Physician Saad Sahi ’06 has worked at the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, N.M. He has worked in the Mbale Regional Referral Hospital in Uganda. At both places, medical equipment, supplies, and facilities are lacking, yet there is no shortage of sick people needing care.
“Unfortunately, this is the reality of surgical infrastructure for the vast majority of the world,” Saad said.
His has been a career of never giving up, always getting up. In a recent email, he offered this reflection:
“I suppose residency training in general surgery teaches you how to detach from the tragedy of death while celebrating the saving of a life,” Saad said. “We detach not because we are emotionless but because every patient deserves a provider who is not bearing the emotional burden from the outcome of the last patient, good or bad. Moreover, we often must detach ourselves from our emotions to think with clarity as we make critical decisions. But again, it is not that we are emotionless. Instead, we tend to channel our emotion into the humanity of the work, into upholding the values of the profession.
“That becomes exponentially more difficult in settings that have been historically denied and deprived resources — that are still reeling from the legacies of colonialism and imperialism — where we bear witness to the consequences of society’s failures through the undeserving and unnecessary misery and suffering of so many patients, many of whom come from exceedingly vulnerable communities.”
These vulnerable people are the ones to whom Saad has been drawn, perhaps inevitably from the time he was walking on the campus of Northeastern University at the end of his freshman year and a volunteer for Doctors Without Borders handed him a flier about a free screening of the program’s new documentary.
He went to the screening. He would never be the same. He left with what he says was an incredible sense of purpose, having seen and heard about healthcare inequality and global social injustice. He would become a doctor, and he would work to address the injustices raised in the documentary.
“More powerful than the intellectual connection I felt to the film was the emotional connection, a connection rooted in the fact that I was born in and come from one of the countries briefly highlighted in the film: Pakistan,” Saad said. “Though my sense of purpose was still taking shape and becoming clear, I knew I wanted to pursue a life and career built around addressing many of the complexities I felt so connected to in that film.”
After graduating from Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, then training in general surgery at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School, he became a clinical fellow with the HEAL Initiative at the University of California San Francisco. HEAL is a multi-disciplinary global health fellowship program founded on the principles of equity, justice, and solidarity.
He spent his first year at the Northern Navajo Medical Center and his second year in Uganda. He extended his fellowship one year, spending the first three months at Gallup Indian Medical Center in Gallup, N.M., followed by nine months in Mbale, where he is now wrapping up his fellowship. This summer he is in Boston to start a two-year clinical fellowship in acute care surgery at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.
It may be surprising that Saad’s route to becoming a doctor took a turn through the fashion industry in New York City, but not when you consider that Saad started his undergraduate career at Northeastern undeclared for a major. He said he was torn between the subjects that came naturally to him, math and science, and those he was drawn to, such as film, music, and philosophy. He had a curiosity and a need to explore beyond the boundaries of the subjects one might expect a future doctor to pursue.
“By the end of my freshman year I was inclined toward a career in medicine but realized early on that it would require a commitment to the sciences for many years to come,” Saad said. “Because of that realization, I decided to diversify my undergraduate education as much as possible while I still could, out of pure curiosity and interest.”
Saad chose to major in philosophy. He said he wanted to learn how to think about the world, “or at the very least how best to make sense of my own life experiences as I develop my personal world view and perspective.”
While continuing to take the required pre-medical courses, he also took electives in music and the arts. Saad graduated a semester early, dedicating that last semester to studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). He planned to take a gap year between college and medical school to prepare his application, but he realized he still was not ready to commit to the many years of studying medicine.
He wanted to try something in the creative field and live in New York City. He found an unpaid internship at a boutique fashion firm.
“I hopped around a few internships between the worlds of PR and styling, sustaining myself by working odd jobs in the service industry to make ends meet and by living with a lot of roommates,” Saad said. “It was the quintessential ‘if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere’ experience, except I was never really trying to make it New York as I knew I would soon be starting medical school.
Because he did not worry about succeeding in the fashion industry, he thrived, achieving much more than he expected in his entry-level positions, he said. “It also served as a valuable lesson on what is possible when we live and work without the burden of our fears, one that I carried with me into my medical career,” he noted.
That medical career in Uganda has required him to reflect on his days of majoring in philosophy, the days of gaining as much knowledge as possible to try to make sense of a world that sometimes makes little sense.
“The highs always seem to outweigh the lows, but the lows can be equally impactful,” Saad said. “And while we all have more [difficult] stories to share than we would like, none stand out more than those involving children, as we also take on the role of pediatric surgeons in this community. All I can think about after we lose a child to illness, especially those that could have been easily prevented or treated in even a modestly resourced setting, is just how unfair the world is sometimes.
“I reconcile these moments the only way I know how, through my lived experience and worldview that I developed over a lifetime. I was born in a public hospital in Pakistan, where my mother, just like the mothers here in Mbale, had to purchase and bring her own gloves, sutures, medications, and supplies to the hospital for my birth because so many of these settings lack even the most basic of things. But somehow, through the sheer will and determination of my parents to provide us with a better life, my siblings and I survived a lot of statistics. And while every tragedy in the hospital can feel like another statistic, I do my best to focus on those whom we help survive the statistics, just like I did. Because if we do that enough, maybe we can actually change the statistics. And that’s ultimately the goal: to help as many people as possible survive the statistics until we can one day transform the system as a whole.”
Saad came to Loomis Chaffee as an international boarding student. He was 15. At the time his parents were working and living in Saudi Arabia.
“Ultimately, Loomis exposed me to thoughts, ideas, and perspectives that I had never considered by way of its incredibly extensive academic offerings,” Saad said. “In short, Loomis broadened my world view through an academic lens in a way I had never before experienced.”
The name of one teacher stands out for him.
“I still remember Mr. David Newell, who taught psychology and happened to be my assigned counselor,” Saad said. “I often shared with him my love and passion for hip-hop music and culture, and how it taught me a lot about language, poetry, and life. He would always entertain my interests, and when I graduated, he gifted me a collection of poetry by Rumi, encouraging me to keep asking the big questions in life.
“In retrospect, his guidance and encouragement likely set me on the path to study philosophy, which fundamentally changed the way I look at, think about, and make sense of the world. In a way, Loomis taught me how to challenge my own perspective by giving me the confidence to believe in myself, and that has prepared me for so much of the work I do today.”