CORONAVIRUS

Muslim Doctors Fight COVID-19 — And Islamophobia — On The Front Lines

Muslim medical workers continue to provide essential services in the U.S. and around the world — even while fasting for Ramadan
Physician Syed Raheel Hassan — in the backyard of his home in New Jersey on Thursday — knows the challenges of th
Physician Syed Raheel Hassan — in the backyard of his home in New Jersey on Thursday — knows the challenges of the coronavirus firsthand.

Syed Raheel Hassan, a doctor in New Jersey, sees nearly twice the number of patients he did before the coronavirus pandemic hit the state.

Hassan’s days are packed as he moves from room to room at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, treating COVID-19 patients.

But he takes the time to talk with patients so that they don’t feel alone, sometimes helping place calls to their families, knowing that the conversation could be their last.

Hassan knows how important this is because he’s been there himself. 

Hassan contracted the coronavirus in March. It felt inevitable: He — like many other medical workers — didn’t have enough personal protective equipment, yet was seeing many patients.

The following weeks were harrowing. He needed his wife to help feed him because he was too weak to eat or drink. When his illness worsened, he was put in the emergency room and could no longer see his wife or his children, who are 10 and 6. Being alone felt worse than the symptoms, and he worried he might not see his family again. All the while, he relied on his Muslim faith to stay positive. 

Hassan’s health improved, and he eventually returned home. But the virus spread within his family. His wife contracted COVID-19, as did her parents and four other members of Hassan’s family. Hassan’s in-laws were hospitalized. His mother-in-law recovered, but his father-in-law did not. Last month, after weeks of being on a ventilator, Hassan’s father-in-law died of the disease. 

Now, Hassan thinks of these experiences when he sees patients. And his patients appreciate it: They know him as the Muslim doctor with the beard who helps families call their loved ones when things turn dire. One woman who lost her uncle recently called the hospital to thank Hassan for his work.

“I felt really proud that she remembered my name, and she remembered how I look like and knew most likely that I was Muslim,” Hassan said. “Even if there is one thing that I can even play a small role in to change someone’s perception about who we are and what sort of experience that we bring.”

I felt really proud that [the patient] remembered my name, and she remembered how I look like and knew most likely that I was Muslim. Syed Raheel Hassan

Hassan is one of many Muslim doctors on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19. They work despite the risk to themselves and their families. Many do so even while fasting during the day in observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Muslim medical workers have been fighting COVID-19 all over the world. In the United Kingdom, the first four doctors to die from the virus were Muslim immigrants. 

While there are no nationwide figures for Muslims working in health care in the U.S., Muslims make up a sizable proportion of medical workers in both New York and Michigan.

In New York City, nearly 10% of doctors are Muslim, according to data from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Muslim physicians in New York City see more than 5 million patients a year and pay more than $4 billion in local wages annually.

In Michigan, more than 15% of the state’s physicians are Muslim, the institute reported.

Despite this, Muslims continue to be vilified in conspiracy theories and disinformation pushed by far-right groups and websites. Last month, President Donald Trump claimed without evidence that mosques could avoid social distancing orders during the coronavirus lockdown and that there was a “great disparity” in the treatment of mosques and churches.

Nevertheless, Muslim medical workers continue to provide essential services as proud Muslims and proud Americans, said Marium Husain, a hematology and oncology hospitalist and the vice president of the Islamic Medical Association of North America, the largest network of American Muslim health care workers, with more than 4,500 members across the country. 

“This crisis is just showing who essential workers are,” Husain said. “They are not the movie stars, they’re not celebrities or sportspeople. They are the people on the ground every day that are doing what they can to keep this country running, and Muslims are a part of that.”

HuffPost talked to several Muslim doctors about their work battling the coronavirus, Ramadan and their Muslim identity.

Uzma Syed — at her home on Long Island Thursday — works 16-hour shifts divided among three hospitals in the fight
Uzma Syed — at her home on Long Island Thursday — works 16-hour shifts divided among three hospitals in the fight against COVID-19.

Uzma Syed, Infectious Disease Specialist And Chair Of The COVID-19 Task Force, New York

Syed is a wife and the mother of two children, 15 and 7, and she is grateful that her family understands why she’s barely home, she said.

Syed works 16-hour shifts, divided among three hospitals on Long Island. She also runs two clinical trials in the fight against COVID-19.

When Syed’s is not at a hospital, she reads the latest medical research from across the world to strategize a cure for the pandemic. She said she’s exhausted but is nevertheless proud of the work she does as a physician and a researcher ― as well as a Muslim woman and an American. 

Both Syed’s faith as a Muslim and a doctor motivates her to do her work, and the two parts of her identity go hand in hand, especially when it comes to the preservation of human life, she said.

