Chief Medical Officer and Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs at Aga Khan University, Dr Asim Belgaumi, chose to return to Pakistan after training and serving abroad for 26 years. He is a graduate of the MBBS class of 1989 and a paediatric haematologist-oncologist by specialty.
An optimist at heart, Dr Belgaumi inspires anyone he interacts with. In this conversation, he recalls some of the best moments from his student days at AKU, his return to Pakistan and what inspires him to be the best at his work.
What brought you back to Pakistan?
My wife and I had always wanted to return to Pakistan since the very beginning of our time abroad. I finished my fellowship in Paediatric Haematology-Oncology in 1997 in US and applied for a job at AKU and Shaukat Khanum hospital. Unfortunately, at the time, there were no positions open in paediatrics at AKU so I opted for one at King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Centre in Riyadh. Even though I stayed there for 17 years, I would frequently visit Pakistan over the weekends to conduct workshops and teach residents. I was also involved in paediatric oncology work with other hospitals in the country. In a way, I believe this continued association made my return to Pakistan much smoother.
What are some of your fondest memories from your days as a student at AKU?
In 1985, I remember spending the summer holidays stacking books on our library shelves. This was back when we moved to Stadium Campus from College of Physicians and Surgeons in Pakistan (CPSP).
I also value and miss the close relationships we had with each other as students and with our faculty. I remember being part of a paediatric surgery along with one other student in which Dr Farhat Abbas (our former Dean, Medical College, Pakistan) was the assigned resident and Dr Farhat Moazzam (current Chairperson, Centre of Biomedical Ethics and Culture) was my faculty. As our campus and the number of students, faculty and staff have grown over the years, it is heartening to see mentorship programmes in place to make such connections an integral part of learning.
How do you feel about returning to AKU as Chief Medical Officer?
To be back at my alma mater as Chief Medical Officer is an incredible honour for me. I’m humbled to be given the opportunity to bring about positive change at AKU. Initially it took me a while to adjust to the huge, complex entity that our University is, but I’m happy to be here and to make an impact.
What keeps you optimistic in this challenging role?
I believe one has to plough through problems whilst maintaining a positive attitude and keeping the end game in view. Just like most other leaders, I do struggle when things do not go as planned, but I believe that one has to keep going and develop people around you to the level you aspire them to be.
What is your biggest achievement so far?
After working with Dr Zehra Fadoo (AKU) and several others, we successfully established the Pakistan Society of Paediatric Oncology (PSPO) in 2005. I currently serve as its president and we are working towards improving cancer care for children in Pakistan. I remember when we started out, there were only three paediatric oncologists in Pakistan but now we have over 100 members including surgeons and nurses. Paediatric haematology-oncology is now a CPSP certified fellowship programme and the number of paediatric oncologists have increased tremendously over the years, so much so that we now have 15 paediatric oncology centres in Pakistan.
I also serve as the vice chair of POEM – Paediatric Oncology for Eastern Mediterranean, a regional group of paediatric oncologists involving 26 countries, extending its impact from North Africa to Bangladesh. Additionally, I’m on the subcommittee of the World Health Organization (WHO) global initiative for childhood cancer and furthering the Sustainable Development Goals aiming to reduce premature mortality from non-communicable diseases by one third by 2030.
I think, as clinical academicians, we need to keep striving bigger - beyond our immediate clinics - and really look at the world stage for impact.
What message do you have for the alumni community?
Come back to Pakistan, if you want to, and when you are ready. Of course, I believe one doesn’t have to be physically present in Pakistan to make a difference as engagement is possible through joint teaching, mentorship and research collaborations.
Now while transitioning back to Pakistan can be a challenge, I think it is all about a state of mind. If you decide you will have problems, then you will. If you decide that you want to come back irrespective of the problems, then you will have solutions.
I think the reason we went into medicine (and each of the sub specialities) is because that’s where our personalities directed us. So make the most of it. Follow your heart; work hard and think outside the box.