On the frontline

Not content with the easy life, Imperial alumni are dedicating their careers to relief work in some of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world.

Our Imperial

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Mohammedabbas Khaki

(MBBS Medicine 2010) General Practitioner

Q. Did you always plan to become a GP? In my first weeks at med school I worked at a GP practice and absolutely loved it.

I saw at first hand the intimacy of a doctor’s relationship with their patient and the degree of trust placed in them.

I had always planned to do some charity work and appreciated that the flexibility of the GP role would help me do that.

Q. What was your first experience of medicine in a conflict zone? In my third summer as a student I went to Bosnia with ICAB (Imperial College Aid to the Balkans). There was real desperation among the people we were treating and some of their stories were heartbreaking. I still have the letters and drawings from the children.

I had stepped outside the Imperial bubble and my first thought was, ‘That could have been me’.

I knew then that I had to use the skills I had been lucky enough to be taught to help others who were simply victims of circumstance.

Q. What lessons from Imperial have stayed with you most in your relief work? It is a tough old slog to get through your training in medicine, but the ethos at Imperial has always been one of mutual respect and closeness among the student body, steeped in support from older members to the younger.

I was the Union Welfare Representative in my third and fourth years and I learned how important a holistic, long-term view was in supplying pastoral care. It’s a lesson I try to apply to all my work.

Recently, I was in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, where some of the stories told by the women are horrific. I helped in the training of more than 100 doctors from 66 different NGOs. You need to recognise that you won’t be there to help forever.

Dr Mohammedabbas Khaki works as a GP in London and is the resident phone-in doctor for Sky channel Zee TV, expert contributor with Channel 5 news and BBC radio, and contributor to the Metro and The Independent. He has a Diploma in Conflict and Catastrophe Medicine and was one of the winners of the inaugural Emerging Alumni Leaders Award in 2020.

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Stefanos Tsallas

(MSc Surgical Science 2015) Medical practice professional/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

Q. What prompted you to volunteer to work with MSF? My thesis was on micro-surgical procedures used in reconstructive surgery for breast cancer. These can involve a team of up to ten working in the operating theatre for 12 hours, so they require a great amount of skill and resources.

I was writing up my thesis at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe and this felt personal for me.

I left Imperial disillusioned with the contrast between the high level of technical care and expertise available to some in a world where others did not even have access to paracetamol. People were drowning in my homeland of Greece and I felt I had to do something.

Q. Was there much call for plastic surgeons to help out? Not at all! I was handing out medicines, helping with psych support, doing basic paediatrics. But the fantastic insights I had gained at Imperial alongside the soft skills I had learned were essential.

I soon realised that, precisely because of my training, I was able to work with the local healthcare professionals to not only improve conditions for the refugees but also organise health education programmes for them.

When I came back, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for MSF. Fundraising is not a big thing in Greece in the way it is in the UK, so when someone suggested I go climb a mountain to raise money it was an original idea for me! At Imperial you get introduced to new ways of doing things.

Q. What are your plans for the future? I’ve been working in a hospital in Athens during the COVID-19 crisis, but I hope soon to work with MSF again. Plastic surgery is my passion and there is an amazing MSF centre in Amman, Jordan, where they specialise in treating injuries from adjacent war zones.

It is often forgotten that the big advances in plastic surgery came from the Great Wars, and today there is enormous need for plastic surgeons alongside orthopaedic and vascular specialists to treat the horrific injuries that result from conflict.

Dr Stefanos Tsallas put his career in plastic surgery on hold to volunteer for Médecins Sans Frontières in Lesvos as part of the European migration crisis programme. He is currently working in a hospital in Athens.

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Aula Abbara

(MBBS 2005, MD (Res) 2017) Consultant, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust

Q. What was your first experience of working in conflict medicine? As a student, I did a placement in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, which was organised by the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations, shadowing doctors. It was useful to gain experience in the health concerns that the patients had.

I was worried that I would not be able to continue similar work when I started training but, at the end of my foundation year, I was able to spend a month volunteering in a refugee camp in Damascus in the summer of 2006, before the war, when refugees arrived from Lebanon to Syria during an escalation of violence.

Q. What is the most important lesson you pass on to your students? The most important thing is to be humble and understand that local people and healthcare workers will know far more about their context than you will.

As such, it is important to listen and to go without preconceived notions. This will also help build a rapport and a relationship with the people you will be working with, and this is key to building trust and supporting cross-learning.

I am always clear I have learned far more from my experiences than I could teach.

Q. How has your work in refugee zones fed into your career? In the summer of 2015, I took a break from clinical research to volunteer with Médecins du Monde in Sierra Leone for the Ebola response.

Later that year, I volunteered as a clinician in Greece when refugees were arriving in large numbers on the islands; this led to me being asked to manage a project where we were providing primary healthcare to refugees.

These experiences have helped me develop key management and leadership skills, including problem solving in challenging environments, resilience and supportive communication, all directly relevant to my clinical work in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Aula Abbara is a consultant clinician in infectious diseases and acute medicine and an Imperial teacher providing training for healthcare professionals affected by conflict. She was one of the winners of the inaugural Emerging Alumni Leaders Award.