x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Transplant surgeon continues his father's healing work

Mohammed Khan was a doctor who died tragically early while waiting for a new heart. His memory inspire his son to this day.

Dr Abrar Khan began his university studies in California when he was only 16, and founded a transplant centre in Abu Dhabi that is saving the lives of countless patients.
Dr Abrar Khan began his university studies in California when he was only 16, and founded a transplant centre in Abu Dhabi that is saving the lives of countless patients.

ABU DHABI // It was always expected that Dr Abrar Khan would follow in his father's footsteps and become a doctor. His father, Mohammed, had moved from the family's native Pakistan when Abrar was just eight months old to work in Ghana, and later, in Zambia.

"My father wanted to work in a place where there was a need for doctors," he said. The younger Dr Khan wanted to make a difference in much the same way. However, it was his father's death that would ultimately - and more specifically - shape the son's future. The elder Khan died in 1988, at 60, after waiting in vain for a heart transplant. Abrar Khan was just 24 years old. "It was a combination of finances, which we didn't have, and in those days the indications for transplants were for younger people," Dr Khan said. "He was 60, which in this day and age is nothing, but in those days they [transplants] were for a lower age."

Abrar Khan, a precocious student, had been admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, when he was 16, to study neurobiology. Since his father had been sick for so many years, Dr Khan was forced to support himself while he was a student, and took any odd job he could find, from filing paperwork to cleaning tanks. He moved on to McGill University's school of medicine in Montreal, Canada, completed his surgical residency at the University of California, San Francisco, which was followed by a clinical transplantation fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh with Dr Thomas Starzl, one of the field's pioneers. Dr Khan went on to found the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC) transplant unit; he was hired because of the success he had launching a similar programme at Fletcher Allen Health Care, a hospital affiliated with the University of Vermont, in 2002. SKMC doctors performed their first transplant on February 2, 2008, a little more than three months after Dr Khan arrived in the UAE.

"There was nothing here at all except me and an empty desk," he smiles. "So to go from there to doing a transplant in three months, was an accomplishment in itself." Dr Khan recently earned a master's degree in business administration at the London Business School's Dubai branch. Not one to shy away from a challenge, amid all his professional work, in 2003 the busy surgeon became a licensed pilot. "The rapid acceleration of the plane down the runway, with my own hand on the controls, and the plane slowly and majestically lifting off the ground, it is a feeling that is unparalleled," he said.

Dr Khan and his family in Pakistan are continuing their father's work at a clinic - named Sharifan, after Dr Khan's grandmother - for the underprivileged in Lahore. For 30 years, Sharifan has been offering free treatment and medicines, even clothing, to as many as 60 patients a day. He has been with his wife, Sarah, who also works at the hospital, since 1998, when they met at Yale University, where he was studying for his PhD in immunology. The couple married three months after they met. "Life is about making quick decisions," he said. "If you can't figure it out after three or four months, you're not going to." Sarah, who works as a nephrologist at SKMC, receives no special treatment from her husband. "I have to go through the same assessment processes, and he does not mince his words," she said. "He makes it very clear to everyone on the team that I get treated just as everyone else does."

One of Dr Khan's patients, Bilal Abdul-Alim, who has been in Sharjah since he left Texas in 1992, is a doctor himself. His wife was the donor for his kidney transplant last year. He said Dr Khan, in addition to being a "brilliant doctor", provides a personal touch. "I had some hiccups, which meant that my discharge was delayed," he said. "I remember Dr Khan coming in and saying to me 'I dreamt of you last night'. I asked him if he dreamt of all his patients, and he told me it was only the ones he worried about. That shows what type of commitment he has, he takes it to bed with him. Some people leave their work when they walk out of the hospital, but for Dr Khan, it's 24/7." mswan@thenational.ae

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