Get in touch on Twitter via @thisdoctorcan.