Early years in India
Reeba learnt early on what it means to live a selfless life. She saw her parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunties do just that – many in her family were doctors. The effect was that medicine and hospitals became her world from a very early age.
Growing up, I was always surrounded by people who helped others at great cost to themselves, so I did not think it strange – or even great – because everybody around me was doing that.
She continues: “My childcare was in a hospital. When my parents weren’t home, I was left there and people looked after me. I remember having a real skeleton in my nursery - I was about three years old - and it didn’t bother me at all.” Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder that Reeba grew up wanting to be a doctor.
Her first placement was at the Christian Medical College, Vellore. The hospital founder, an American female medic named Dr Ida Sophia Scudder, found that three women had died due to bleeding in childbirth in one single night. That concern for women’s health was crystallising during those years. On completion of their studies, graduates of the school had to commit to serving the churches of India for two years as a doctor. “None of us broke the bond – there was no penalty anyway – but many of us became accustomed to working in these hospitals at a young age. It shaped us deeply.”
I was still relatively young when I did my first caesarean section. You just get on with it. The fear hits you when you get older!
England’s first FGM clinic
Some years later, Reeba moved to the UK. “I came to Imperial to do research into women’s health. Basically, I’d never done scientific research before. Over the years, it’s been instrumental to my work.”
As is often the case when you’re in a new place, you notice things that others don’t. “I’ve always found myself in situations where there’s a need to help others, and sure enough, FGM came my way,” she recalls. “The Cardinal Hume Centre in central London told me that they had all these needs for immigrant women and I said ‘well, in my hospital in India, we would’ve said let’s open a walk-in clinic.’” And that is what we did.
I opened England’s first FGM walk-in clinic. Nobody knew I was doing it and when they found out, nobody stopped me. Anybody with FGM could walk in confidentially because that’s what we would’ve done back home. We wanted to give people confidence and not add any barriers.
Reeba discovered that FGM victims – often women of Somali descent – were only being looked after by the NHS when they were pregnant. There were no services for non-pregnant women despite the fact that the physical and psychological scars remained. Soon, her walk-in clinic was taking in non-pregnant women too. “There was no money to fund it,” she says. “I found like-minded people to do it with. We’d just buy Tesco sandwiches to give our clients because that was all we could afford.”
What happened was women started to stream through her doors. She says, “These were non-pregnant women – usually older – and they had been suffering for years with no one to talk to. They did not have the knowledge of the type of healthcare to access. And they found smear tests very painful.”
Feelings of worthlessness and neglect were commonplace. Many had complex psychological issues. “With all that psychological trauma, they really needed me and my team to tell them that they’re normal even though their vaginas looked different.”
But what’s been the response from the community? “Completely and utterly positive!” she says. “When the deputy mayor came to our clinic, that was the first time I saw the NHS health professionals, the police, the politicians, and community activists all coming together. It really made our work worthwhile.”
One of the noteworthy aspects of Reeba’s work – and there are many – is her relationship with her patients. Her warm, humorous persona has led to positive connections with different members of different families willing to share their lives with her.
One of my favourite patients doesn’t speak English very well. She used to be very grumpy and couldn’t experience orgasms. I worked with her then one day, she came running down the corridor towards me smiling. She said, ‘Doctor! Orgasm is great!’
And what keeps her going in the face of challenges? “My patients and my team, without a doubt. When you think things aren’t going well, there’s always a patient who’s happy that you’ve cured them. And if I’m running out of ideas, someone in my team will come up with something. We always find a way through our problems.”
As Reeba looks back on her Imperial days, she reflects with gratitude. Her experience there has been crucial to her FGM work.
We have very meticulous data-gathering processes at the walk-in clinic. We know objectively if we have made someone better. No service should run without a degree of checks and safeguards to ensure that you’re doing the right thing. That is what my degree taught me.
Professor Stella Knight was her clinical supervisor. Reeba describes her as “amazing”. The interdisciplinary work and the “strong scientific fellowship” also impacted Reeba greatly, especially that not much research had been done in her area of focus.
She would have loved to have continued working in research; choosing not to was a difficult decision. “I loved my degree at Imperial. While I was there, we found a group of cells which had never been found before in foetal blood. It identified whether the baby had been exposed to infection inside the mother. It was quite cutting edge and innovative and I was so taken up with it. I could’ve gone down that route but I love surgery. I love my patients.”
Leadership roles and taking FGM clinics overseas
Over the years, Reeba has worked tirelessly and beyond the call of duty. So, what’s next for her?
She continues in her various leadership roles relating to FGM. These include:
- Committee member of NHS England’s London FGM Health group. The group consists of senior FGM clinicians from across the capital. The aim is to lead the UK in FGM prevention strategy and policymaking. It replaces the government’s FGM prevention programme which ceased in 2018.
- member of the National Police Chiefs’ Councils (NPCC). This is the national working group for honour-based abuse, forced marriage and FGM. The group leads on government and police policy for tackling FGM in the UK.
- member of the joint Crime Prosecution Service (CPS) and NPCC Stakeholders’ Forum. The National Working Party informs the government on the national plan to tackle FGM, honour-based abuse and forced marriage.
Reeba also has her eyes trained on taking her FGM clinics overseas. While a lot of good work is being done, she believes that it’s crucial to take the FGM fight to the countries where it’s most prevalent. “The problem is most common in two countries, Somalia and Guinea. They have the highest FGM rates in the world. During the pandemic, I set up a virtual clinic with a team of doctors in Somalia. I’m also trying to do the same in Guinea.”
Reeba is proud of the recognition she’s received through the award. “I’m very grateful. I’m not sure what I’ve done. I did this for my own enjoyment. I wanted to help. But it’s nice to have the time and energy we’ve put into this recognised.”
Characteristically, she’s thinking about others and the future of her clinics: “This will enthuse more people to fight FGM. More importantly, I hope the publicity will help reduce the risk of having funding for such services cut. It’ll help me set this service in stall so that when I retire, someone else will carry it through.”
And what’s her one piece of advice for those coming up behind her:
If you do things for the right reasons – not for money or recognition – everything will always fall into place. If the money and recognition come, they come, but don’t start out with that as your focus.