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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 4: Dreamchild

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 13, 2003

Clearest in her mind is one conversation she had with a young woman seven months pregnant, whom she met sipping water inthe sunset at a roadside café. The woman said she was hoping for a daughter, because her three other daughters had all died before they reached their first birthday. There was something about the matter-of-fact way she said it that stunned Fahima; though Somali, she was seeing their world with Canadian eyes.

"It's something normal to them, losing their children," she recalls. "They have a word for it, iga saqeeruy."

The woman told her how mothers were left to die when they could not produce the $40 in American money - or a necklace or bracelet in barter - for the cost of a cesarean section. Women had taken to starving themselves when they were pregnant, so that they could have easier births. She asked a doctor about it. "It's gotten to the point," he told her, "where I am delivering skeletons."

At the café, with the sun dropping in the desert, she told the woman about her plans to be a doctor. The woman leaned forward and said, "You must come back. Once people get out, they forget to come back and help us."

When Fahima got home, she worked harder than ever. "I was so motivated to get into medical school. It was a lot of sleepless nights. When you know what your life would have been like, versus how it is now, you just have to work hard." She told her family that if she didn't get in, she would keep applying until she was 55.

But of course, she did. Now in her second year, with one left to go, Fahima is aware of being unique. In a diverse class, with student backgrounds from around the world, she is the only African. But it has been that way at school for much of her life - and it has mostly come in handy. In a group of 128, people remember her.

It has even paid off in the operating room, where students stand for hours, their main official responsibility to hold organs out of the way of the scalpel, while the surgeons rapid-fire questions at them. "You're the target," she says. But in Fahima's case, they sometimes forget to quiz her because they are so curious about her background.

At McMaster, learning is done in groups, not lectures. Fahima says she had to get over being shy to speak in front of people, but now her class is a close group, who got together on Wednesdays to watch The Bachelor and vote on which bride-wannabe should be next to go.

On request, Fahima enthusiastically rhymes off a list of diseases that fascinate her, and makes the kind of statement that gets her teased at home: "I really like reading about the acute abdomen."

Her career goal has shifted from obstetrics to general surgery; her final decision will be based largely on what would be most useful in Africa. She plans to divide her time between practising in Canada, the country that trained her, and working in Somalia, the country that needs her badly.

She will never go to the United States, she says, no matter how much money she could make (and she will graduate with $100,000 debt in student and bank loans): "I am Canadian first."

But she strongly believes she has a duty to give up movies and ice-cold Cokes and go to the desert where there is electricity only half the day, the hospitals shelves are always empty and people die daily from medical problems she could solve. She has started a student group for international medicine.

Dr. Goffredo Arena, who was the resident on her surgical clerkship this spring, recalls Fahima as the first person he ever met who said she wanted to be a surgeon so she could travel to a developing country and help people.

"We're all brothers and sisters in the world," Fahima says earnestly. "We all have a duty to help each other. It was just a matter of luck that we're born privileged and not a kid starving in Africa."

Her teachers and mentors see this as one of Fahima's greatest gifts. She has not forgotten her roots. While many of her peers come from privileged, educated families, she had to find her own role models outside of her community - and she understands the importance now of being one.

"She sees the world in a different way," says Dr. Samantha Nutt, the executive director of War Child Canada, who has helped to coach Fahima through medical school. "You just know she is going to accomplish great things."

The envelope that arrived that day in June and changed her life is now stored carefully in a file folder, which travels everywhere with her. "I look at it every time I get frustrated, to remind me how much I wanted to get in."

And to remember why.

Erin Anderssen is the Social Trends reporter for The Globe and Mail. ROBTv Workopolis