In conversation with Jumana Ben H.
Illustration Sakina K.
It unfolds like a story. It’s nice. I never thought I’d enjoy it but I am.
Tell us about your current position and how long you’ve been at it?
At present I am doing intensive care at a post-cardiac ICU. I have only been doing it for a year. I chose to do it because, like anesthesia, it was about learning on the job. The anesthesia I was doing back home – liver transplant – was as tough as it got. The most intense form. It has taught me a lot. It is still critical care so your instincts remain just as strong and you learn more aspects of your field, outside of the operating theatre (OT) setting. In the OT, it is all very quick. Everything happening to the patient is in the moment, minute to minute. In the ICU it happens over days. You get the see the post-operative process, whether it’s a complication or an infection. It unfolds like a story. It’s nice. I never thought I’d enjoy it but I am.
It was either teaching or medicine. I tried my hand at teaching by giving tuition, but it was not for me. I did not have the patience.
What was your childhood like?
As a child I was never squeamish. I used to enjoy biology. I had an aunt who was a physiotherapist working with spastic children for rehabilitation. She was my role model and I used to look up to my English teacher as well. So it was either teaching or medicine. I tried my hand at teaching by giving tuition, but it was not for me. I did not have the patience. So it was science. When I finally made the cut for Medicine, she was like why physiotherapy when you can be a doctor? I was always working towards the physiotherapy goal. It was like jumping into the deep end of the pool- not knowing how to swim. You get into medicine not knowing what to expect. The first year of medicine is the toughest because you suddenly learn this sea of knowledge.
An anesthesiologist is basically the surgeon’s physician.
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
An anesthesiologist is basically the surgeon’s physician. Surgeons work on cutting apart and stitching back up the body but this would not be possible without first numbing the body. Each part of your body is linked with blood vessels. So every time you touch an outside part of the body, you are definitely going to make an impact on the inside. Keeping the body’s homeostasis as close to normal as possible, without letting the patient feel pain, and basically allowing the patient to wake up very normal after surgery, is what the anesthesiologist does.
Suppose the surgeon is operating on the leg and it has resulted in blood loss. It is my responsibility to assess how much blood he is losing and whether the patient needs to be replaced with blood or fluid to maintain blood pressure. I am constantly on my toes because the body is always fluctuating. Most of the time, you will hear that a patient has died because of an “anesthesia overdose.” It’s not an overdose. It’s because the anesthetist missed something that was happening on the other side of the table and did not react fast enough. Certain surgeries are very simple but the anesthesia you give is very complicated, so it is very scary sometimes.
I would be constantly shuffling between these patients to gauge who is better, who is worse.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
When I used to be in the OR, I would have around 4 to 5 small cases in a day, or 1 huge case. The huge cases would exhaust me because I would constantly be looking at the monitor, trying to pre-empt problems that pop up every once in awhile. Small cases are also quite busy but they’re fun to handle because of the teamwork. There are a lot of people on the floor, helping each other out.
Intensive care is a little more dull compared to OR but if I get 16 to 17 patients at a time, then it can become quite taxing and scary. I am constantly shuffling between these patients to gauge who is better, who is worse. Sometimes a better patient becomes worse, and sometimes a worst patient just crashes. So I definitely have very hectic days.
I can switch off. It’s an important quality to have, to be able to switch off.
Do problems at home compromise your role at work?
Where relationships are concerned, I am intensely thankful to everyone at home. Whether it’s my children or whether it’s uncle, they are very cooperative. They know that once I go to work, I need to switch off. I think most of the time there is some coordination for the kids whether they’re coming home or going out- that’s why I have always had full time helpers, so at least somebody is there for them. But their cooperation has been amazing.
Even if I am at home, l encourage my children to travel alone, or to go to the library alone, or to play and make friends alone because I’m there today but maybe not tomorrow. In that case, I don’t want them to miss out. If they know I have gone for a transplant, they know not to call unless it’s an emergency so that way it has worked out well. I don’t let problems in the house affect me on my job, because I think I can switch off. It’s an important quality to have, to be able to switch off. I think I am blessed in that way because even for my sleep cycle, I am able to switch on and off to my requirement.
I started believing in miracles after that.
What is the most exciting case you’ve had in your career?
Not the most exciting per se, but definitely the one that taught me the most. There was this 3 year old girl (I don’t usually operate on children because they are very delicate and anything can go wrong. You can lose a child like this *snaps fingers* and this child was extremely sick). She had a huge liver tumor and she was bleeding into the tumor. She was only 9kgs and her tumor was around 2kgs – so that would bring her weight down to 7kgs.
This child had every complication in the book when she came to us. She was too sick for us to operate on her. Yet, she stayed in the hospital under observation for a month. In that timespan, we dealt with one complication after another. Slowly, she got better enough for us to operate. I was really nervous. I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I called in my ex-boss to assist me just in case things turned out bad.
