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Oman’s first female surgeon recounts her journey

Oman’s first female surgeon, Dr Halima al Maskari, has stressed the need for more female surgeons to join different hospitals in the public and private sectors in the sultanate as there has been a dire shortage of female surgeons over the past 2-3 decades.

In the Arab world, female patients in need of surgery are yet hesitant to be examined by male surgeons due to a variety of cultural taboos and would prefer to be under the care of female doctors, Dr Halima pointed out, adding that Oman is no exception to this. She was also of the opinion that more, young, female doctors need to specialise in surgical practice as they would be in high demand in this part of the world.

Dr Halima, who joined the main trauma centre at Khoula Hospital in 1992, after her medical training in China, Tanzania and Germany, served there as a surgeon for 23 years at a stretch, though initially the appointment of a lady surgeon was looked upon with skepticism. She currently serves as a consultant surgeon at Al Hayat Hospital at Al Ghubra.

“When I joined, most ladies in Oman would not like to be examined by a male surgeon and so I was in good demand, so much so that ladies needing surgery would come from different parts of Oman and queue up waiting to be examined by me,” Dr Halima said disclosing that there has always been shortage of female surgeons in Oman, and it continues till today.

After Dr Halima started to work as a surgeon, the need for more female surgeons was felt and students in medical colleges were encouraged to take up surgery as a speciality, she said, however, lamenting that the minimum marks for admission to medical colleges in Oman was higher for girls and less for boys.

Disclosing that currently there are just about eight lady surgeons in Oman (including expatriates), Dr Halima admitted that it was, indeed, a tough job and required one to make many sacrifices on the personal front to attend to the call of duty round the clock.

“There is a need for at least two lady surgeons in every hospital,” Dr Halima said adding that following her appeal for more lady surgeons, some were employed from India and other countries. Currently, many young girls in Oman are training to be surgeons.

Over the years, most surgeries in Oman for female patients concerned hernias, haemhorroids, breast tumours and many were reluctant to be examined/treated by male doctors, Dr Halima pointed out adding that cultural taboos were so strong in Oman that many patients are still reluctant to expose even their legs for examination of conditions such as varicose veins. Hence, to take the pressure off the existing female surgeons, there was need for employing more female surgeons, she added.

Besides attending to female patients, Dr Halima has also assisted on many complicated surgeries of trauma cases as well as helped out in surgeries in the gynaecological department, all of which kept her on her toes over the years, quite literally, she said, adding that patience is the virtue which all surgeons need to cultivate for themselves.

Despite her busy schedule, Dr Halima said she also devoted one day every week for charity work by way of helping the Oman Cancer Association in screening and examination of females for breast cancer and in teaching them breast examination methods.

Asked about the key challenges before the profession in Oman today, Dr Halima lauded the standard of medical practice which was on par with the best internationally. However, she hoped that the admission criteria for female candidates should be made easier so that more students join the profession. She also hoped that there should be more coordination between private and government hospitals, especially regarding sharing of data.

Childhood dream

“As a little girl, I always admired doctors and wanted to be a doctor myself. My grandfather supported my ambition and he nicknamed me ‘doctor’. He used to always call out to me as if I was a doctor. That motivated me to study hard and take up a career in medicine. We had one doctor in the family, a distant relative, and I turned out to be the second.

I was born in Zanzibar and went to primary school in an island called Pemba. After completing my secondary education and A levels in Zanzibar, I underwent initial training in Zanzibar Institute of Health and then proceeded to study medicine in China, in 1975, on a scholarship. I graduated from what was then known as Nanjing College of New Medicine, now Nanjing Medical University. Most of my clinical training was in surgical practice in China after which I did my internship in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. I also learnt to speak Chinese, German, English, Arabic and Swahili.

Best part of being a doctor

“The joy one gets in healing people and seeking their appreciation is the best part of being a doctor. Also, I was able to understand and offer moral support to my parents in their illnesses during their last days.

The best compliment

It was from a patient some years ago who followed me from Nizwa al the way to Muscat to offer me a bowl of dates in appreciation for getting cured.

The challenging part

“When your patient passes away and you are subject to scrutiny by the medical council. It happened with me twice, but I emerged from it as I had not been directly involved.”

Professional dilemmas

Often one is busy with work and cannot make time to attend to family obligations. I was once in the operation theatre the whole night when one of my close family members passed away and I got to know about it after the burial.

The best gift

Compliments come in different forms from patients, from flowers and perfumes to halwa and chocolates. But words of appreciation are the best gifts.

Message to young surgeons

Be dedicated to your work. Always put your patients before yourself and God will help you through.