Think of an ambulance and the first image that comes to mind is a white Suzuki Bolan painted with a red cross. No wonder then that the Aman Foundation’s sleek, bright yellow ambulances stand out among the fume-spewing buses, noisy rickshaws, and death-defying motorcyclists on Karachi’s chaotic roads.
You must often have spotted one tearing through unrelenting traffic, rushing the sick and injured to a hospital. In a city rife with medical emergencies, where target killings, bomb blasts and road accidents are a daily occurrence, these vehicles save many precious lives. How this network of ambulances was established is an inspiring story which starts with an ambitious boy, Junaid Razzak, who rose from humble origins.
Today, Razzak is a renowned emergency medicine expert and the executive director of the Aman Foundation. He started his schooling at a humble primary school in Lyari, completing his secondary education from Nasira School in Depot Lines. Not one to be held back, the hard-working student subsequently attended Adamjee Science College where his impressive grades and unbounded enthusiasm won him a scholarship at the prestigious Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH), the top private medical institution in the country.
It was in his fourth year of medical school that Razzak discovered his true calling: emergency medicine. “Fourth year is the time when you choose your field. Most of my fellow students went abroad for internships, but I stayed back and spent time in the emergency room at AKUH,” he says.
It was time well spent. When he saw the sorry state of emergency medicine, Razzak was driven to bring about changes in the field. He graduated from AKUH in 1994, but his interest in emergency medicine only grew.
In collaboration with the Edhi Ambulance Service, an arm of the philanthropic Edhi organisation and the largest volunteer ambulance network in the world, he researched and analysed road traffic injuries and emergency cases. Edhi had a mountain of documentation for every call and every case it had handled in the last two decades. The downside? None of it was digitised, so he spent days sifting through it manually.
The experience stayed with him, and the data revealed a disturbing pattern. Gruesome injuries, often suffered by the poorest members of society, were often improperly handled by well-meaning doctors, simply because of a lack of know-how. These mistakes frequently, and literally, led to the loss of life and limb.
Yet, Razzak soon realised that he needed more professional training and specialisation courses before he could progress further. He sat for the US Medical Licensing Exams (MLE) and had observations at the Beth Israel Medical Centre, New York, and the Yale-New Haven Hospital, Connecticut. In 1996, his residency and training programme at Yale University’s School of Medicine started and in 1999, he was given the ‘Best Trainee’ award by the State of Connecticut.
On the personal front, Yale was also important for the doctor since he met his future wife there. Following graduation, the two stayed in the US for a few years, always looking forward to the time when they would return home. “The plan was always to come back,” says Razzak. “That’s why we never bought a house, never completely settled in.”
Before they could come back, Razzak did his PhD in Public Health at the world-renowned Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, where he focused on the use of ambulance data for monitoring road traffic accidents. Finally, in 2005, the studious boy from Kharadar returned to Pakistan as a successful, qualified expert in emergency medicine.
He joined his alma mater, AKUH as a faculty member and went on to successfully found Pakistan’s first emergency medicine service (EMS) training programme at the university. “There were many doctors who were awarded their degrees without ever administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) as it wasn’t a requirement,” he reveals.
This changed when his EMS programme became a mandatory rotation that all students had to serve. Subsequently, Razzak went on to build and head a new emergency department. Yet, the battle was just half won. Students in the new department faced a dilemma, similar to the one Razzak had as a student. They were required to go to the United Kingdom to sit for their exam, otherwise they would not be considered qualified.
“We had trainees, but no exams here,” he says. “If these students couldn’t sit for their exams here, they weren’t qualified on paper and therefore couldn’t be hired as consultants.”
Determined to remove, for others, the hurdles that he himself had crossed only after many toils, Razzak collaborated with the College of Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan (CPSP) to organise a curriculum for the specialised field. The first batch for this course was enrolled last year. Now students wanting to specialise in emergency medicine will be able to obtain certification in their chosen field, without having to travel abroad.
“I consider this a major achievement,” he says with a smile. “I don’t think there is any country that requires this specialisation more than us, with all the natural disasters, deteriorating law and order situation and terrorist attacks that we face.”
At just 40, this medical expert has achieved what most people can only dream of in a lifetime, but he still has big plans for the future. Razzak will shortly launch a tele-health service for Aman Foundation and dreams of building a world-class health facility in Pakistan. It seems that nothing is impossible for this inspirational doctor.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 4th, 2011.