“We are on the front lines and putting ourselves out there because we took an oath, and this is what we believe in,” Syed said.

Syed is proud of her contributions and particularly proud to practice among the hundreds of other Muslim-American physicians in the state, she said. Syed worked alongside several national Muslim organizations to deliver crucial information and medical advice to mosques and Muslim leaders in the runup to the decision to shut down mosques ahead of Ramadan.

“Muslim physicians in America are constantly there to provide care for our patients, especially in this kind of situation,” Syed said. “We’re [the] fabric of this country.”

Ammar Bazerbashi, Owner Of Medical Art Center, New Jersey

Bazerbashi was extremely frustrated by the lack of availability of COVID-19 tests in the U.S., so he decided to take matters into his own hands. 

Bazerbashi is a doctor and the founder of the Medical Art Center, a health and wellness center in Middletown, New Jersey. Since the pandemic began, he has used his labs and resources to provide tests to community members who can’t access them at overwhelmed hospitals. His goal is to contribute both to immediate health care needs and to national research for a cure.

Bazerbashi’s center provides free COVID-19 tests on a first-come, first-served basis, as well as free COVID antibodies blood testing for research and free telehealth visits for those who don’t have health insurance. 

“I refuse to take a single penny out of this. I’m doing this for the community at large,” said Bazerbashi, adding that his center can relieve pressure on other facilities by taking on some of these tasks

Bazerbashi said he has barely slept while working long hours and fasting for the month of Ramadan. But he doesn’t plan to stop.

“You can tell who people are during crises like this,” Bazerbashi said, adding that both his faith and the honor code he took at medical school is what keeps him going.

Bulland Zaman, Family Medicine, New York

Before the outbreak, Bulland Zaman worked primarily out of his New Jersey office. But Zaman has now been deployed to a New York hospital, where he focuses on inpatient and outpatient care and primarily treats immigrants and patients from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Zaman’s biggest challenge is finding solutions for those patients who need to continue treatment at home but lack the resources. 

When he’s not working, Zaman stays at a hotel to avoid exposing his family, including his elderly parents, who reside with him. He has also resorted to wearing disposable clothing to limit exposure and protect himself and those around him. It’s been difficult, but he said he knows it’s part of his job.

“Standing on the sidelines really did not sit well with me personally,” Zaman said. “I wanted to get myself back out there. As a physician — and as a Muslim person on top of that — I felt like it was also my duty and responsibility.” 

Tarnima Ahamed, OB-GYN, New York

Tarnima Ahamed, 34, cares for a particularly vulnerable population. An obstetrics and gynecology physician, Ahamed is swamped at work ensuring that pregnant women and their newborn babies are safe from COVID-19.

Ahamed and her team assist with deliveries at her local hospital, whether the women are her patients or not. 

Ahamed’s role differs from that of most emergency room or other front line physicians. But she is grateful to do her part. 

“Just being a Muslim woman and South Asian Muslim woman doing OB-GYN, it makes me proud,” Ahamed said. “On top of that, to be part of this huge worldwide crisis, and to be able to contribute in some way and represent myself as a Muslim, is also really inspiring. I’m glad to be able to do that.”

Shoaib Malik, Internal Medicine, New Jersey

Shoaib Malik, 36, is grateful to be working nights this Ramadan, he said.

Malik is sad that he won’t be able to congregate for nightly prayers and meals to break his daily fast. But he is grateful for the opportunity to give back in the way he knows best. Malik works with inpatient admissions and sees COVID-19 patients almost exclusively. Malik expects to handle even more cases at his hospital as time goes on.

Giving back is a critical part of Ramadan and Islam as a whole, and working as a physician is his way of adhering to that, he said.

“Everybody has a role to play, and I feel like that’s in line with Islam and in line with just being a decent human being,” Malik said. “Do your part in whatever your circle is –– whether it’s your family, friends, coworkers, strangers or neighbors. That’s the way to be a Muslim.”

“We just need to get the job done that should bring about unity,” Malik added.

Amar Bukhari, Director Of The Intensive Care Unit And Associate Chairman Of Medicine At Saint Peter’s University Hospital, New Jersey

Amar Bukhari juggles several roles. He is a pulmonologist and critical care specialist and works with the gravest cases every day. He also chairs the hospital’s ethics committee and oversees its triage protocols: the process of determining the priority of treating patients based on the severity of their illnesses.  

When he is not seeing patients, Bukhari ensures that the hospital runs smoothly. Even with a busy schedule, he worries he is not doing enough. 

“As a Muslim, I feel a sense of responsibility, as I am privileged to have become a physician, and my job is to take care of people,” Bukhari said. “It is stated that if someone saves a life, that person has saved all of mankind. It is in line with Islam and Ramadan in that it is better to give of myself, especially during a special month.” 

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