Student at 14,
cardiologist at 27,
PhD candidate at the UG
‘I am following my dreams’
Born in Iran and raised in the UK, Canada, and Pakistan, Ansari was only five years old when he realised he wanted to be a cardiac surgeon. Studying faster than his peers and with his goal clear in mind, he didn’t hesitate to enter one of the best medical schools in Pakistan, despite being four or five years younger than his classmates.
‘On the first day, nobody even noticed me. I was with my older sister, so everyone thought that she was the student, not me.’
Very soon all eyes were on Ansari, though.
When a group of first-year medical students entered the anatomy room for their first practical, the tension started running high as it was time to put theory into practice. ‘Who wants to perform a dissection first?’, asked the teacher. A hush settled over the room. One student fainted.
But fourteen-year-old Ansari stepped forward and took a scalpel in his hand, proving that his age wasn’t a hindrance. ‘I wanted to learn and it was the love for medicine that helped me through it.’
That go-getter attitude helped him to continue his studies in Iran, where his family moved later, and earn his degree at the age of twenty-two, again, four to five years before most of his peers.
Because his academic career was off to such a great start, it wasn’t until he was doing his medical residency that he realised that not everything he wanted was possible.
They thought that I didn’t know anything because I was young
Although he always pictured himself as a cardiac surgeon, Ansari had to continue his training in cardiology instead. ‘As a medical intern on the ward, I saw how intensely cardiac surgeons work while standing for hours: I am not the man to cope with that physical stress, I found out, so I decided to become a cardiologist.’
Even though he was working twelve-hour shifts day and night just like the other residents, his young age meant not everyone at the tertiary care hospital took him seriously. ‘I noticed that patients sought assistance from the other residents more often because they stereotyped me. They thought that I didn’t know anything because I was young’, he says with a smile.
Ansari tried to find a silver lining in that, however. ‘Our shifts were always so busy, so sometimes it was nice to have a little break from the patients’, he shrugs his shoulders.
The story repeated itself when he became a professional cardiologist – at the age of twenty-seven – and moved to a hospital in a deserted area of Iran for a compulsory work placement.
Patients preferred to turn to another cardiologist, who was several years older than Ansari ‘because they thought he was more experienced even though we both graduated recently’.
That changed when patients noticed that, despite their age difference, both doctors treated them the same. When the older colleague’s term was over, Ansari remained as the only cardiologist in the city of Tabas, with a population of 70,000 people.
Patients had to be sent by helicopter to another city if I was absent
‘I worked 24/7 and tried not to take many leaves because patients had to be sent by helicopter to another city if I was absent.’
The work placement also provided an insight into how to work with patients from different socioeconomic backgrounds, he says. ‘I had so many cases that were educational.’ He presented his findings at European cardiology congresses.
He has always been into research, but working in a big tertiary care centre with so many patients, there was no time to focus on long papers.
He did write a proposal to add the hospital patients to the registry of the pregnancy and cardiac disease of the European Society of Cardiology. And: ‘I tried to motivate our group to participate in more international collaborations, even by contributing to global registries because it is better for science if there’s a larger sample size.’
After completing the placement at the age of thirty, Ansari came to Groningen to do his PhD in the field of congenital heart diseases and heart failure.
Suddenly, he found himself on the other side of the age fence. It is common for medical students in the Netherlands to do a PhD before going for specialisation, says Ansari. ‘So now, after so many years, most of my peers are actually younger than me.’
He is still learning the ropes in research, so he struggles sometimes to turn to his colleagues when he has questions in statistics. ‘Maybe they think that I must know that already because I am older than them’, he says, laughing. But he is slowly learning how to handle that feeling.
They see it as a step backwards, but I am following my dreams
Some people even ask him why he is doing PhD after working as a doctor. ‘They see it as a step backwards, but I am following my dreams.’
His work experience as a cardiologist gives him many advantages in research, he says.
Having seen what problems patients face in real life, he can think of research questions that can directly improve their lives ‘because sometimes we might have brilliant research findings, but when it comes to daily life, it might be of no use’.
There’s a lot of research being done on modern investigational methods like MRI, he explains, but this is not applicable for cardiologists working in rural areas without an MRI available. ‘They would rather benefit from a paper that shows which signs and symptoms can be easily used to diagnose heart disease, predict outcomes, or help in the decision-making for discharge.’
‘Sometimes good old diagnostic tests or drugs get forgotten because of the new things coming in, but not every country will have access to those all new products’, he says.
And so, in a part of his current research at UMCG, he is using indices from a simple echocardiographic evaluation, which is available in every cardiology clinic, ‘so my colleagues won’t have to make a patient travel six hundred kilometres to use an MRI’.