Overcoming adversity and changing lives as an immigrant doctor
“I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.”
– Dalai Lama
What to do when being forced to mutilate political prisoners or be shot point blank in the head? This is probably not a scenario that is discussed very often during medical training. But, this is the exact situation that Dr Munjed Al Muderis found himself in.
Born in the bustling city of Baghdad into a family that were second-in-line to the Iraqi throne, Dr Al Muderis always had great prospects. He describes his upbringing as having been raised “with a silver spoon in [his] mouth”. He attended prestigious schools and began his medical training straight out of high school. Upon graduating, he started his clinical career as a junior surgeon at Baghdad University Hospital. Everything was going well and Al Muderis recalls that he “had an easy life and was happy”.
This was until the day Al Muderis and his colleagues were met by members of the Baath party who had brought dozens of Iraqi army ‘deserters’ to be punished and branded by having parts of their ears amputated. Under the order of Saddam Hussein, the surgical team were instructed to cancel all non-emergency surgeries and begin the amputations.
Governed by his oath to do no harm, the head of the department refused to carry out this order. His defiance was met with barbarism as he was dragged to the car park and shot in the head in front of his colleagues.
Rattled and understandably fearing for their lives, the remainder of the team followed orders and began the inhumane procedures. But Dr Al Muderis couldn’t bring himself to be a part of the mutilations. Slipping past the guards, Munjed hid in the ladies bathroom, waiting for the opportunity to flee the hospital. Hiding in a cubicle, he waited to be captured and executed for his betrayal. But after five hours of battling to keep his panic in check, he was finally able to escape the hospital, but this was to be the beginning of a year of terror and dehumanisation.
Fleeing to Jordan to escape persecution, Munjed’s whole life was uprooted. Fearing for his safety, he then fled to Malaysia where he was introduced to a smuggler who, in return for a large sum of money, facilitated Dr Al Muderis’ entry into Indonesia.
It was there where he was finally able to begin the process of seeking asylum in “the lucky land, Australia”, as he described it. Crammed onto a leaky boat with more than 160 others who were fleeing persecution, war or poverty, Munjed began his perilous journey to what they thought would be a land of new beginnings.
After reaching Christmas Island and spending five days there, Dr Al Muderis, a man with the primary goal of spending his life serving others, was sent to a detention centre in Curtin. His identity would be stripped and he would be known as nothing more than his ID number, 982.
For more than 10 months, Munjed alternated between spending his time being treated as a subhuman in the detention centre or in gaol for attempting to challenge the powers that be. During this time, all of his fellow detainees were gradually processed until ‘982’ was the only person left.
Dr Al Muderis recalls those 40 days of isolation as being “the lowest time for [him]”. He was eventually processed and despite the odds being stacked against him, worked as a doctor for more than a year, and was accepted into the Australian Orthopaedic Training Scheme. Throughout his training and in his initial years as an orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Al Muderis endured discrimination and belittlement from his peers for his previous status as a refugee. But he persisted and become one of the most highly regarded orthopaedic surgeons and medical innovators, worldwide.
Through his determination and resilience, he is now “at the top” of his field and at the peak of his life.
Al Muderis credits his ascent in the area of osseointegration to his persistence in the face of adversity and inspiration he received from the Terminator films that he watched at the age of 12. Through his goal to create half human, half robot metahumans, Al Muderis was one of the pioneering surgeons of this procedure, which entails the surgical implantation of “a high tensile strength, titanium implant into the residual skeleton”. Dr Al Muderis explains that this technology allows the amputee “a higher mechanical and functional capacity … compared to a cumbersome, archaic style of Captain Hook socket prosthesis”. He says that this is possible because he “hooks the residual soft tissue and nerves with electric electrodes in a pattern recognition fashion that allows the human to operate this robot with their mind”.
Dr Al Muderis says that he is prepared for his circumstances to change and to possibly find himself in a less than optimal position again but explains that “it is very honourable and [he is] grateful that by being empowered … [he] can help more people”.
Through this sentiment, Dr Al Muderis shows that while you may find that you are not where you imagined or wanted to be, resolve and a commitment to your mission is an invaluable resource that can propel you forward in your medical journey as well as other areas of life.