I was born a doctor


I was born a doctor.

I recall being 6 years old, at home in Damascus, playing with my cousins and siblings and insisting on being the doctor performing life saving surgery on our Barbies and Sindys.

We moved to the UK when I was 12 and could barely speak English. When it came to applying to universities, my GCSE grades of 5 As and 4Bs - gained four years later in my second language - were, according to my teachers, not good enough for med school and that I should study chemistry which I excelled at. I thought this was the most preposterous suggestion I’d ever heard. Of course, I was going to be a doctor! I was certainly going to try. The Royal Free Hospital medical school - incidentally the first free hospital in London, well before the creation of the NHS, and the first place to offer women places at med school - saw my potential and offered me a place; and so began my love affair with medicine. 23 years later, I remain deeply fascinated by the human body and its incredible, awe-inspiring complexity.

I decided to specialise in anaesthesia because it allowed me to know a lot about a lot as opposed to everything about one thing.

We had to geek out studying physics to understand how our anaesthetic gasses and machines worked: we needed to learn anatomy in detail to know exactly where to put anaesthetic needles to numb an arm for awake surgery. I loved the constant banter between the surgeon and anaesthetist across the ‘blood-brain barrier’- that blue drape that separates us at the head of the patient. Anaesthetists are needed everywhere - in the emergency room, in intensive care, in delivery rooms and out in the field. My love for the miracle of life and our bodies has grown even greater since those early days, most recently with my experience of nurturing into existence my baby girl Naya.

Whilst I loved getting high-quality training and education in Europe, I knew from early on that I was all about being a doctor out there - in the wilderness - high up a mountain or in a fraught, poorly resourced rural African field hospital.

I was aware of the vast inequalities in the availability of healthcare, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and felt determined to improve global health delivery.

I have treated a young female trekker with high altitude cerebral oedema, a life-threatening emergency, at 4,200m in the Indian Himalayas as an expedition medic, treated victims of a multi-trauma car accident in the foothills of Kilimanjaro as an AMREF emergency flying doctor, taught nurse anaesthetists with Health Volunteers Overseas in Addis Ababa, transported an injured UN soldier from South Sudan, and researched how to treat critically-ill children with pneumonia in rural Uganda.



Then one day, my life changed forever. Never did I imagine I’d be putting my medical skills to use in my home country of Syria as it shattered into a million pieces and plunged me into war medicine.

Never did I imagine that doctors, nurses and aid workers would be systematically targeted and killed for carrying out their life-saving duties, Yet since 2011 over 900 of my colleagues have been killed, many more tortured, imprisoned, and chased out of the country for daring to treat injured civilians. 

Never did I imagine I would need to say the words, ‘where shall we build this hospital so it doesn’t get bombed?

’ Yet, there have been 595 attacks on at least 350 separate facilities since the conflict began in 2011. And never did I imagine in my wildest dreams that the overwhelming responsibility for this would be borne by a fellow doctor; the Syrian president Bashir Al Assad.

This year has been extraordinary in how it has focussed our awareness on the vulnerability of our good health, the need for free at the point of delivery, high-quality healthcare for all, the impact of its unavailability for many, and how healthcare, science and doctors themselves have been under attack from powerful interest groups.

This year has reminded me of the privileges my profession brings. I have the honour of working alongside everyday heroes who risk their lives to save others, whether on the frontlines of the war in Syria or in the fight against Coronavirus. I’ve been encouraged to renew my commitment to my own health and wellbeing, but more importantly, to renew my commitment to enabling access to healthcare for all, starting with the very people who make that possible.

We need to care for the carers, so the frontline health workers - without whom there would be no healthcare - can continue to care for us.



About Dr Rola Hallam

CanDo's Founder & CEO. A consultant anaesthetist who has worked for 14 years in global health. Loves the diversity of humankind and has a deep sense of interconnectedness - with that rare ability to connect with, and accept all people.

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