“How could I not be inspired by the resiliency of the individuals I serve?”: Dr. Altaf Saadi accepts the 2023 Bernard Lown Award

Dr. Altaf Saadi has been advocating for health justice for her entire career. From protesting war at her own college graduation to calling out sexual abuse in medicine to volunteering as a medical expert to assist in granting asylum to immigrants, she is dedicated to ensuring equitable, compassionate care for all.

On the 102nd birthday of Dr. Lown, hear from the 2023 Bernard Lown Award winner Dr. Altaf Saadi on her story of becoming a doctor; and how she’s inspired by the resiliency of the people she works with; and the importance of interconnectedness. Watch her acceptance of the Bernard Lown Award, read quotes from her speech, and see photos from the ceremony below.

Dr. Altaf Saadi accepts the Bernard Lown Award

The following are excerpts from Dr. Altaf Saadi’s remarks at the Bernard Lown Award ceremony June 7, 2023.

Following in the footsteps of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the inaugural recipient of this award, and Dr. Bernard Lown, its namesake, is no small challenge. Those are large shoes to fill. I am honored to be in their remarkable company and promise to do my best to earn this award every day.

I will begin in 2006, while I was a student at Yale University. I walked into a pre-med study group for my organic chemistry class. Another student looked up, wrinkled her forehead at seeing my shirt that said in bold, green letters: “Stop the Genocide in Darfur,” and she asked, “wait, what? There’s a genocide going on in Darfur?”

I would like to say this was the only encounter that I had like this as a budding doctor, but it wasn’t. Now, as a full-fledged doctor in medicine, I still receive reactions like this.

We live in a world that seems inundated by crisis after crisis. The conflict in Darfur, back in the early 2000s, involved the ethnic cleansing and death of over 300,000 Darfurians in Sudan.  Michael Brown was an 18-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson.  The phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot,” that Michael Brown had uttered to Officer Wilson before he was killed quickly entered the lexicon of the growing Black Lives Matter movement.

“Yemen, Afghanistan, Ukraine. Uvalde, Pulse Nightclub, Sandy Hook Elementary School. Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd. There are so many more.”

Dr. Altaf Saadi

But there is a crisis that does not garner headlines, and that is the crisis of collective indifference, particularly among those of us with the privilege to look away, to move on with our lives undisturbed and unbothered by the despair and agony of our brothers and sisters in humanity.

Today, that indifference is often directed toward immigrants in the United States, whether it’s those fleeing persecution in their home countries and arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border or those who have lived in our communities for decades without any ability to obtain documented immigration status.  

In my work, I often meet with and evaluate immigrants who are imprisoned by our government pending the outcome of their immigration cases. During one visit, an individual had soft tears in his eyes when he told me, “This is by far the longest I have ever talked to anyone in the past two years.” We had spent forty-five minutes talking about his time in solitary confinement and lack of medical care in the  detention facility.

Indifference is both individual and societal. For him, at the individual level, it meant not having a meaningful conversation with someone for years and prison guards making fun of his mental illness. At a societal level, it meant languishing in abusive, inhuman conditions in a for-profit immigration detention facility before being sent to a country where he has no family and faces significant risk of harm and death—part of a larger immigration detention system replete with physical brutality, sexual abuse, racist mistreatment, and denial of due process.

“When I tell people about the work that I do, a common reaction is, ‘Wow, that’s so depressing,’ or ‘Wow, that’s so hard…’ In fact, it is inspiring. It infuses me with purpose. How could I not be inspired by the resiliency of the individuals I serve?”

Dr. Altaf Saadi

What is hard is trying to convince people that the work matters. That people who may not look like them, or speak like them, or go on vacations with them, or go to school with their children, are worthy—of attention, money, of both individual and societal investment.

I was lucky enough to intern for Physicians for Social Responsibility, which, as many of you know, was founded by Dr. Lown to address the threat of nuclear war. As Dr. Lown explained at that time, “the real death threat in the world was not cardiac, but nuclear …. How could I be a doctor and close my eyes to this overwhelming reality?”

And it was during this internship that for the first time I saw and learned about examples of physicians, like Dr. Lown, who combined their passion for medicine with human rights advocacy.  It was those role models and others who gave me the inspiration and confidence to do the work that I do. Even now, I seek their stories out. Within the example of physician advocates and leaders, we can find a path that can crack the indifference wall, reminding ourselves not only of our own power—often, our collective power—but also our connection to others and ability to empathize with distant situations and sorrows and joys.

One of my favorite poets is Palestinian American Naomi Shihab Nye. In a poem titled “History,” she asks about: “What we did to one another/ on a planet so wide open for doing.”

I hope that, like Dr. Lown, I too will inspire other physicians to remember that, in this planet so wide open for doing, our doing must extend beyond our individual patients to ensure justice for people everywhere, that our doing must be used to nurture hope as the antidote to complacency, complicity and injustice, and that our doing must above all else take stock of the reality of our interconnectedness with one another. Thank you all again.

“Our doing must above all take stock of the reality of our interconnectedness with one another.”

Dr. Altaf Saadi

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