Zulekha Daud studied to become a gynaecologist, but when she arrived in the UAE five decades ago she found her medical training being put to use treating everything from snake bites, chicken-pox outbreaks and viral infections.
Dr Zulekha was the first female Indian doctor in the Trucial States. She moved here in 1964 from the American Mission Hospital in Kuwait and was followed by her husband, Dr Iqbal, an ophthalmologist.
Before the federation was formed in 1971, medical facilities were rudimentary and many homes had no electricity.
“In Kuwait when they said they were making a hospital in Dubai, we had to go see it on the map,” recalled Dr Zulekha, 76, founder of the Zulekha Healthcare Group.
She worked in Dubai and Sharjah, with her husband working in Ras Al Khaimah.
“I was the first woman in the Kuwait hospital in Dubai. Then they wanted to start small clinics so I agreed to also work in Sharjah.
“Nobody wanted to work here. There were no proper roads, so we travelled over sand. It took my husband four hours to get to Ras Al Khaimah because they had to cross over when it was low tide.”
Picking up the Arabic language during her time in Kuwait was an advantage.
“I knew their language so I understood them and they understood me,” said the doctor who has delivered about 15,000 babies in the UAE.
“Many people, like the sheikhs, wanted female doctors to come [to their]home so I made house deliveries. I also took out small cysts, handled fevers, snake bites; we dealt with small pox and chicken pox.”
She used the experience gained while studying for her medical degree and postgraduate specialisation in India.
“There were no X-rays or fancy instruments in Sharjah, not even a pregnancy test. I had my stethoscope, some medicines, a syringe and torch in my bag. A delivery was about applying your mind.”
She even had a stint as a veterinarian after being asked by a Bedouin patient of hers to help deliver a baby goat.
“In 1966-1967, a Bedu asked for help with his goat,” Dr Zulekha said. “I told him I was not a vet, that I didn’t know anything about goats. But he said, ‘You don’t have sympathy? Look at the pain she is in.’ So I took a look. Two legs were already out. I took a gunny bag and just like we do in human beings, I did the same for the goat. The Bedu said, ‘I told you that you can do it.’”
Education was always important for Dr Zulekha’s family. Her father, a construction contractor, and mother, a housewife, impressed on her three brothers and sister the need to study.
“My father had not been to school and my mother had an elementary education. But he knew that when people get educated there are so many things they can do. In fact, when I passed my medical degree, my mother finished her school education.”
The work ethic her parents instilled paid off when she began Zulekha Hospital in 1992 in Sharjah.
The same year, she suffered devastating injuries after being knocked down by a car, but the hospital gave her the will to survive.
“Everything was broken, hands and legs and spine. I needed four hours of physiotherapy daily. I got back after six months. What made me get back was the hospital.”
The 30-bed hospital has grown to a multi-speciality facility. The group has another hospital in Dubai, four medical centres, runs a school in India and plans to build a hospital in Nagpur.
Dr Zulekha’s exercise regime continues with 3 kilometre walks, swimming and gardening daily. She rarely misses a day at the Sharjah hospital.
“I enjoy speaking to patients and do what I can to help,” Dr Zulekha said.
“This country has been very good to me. I came at a time when people needed a doctor. I love this country. I feel that I’m a part of it.”