At one point during the surgery, her temperature had dropped to 33 degrees Celsius. She was too cold and was not producing any urine. She was also losing too much blood. We feared the worst. But something made me check her face under the drapes and I realized the temperature probe was out of her mouth. I put it back in and the temperature rose to 36 degrees Celsius. There was renewed hope that this child would make it. We finished what we started and after a 12-hour operation, her vitals were stable and she was producing urine again which was a heartening sign. There were complications after the surgery too but she pulled through. Despite our initial skepticism, she survived and is now leading a healthy life as a 4 year old.
I started believing in miracles after that. I believed that the doctor should do the best he can and leave survival to Khuda. You cannot decide for your patient if he is going to live or die. And you also cannot take the blame if something goes wrong. If you’ve tried your best, leave the rest to fate.
The child’s parents were extremely patient. You know how people get angry with doctors when things are not going right. It’s worse when a child is suffering. But her parents were one of the best relatives I have ever come across. They patiently waited and left it in our hands to save their daughter. They had invested all their faith in us. However, not all relatives are this patient. Some start playing the blame game when things go wrong and sometimes, it pushes the doctors to do things they wouldn’t have done in their clinical judgement.
I learnt a lot on that case. I learnt to be patient, confident. I learnt that not everything is in your hands, and you should just do your best for every patient, and then whatever happens happens.
I feel happy when I have done justice to my patients – in whichever way that may be.
Tragic things happen at the hospital. How do you cope with being surrounded by death?
Every day, I walk into a place full of so many tragedies. Young boys lying lifeless, elderly parents who are now paralyzed, daughters who feel guilty about pushing their parent for surgery. We see all kinds of family and life situations. But along with the tragedies we also see the success stories. I don’t get depressed. I look at it as facilitating a better future for these patients. I like to see it as lessening their suffering. I feel happy when I have done justice to my patients – in whichever way that may be. I makes me feel tremendously thankful.
Whatever I did, I knew that Maula was there to guide me.
How has Burhanuddin Maula RA and his teachings shaped your life?
Burhanuddin Maula RA had once said in his waaz, “A child in the womb is very secure and has everything, from nutrition to security to love- all that he needs. When he comes out in the world, he doesn’t want to go back into the womb. Now, the world is his playground. However, there are many trials and tribulations in the world – sickness, sadness, grief. But still, this is where he wants to live. It is the same with the afterlife. You go from this life and pass away to the next stage of your being, your soul passes on to Jannat and then it doesn’t want to come back to this world. This world is not its place anymore. It is happy where it is. However, if there are defects in the formation of the child in the womb, they become very apparent as disabilities in this world. So if there are small lapses on your part in grooming your Jaan, in this world, where you have done wrong, then they it will trouble you in the afterlife. So do your best while you are here.”
This had a great impact on me. It took away the fear of death for me because I knew I would be joining Maula after my passing and it also helped me to continue doing better here, in this world. It motivated me to be a good person.
When Maula had come to Marol once, there was a bethak for doctors. I felt very privileged to be getting the respect as a doctor. I had a few seconds to do araz during qadambosi and so I said, “Maula maara haath ma shifa aapjo, huun doctor chu.” And Maula looked at me and said, “Tame doctor cho?”. I said “Ji Maula” and he said again, “Nai TAME doctor cho?” and I said “Haan huun doctor chu Maula”. And then he smiled and gave me a masalo. That moment is etched in my memory. He wanted to be doubly sure that I was not asking FOR shifa, but to GIVE shifa to people. I think after that, there was no looking back in my medical career. Whatever I did, I knew that Maula was there to guide me.
I think most doctors are superheroes. You are also such a wonderful wife (because I know you personally). And you are such a doting mother. I have never seen you compromise on either of your daughters, you try to be there as much as possible, which must be hard given the time constraint. What is it like, balancing between those roles, or how do they come together?
I think it’s mostly give and take. Like I said, I am extremely thankful to my husband and children. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything special for them, but rather, the other way round. They provide the balance for me. In fact, I was more giving 10 years ago. Now, it’s just taking. Maria and Husaina were having their vacations and when I used to come home post duty, they would literally tuck me into bed. They would take away my phone and made sure I slept, so that I get plenty of rest. This is the balance that comes with love. There are roles around the house that we just have to share. Yusuf (her husband) does his bit and I do mine. Yusuf was very supportive when I told him about my new, terribly hectic work roster. He told me to give it a shot and that first year after marriage was the toughest. For me, and my family. But we have grown from this. We have become very giving and there is always communication between the two of us. That strikes the best balance.
“Your personal and professional life go hand in hand”
Single piece of advice for those considering this career path?
I would say what my mum said, “Your personal and professional life go hand in hand”. Be patient! Be patient with your family and make them understand what the requirements of your career are, rather than just expect them to understand. It is very difficult for them to comprehend the pressure you are under. It’s definitely a very difficult career to be in yet it’s a lovely field to take over because obviously it’s one of the most noble of professions.
This was by far the most inspirational interviews. Being a multi-tasker myself, it is very difficult for me to switch off and that is one thing I can take back from this interview. Juggling all roles together is a tiring yet rewarding experience.
Thank you for bringing this story to us, Mighzal! <3