Dr. Imad Uthman: Values, belief, and commitment to the right to health

​​Safa Jafari Safai, Office of Communications, media@aub.edu.lb

Dr. Imad Uthman, professor of clinical medicine and head of the Division of Rheumatology at the Department of Internal Medicine of AUBMC, has been honored by Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Bukhari for his humanitarian work. Uthman has been offering free medical care to a Syrian refugee child and was honored in a ceremony at the Saudi Embassy that launched the Umnia 6 initiative for the aid of refugees in Arsal, Lebanon.

In 2017, Dr. Uthman was faced with a trying challenge when six-year-old refugee Maha Rifai’ was carried into his clinic, incapacitated by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Uthman said he could not believe this illness, preventable by medication at much earlier stages, still existed today. 

“She could not stand or extend her elbows, all her joints were inflamed, because she did not receive the right treatment at the right moment. There have been major advances over the past 15 years or so in the treatment of this disease. This kind of disaster should never have occurred.” Maha had been administered an ineffective, offensive treatment that retards children’s growth among other disadvantages.

Uthman thought of using biological treatment that is highly expensive and normally secured to Lebanese patients through social security or the Ministry of Health. He decided to approach pharmaceutical companies that may provide him with samples on a compassionate basis to begin with. 

“I was devastated, Maha was all I could think about. When the next patient walked in, I couldn’t help but express my frustration. The patient then offered to cover for six months the monthly expenses of the needed medication, and so we took off with different wonderful collaborations where I continued to treat Maha at no cost and I committed to secure free medication for her from any source I could find.”

This year, Saudi Ambassador Bukhari visited the refugee camps in Arsal and was drawn to Maha’s case. He came to know of the doctor who personally treats her for free and was determined to meet him as soon as possible. An honoring ceremony awaited Dr. Uthman, in the presence of Executive Vice President for Medicine and Global Strategy and Raja N. Khuri Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at AUB Mohamed Sayegh; Chief of Staff and Professor of Medicine (Cardiology) at AUB Samir Alam; members of AUBMC administration and hospital team; Saudi officials; and a multitude of regional and international media representatives. The event marked the start of a collaboration where the Saudi Embassy will sponsor Maha’s treatment and offer support to the refugee community in Arsal.

Dr. Imad Uthman is an AUB figure through and through. He proudly speaks of being an AUBite, ever since 1979. Before qualifying in internal medicine and then specializing in rheumatology, he received his MD in 1988. There, at AUB, he swore the Hippocratic Oath which states “I will be loyal to the ideals of the profession of medicine and to its tradition of service to all human beings.”

His major research interests include the study of antiphospholipid syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), biologic therapies in rheumatic diseases, vasculitis, pediatric rheumatology, and the clinical characteristics of rheumatic diseases in Lebanon. He is the author of more than 100 publications on various aspects of SLE, lupus, and the rheumatic diseases in leading international rheumatology journals, and is the international advisor in Lebanon for the Royal College of Physicians of London.

Uthman spontaneously did what was right because it was the right thing to do. Not only did he end up finding ways to get it done but he also found good partners, partners in humanity, to facilitate it. He said that initially he had no time to think about the “how.” All he knew was that he was going to use all his power to secure free treatment for this girl. He was thinking, “let’s do our best, let’s start, let’s find solutions, and see how it goes.”

When asked what motivated him to commit to helping Maha, Dr. Uthman’s answer was fast and simple: 
“My humanity. My Hippocratic Oath to serve and the values I have been raised and educated with. I cannot see a child suffering or helpless. I cannot but be compassionate and do my duty. Maha’s inaccessibility to needed treatment led to her inaccessibility to education and a normal life and this is inacceptable.”

“I tell my students to always consider the patient as part of their family. I say, ‘look at the person on the other side of the table as your sister, mother, father, or any loved one who needs you, and treat them accordingly.’ This is the way you can be compassionate with a patient and can break any wall between you. Medicine is a communication skill. How you communicate with your patient is the utmost skill and art.”

Uthman continues to follow up on the case of Maha and hopes to facilitate the treatment of all patients with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Circumstances have been unfavorable in the region, and in Lebanon in particular with the mass influx of vulnerable refugees. This story at AUBMC, however, reveals that, boldly standing in the face of challenges, will always be humanitarian values, philanthropic partnerships, and a strong commitment to the human right to health.