Currently, there are roughly 33 neurosurgeons in Kenya. That’s at most one neurosurgeon per 1.45 million people.
And so it should be a big deal when a new neurosurgeon qualifies to join the profession; balloons and non-alcoholic champagne in this case because Dr Omar Ahmed Abdirahman is the newest entrant, after successfully completing his Masters of Medicine in Neurosurgery from the University of Nairobi. (He’s fully schooled and trained in Kenya). He’s also the youngest, at 33-years of age, and the tallest, at 6’5”.
His road has been long, starting from Garissa County where he was born and now in the country’s less trudged hallways of medicine. He met JACKSON BIKO for a chat.
From the parched-land of Garissa to Nairobi’s shiny corridors of medicine. Some journey, huh?
It has been. I come from a big family of ten kids. My mother was born in Garissa, my father worked there as a principal of the biggest Madrasa – Madras Najah – and an orphanage. I’m the third born; we are five boys and five girls. We then moved to Nairobi when I was seven years and you know, attended schools like Khalsa Primary School and Highway Secondary School, and here I am.
Why neurosurgery, why not, I don’t know, veterinary medicine?
It may sound cliché but one of the first things that caught my interest was Ben Carson’s book; Gifted Hands. I’ve always been intrigued by the brain and how it functions. Even when I was a first time medical student, I really enjoyed Neuroanatomy. I liked the impact it had on humans. We were only two in our Masters class; myself and a guy from Mauritius. He’s yet to finish because he took a year off.
How is it growing up in a family of ten? Are you all from the same mother?
Yes, and same father. [Chuckle]. It was fun. The house was always full. You didn’t have to go out looking for friends outside when there were like nine guys in here you could make friends with. When you are from a big family you learn interpersonal interactions. There was a lot of arguments amongst ourselves but we could also gang up against outside aggression. You learn how to deal with people and to diffuse situations. We ate together. More importantly it ingrained in us a strong meaning of the importance of family. And as an Islamic scholar my father has been my greatest influence in my life.
He always told us that eventually, whatever happens, remember that you are going to die. And in our religion we believe in the hereafter, so he always said that when you die your actions, whether good or bad, will be rewarded or recorded. Everybody will be held accountable. Islam and my parents have had the biggest influence in my life. I attended Madras faithfully until I was 16-years old. The only day we were off was Friday and Thursday afternoon. We would be woken up at 5:30am, to go to the mosque and then later in the evening again. He’d remind us that the best of Muslims are the ones who remind each other to do good and also remind you not to do bad.
Has there been a point in your studies or budding career that you found the teaching of Islam and modern medicine conflicting?
Not so much. But we don’t practise euthanasia which, of course, is illegal in Kenya. Also things like stem cell might not be something I would delve into, especially if you’re going to make life like the way they made Dolly the Sheep in 2016. We are not the creator of life and one of the few things I always have to remember is we do not heal, we treat. Because it’s very easy to develop a demigod complex as a doctor which is why you might find some really proud doctors. My biggest fear actually as a doctor is developing that arrogance to think that you are the one who heals.
Which doctor has had the greatest impact so far in your profession? And why?
The late Prof Hassan Saidi, who passed on almost two years ago. A man of many caps; a brilliant mentor, an anatomist, the chairman of the Department of Anatomy until his death, a surgeon, a teacher and a friend. He never took “I can’t” for an answer. I’d run into him in the aisle of the supermarket and he’d leave me challenged. Until years before he got sick he played basketball, he always played weekend. If you went with him with a question he’d never give you a straight answer but ask you more questions. He went ahead and did his PhD even when he knew he had that rare type of cancer that killed him.
Is being such a tall and towering doctor an advantage or disadvantage?
[Laughs]The challenge with my height is that you cannot hide. Even in medical school, it came with a disadvantage because I stood out literary not just figuratively. That always meant I couldn’t miss class and go unnoticed or ward rounds. In any situation, in most rooms, I’m always almost the tallest. I don’t know if it;s good or bad but people remember you.
You’ve learnt and benefited from your older colleagues, what is your plan to add to this profession as young neurosurgeon?
Two perspectives; I’m big on mentorship because I’m a big beneficiary of mentorship. I’ve been mentored by so many amazing, brilliant people. I’d want to scale that mentorship to another level in terms of inspiring medical students. Yes, you have dreams, you came in you want to be a neurosurgeon, you want to be a cardiac surgeon, how can we help you? What can we help you with? That mentorship has to be holistic, in terms of assisting students both within and without, in the academics and non-academic. The other thing as a fraternity we have discussed and I’m big on is what we call setting up a Neurosurgical Centre of Excellence. We have six neurosurgeons in Eldoret, one in Kisumu, two in Mombasa, two in the military, one in Embu, the rest are in Nairobi. So, in the context of government plans, we’d want to have a Centre of Excellence. We have four or five centres of excellence currently we need more neurosurgeons serving the country.
What kind of neurosurgeon do you aspire to be known for?
A kind and compassionate neurosurgeon.
In your community (Somali), you’re very late in getting married. Have you had pressure to get married or do they understand that you have been chasing a big difficult dream?
[Laughs]. It’s a question which comes up over and over again; at functions, funerals, weddings. At some point you learn how to answer those questions or just dodge them. Yes, but at the end of the day, I’m not saying it’s not a priority, but it will happen when it happens. Of course I’d want to have a family and kids and I pray to get that but it’s not like money you go to work and get.
So, what’s the plan now to celebrate your little entrance into the profession?
I’m off to Mecca in a few days time to go for what is called Umrah – it’s like a minor pilgrimage. As I told you, I’m most grateful to my creator Allah for guiding me, keeping me through this journey, it has been a long and difficult, but a memorable journey of long days and even longer nights. So, I just want to go and ibada, for this gift of life and for getting me here but also to bless my hands in the journey ahead.
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