x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Doctor who wants to make a difference

When Sabina Aidarous decided to become a doctor, her ambition was to work in a public health service, serving everyone in the community equally.

Dr Sabina Aidarous hopes to raise awareness and start a group for women with menopause.
Dr Sabina Aidarous hopes to raise awareness and start a group for women with menopause.

When Sabina Aidarous decided to become a doctor, her ambition was to work in a public health service, serving everyone in the community equally. But when she married an Emirati pilot and moved from London to Dubai in 2002, her priorities and understanding of where she could be most useful changed. She realised that many of the types of care and support which are sometimes taken for granted in other parts of the world were not only lacking but, at times, non-existent in the UAE.

"It was a bit of a culture shock for me," she recalls. "I came here not knowing what to expect and thinking 'it can't be that different'. When you visit as a tourist everything seems very modern, and everything is available, so I thought health care would be on the same level." Education and services for women's health, in particular, lag behind other countries. Breast cancer, mental health and sexual health remain taboo topics despite efforts to raise awareness and reduce the stigma attached to them.

As a Muslim female doctor with a child of her own, Sabina, 30, feels she is in a perfect position to make a difference. "You have to realise that Dubai has changed rapidly, especially in the past 10 to 15 years," she says. "There are very modern facilities here in all areas, but cultures do not change as quickly." In her role as a family medicine specialist with a strong interest in women's health she has tackled some of the more sensitive topics, such as cervical cancer and menopause, head on.

Despite being so passionate about the public health service and training in Britain with the intention of working in it, Dr Aidarous, who is mother to two-year-old Ayesha, took her first job in Al Zahra private hospital in Sharjah. She now works at the Imperial Healthcare Institute in Dubai Healthcare City. "I realised it was not about being in the public or private sector, it was about working where you could make the biggest difference.

"After I saw the [health] system I really wanted to change things. I think it is amazing considering how old the country is and it is wrong to compare it to nations that have been around for hundreds of years. "I choose to think outside the box and I realise that if I am to make a difference, I need to step out of the clinic, be it public or private, and get out into the community. "I think outreach programmes are the best way forward, especially to make a difference in some of the very remote areas. This is something I'm looking into."

Understanding about health in general, she says, is naturally not the same in the Emirates as it is in other developed countries. Even the basics, such as healthy eating and exercise, are not ingrained in the culture, not because people do not want to be healthy but simply because they don't know how to be. "Health is not as important to people here as people in the West think it is," she says. "The western expats are always more healthily inclined because we are used to seeing health campaigns about many different topics and it sinks in.

"We know, for example, that smoking next to a child is not a sensible thing to do. But here people do not have that understanding." Dr Aidarous's first encounters with the British health service were unavoidable. When she was just 18 months old, her mother was diagnosed with lupus - an autoimmune disease that affects many of the body's organs and functions. She spent much of her childhood visiting her mother in hospitals and clinics. Instead of being afraid, she says, she became inspired,

"Hospitals are so normal for me as I have been seeing them since such a young age, it was a way of life for me," she says. "The National Health Service was under less pressure then but I still think it is an amazing thing. I met some lovely nurses and doctors. The experience changed things for me." Dr Aidarous insists she did not go into medicine to make money, she genuinely wants to "make a difference".

One of her latest ambitions is to create a national menopause society to raise awareness and boost education about an issue that ultimately "affects half the population". She is working with other doctors and nurses from across the UAE to get backing and sponsorship for the project. "I hope it will tell women that it is OK to talk about that because it is going to happen to every single woman. Some women are lucky to get away with the mildest of symptoms, others suffer depression, insomnia and have problems relating to other people. Depression levels can get so bad that a lot of relationships end because of a lack of understanding."

Dr Aidarous thinks there needs to be a dedicated group of people to whom doctors can refer patients, and also a website with comprehensive information on menopause. It should be managed and include women who understand the sensitivities. As well as being a Muslim, Dr Aidarous also wears an abaya and has spent much of her time learning about the different dynamics of religion in Emirati society. She decided to wear the abaya, out of work, only after moving to the UAE. It was a choice, she says, not an obligation. Her husband, Hassan, 34, backs any decision she makes.

Since embracing the culture, she spends much of her personal time with the types of women she feels deserve better health education. "These are not suppressed women," she insists. "The abaya for example, they wear it because they want to, as do I. We all wear normal clothes at home but choose not to do this outside. "They want to learn and understand, especially the new generation who are much more willing to talk about health issues. They bring their mothers or their grandmothers to doctors, I just feel the taboo and stigma about certain issues needs to be removed in a culturally sensitive way."

munderwood@thenatioanal.ae