Leadership in Maternal and Newborn Health: Dr. Shershah Syed

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By: Agnes Becker, Communications Officer, IDEAS

[My patient] had waited 41 years for treatment. It took me just 20 minutes and 1 stitch to give back her dignity – Dr. Shershah Syed

Shershah, a leading obstetrician-gynaecologist in Pakistan, has long been a visionary campaigner for women’s rights, girl’s education and safe motherhood. By offering free life-saving operations in rural, slum area clinics, Shershah has improved the lives of thousands of rural women too poor to pay for treatment.

Tackling the lack of adequate healthcare for poor women

After studying infertility medicine in Ireland and the UK, Shershah was drawn back to Pakistan by a strong sense of social responsibility for the country that had subsidised his medical education.  Back in Pakistan, a world away from infertility treatment, Shershah’s shock by the lack of urgency with which maternal health was dealt with changed the direction of his career: 3-4 women a week arrived at his clinic dead due to obstetric emergencies (difficulties in pregnancy). “I had never seen that in Ireland. I couldn’t believe that this wasn’t a major concern for the hospital.” He abandoned infertility treatment and started working to improve healthcare for Pakistan’s women.

Women living in rural, underprivileged areas of Pakistan often have to travel many miles to access healthcare, which they have to pay for. Many leave education at a young age when they get married and start to have children. As a result women often suffer from long, difficult labour and childbirth and can develop obstetric fistulas, where a permanent passageway is made between the vagina, bladder and sometimes the large intestine resulting in constant leaking of urine and faeces. Young girls are particularly prone to fistula as their bodies aren’t mature enough to go through labour. These women often become social outcasts, causing them extreme hardship and psychological trauma.

“One 19 year old girl I met at a clinic had waited 7 years to be treated for fistula. She had endured a long and difficult birth as a 12 year old because her pelvis was too small. Her baby was stillborn and she developed an obstetric fistula. It’s terrible that she had to wait such a long time and suffer so enormously when the treatment is so simple and cheap,” said Shershah.

A small investment can lead to great change

Shershah speaks about a recent patient he treated at an NGO clinic in Mithi, rural Pakistan.

Shershah’s drive, vision and conviction that women in Pakistan deserved better healthcare led him to work with colleagues, family and friends to set up the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital in the slum area of Karachi to carry out emergency obstetric procedures. Drawing on national and international networks Shershah has raised enough money to ensure his hospital can offer these life-changing operations for free, and even offer midwifery and nursing training in specialist schools on-site.

Women and young girls hearing about the clinics through a mass media campaign sometimes travel for miles to receive treatment for fistulae. “One woman had suffered for 41 years with fistula. She heard about the free clinic in Karachi, South Pakistan, through the radio and travelled many miles from Swat, Northernmost Pakistan to get treated. After years of social outcast and it took me 20 minutes, 1 stitch and 350 rupees [$6.5, £4] in materials…to fix and she was all right,” said Shershah.

Since the hospital opened in 2004-2005 with small out patient department facilities. Since then more than 3000 patients have been treated with fistula in Pakistan, not just at the hospital but all over the country through the campaign to end fistula, supported by UNFPA.

Positive influences and the importance of education

Shershah first saw the effect providing healthcare can have on a person when accompanying his mother, also a doctor, on her visits to families, often late at night. “I used to get irritated going at 2 am to carry her [doctor’s] bag but she was always so happy after seeing her patient,” said Shershah. “Now when I work, I [also] feel good.”

His mother certainly had a profound effect on Shershah: “Education changed my family’s lives.” Despite being illiterate when she married, Shershah’s mother, with her husband’s encouragement, trained to become a doctor. Without both their support, they would not have had the money for him to get a good education and study medicine.

His mother’s story has resulted in Shershah’s recent campaigning for education as a way to improve maternal and newborn health. “Twenty years ago I would have said we need more and better healthcare for women [to improve maternal health], now I know what is really needed is education,” said Shershah.

An inspiration to learn from

Shershah’s continuous drive, determination and humility have made him a champion for women’s rights in Pakistan. With a fantastic network of supportive family, friends and colleagues, often all working without salary, he is building a strong community striving to improve healthcare for women in Pakistan.

What’s the key to his success? Education, empathy (he has published several books telling the stories of some of the women he meets), hard work, passion and conviction. Shershah is an inspiration to all of us working in this field.

About Dr Shershah Syed

Shershah Syed, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, is a leading campaigner for women’s rights, girl’s education and safe motherhood in Pakistan. He is one of the founders and Chief of the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital, Landhi, Karachi, Pakistan which provides high quality emergency obstetric care to poor, rural women free of charge, and houses midwifery and nursing training schools, and an adult women’s literacy centre.

Shershah has translated and produced books on midwifery in Urdu and Sindhi and has established the first unit in Pakistan to train nurse midwifery tutors. In 1991, Shershah founded the Pakistan National Forum on Women’s Health (a non-government organisation working for reproductive health).

Shershah is a graduate of Dow Medical College Karachi, Pakistan. He did his fellowship in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Ireland and trained at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, Ethiopia. In 2009, his work was recognised with the Clinton Global Initiative Award.

This interview originally appeared on the IDEAS blog, and has been lightly edited.