She carried a diamanté doctor’s bag, her Minnie Mouse shoes clip-clopped across the corridor like a metronome. Fitted suit jacket, neat headscarf, a whole world of women were camped outside her office waiting for an appointment.
‘Darling, habibti,’ she said when it was my turn. ‘I want to hear the story from the start.’ Chin on hands, she looked at me with unblinking eyes.
Within moments, something I had said propelled us to the examination room. Suddenly we were viewing my insides.
‘Look at the image on the screen,’ she said. ‘Can you see? It’s a big big mess.’
For some reason I wasn’t scared, not then. Months of strange symptoms were finally in focus.
Back in her office she chatted to my husband in Arabic, English to me. She would need to operate. Pronto. When was good for us?
‘At the very latest,’ she said. ‘9am. Emergency surgery.’
The following day as I lay prepped for the operation, I fought against the anaesthetic to feel my legs. A strange thing to submit entirely. To lie frozen.
‘If you stay awake for it,’ the surgeon had warned, ‘you will suffer. Go to sleep instead.’
But I had decided to be present, swapping oblivion for watchful gratitude. If someone’s work was making me better, I wanted to be part of the party.
It’s a peculiar sensation to be opened up, pulled and prodded by 5 or 6 masked scientists, in a theatre devoid of drama.
I wondered what might draw a person to choose surgery as a profession, to routinely cut into the flesh of another. A hunger for risk, perhaps. A certain flair in 3 dimensions. The calm and absolute focus of silent space.
Midway through their work, I heard the surgeon and her team, communally draw breath.
‘It’s out! Do you want to see?’
Nope. I didn’t.
Days before, its weird rumblings had pushed me to get help, like a child in deep water clawing for driftwood. The world had turned a toxic shade of grey, an urgent beating in my heart insisting: Something’s wrong.
‘Just in time,’ the surgeon later told me. ‘When these things burst, they can enter your blood.’
Suddenly it all made sense.
Chatting later, she and I discovered we had been living in Oman for the same amount of time. Our journeys though were not the same.
‘Impossible to work in Syria under such circumstances,’ she had commented, describing ISIS like a noisy neighbour.
I imagined her leaving her home, her family, friends. Arriving in Oman, not by the media’s beloved migrant ship, but by continuing to sew the singular thread of her career. In a new and unfamiliar land, in a job that surely she was born to do.
I thought of her name which means Sacrifice. I wondered who or what she had left behind.
The following day she came to check on me in my hospital room.
‘I told you we needed to be fast,’ she said, keen again to show me the thing she had removed, this time via a photo on her mobile phone.
I flinched, averted my eyes. Looked instead at the woman in front of me, unorthodox sculptor, like the fictional Doctor Frankenstein (but more glamorous), delighted, it seemed, by the intersection of science and living breath.
‘I wrote a poem,’ I said, ‘A few years ago. For Syria.’
It had all seemed so removed back then.
‘Part of a project for a book. I’ll show it to you.’
I thought of my copy sitting at home. An anthology for the Syrian people trying to live normally in war.
When asked to submit a poem, I hadn’t quite grasped the title the editors had chosen for the book – ‘Survival of the Hardworking’. What exactly did it mean?
The next day, when I handed her the book, its title suddenly fit, as snug as a surgeon’s glove.
Dr Fadwa, unflappable presence on my discharge day, a person who last weekend had quite possibly saved my life, challenged by lengthy shifts, urgent operations, ward rounds, bureacracy. A surgeon presented daily with the mystic decks of cards showing the faces of her patients. While she, as much as anyone, was surviving. Sharing in abundance through her unique skills, the particular hand she had been dealt.
*More information about the Syria anthology is here: Survival of the Hardworking