Woman Arab Doctor Defies Odds Running an Emergency Room in Israel

July 24, 2019
Dr. Shaden Salameh; Photo by Felice Friedson

Dr. Shaden Salameh grew up in the village of Tur’an, located near Nazareth in northern Israel. She is oldest of five children; her father was a teacher and her mother was devoted to her home and family. The effort clearly paid off: Salameh’s siblings are successful: One brother is a lawyer, one is in high tech and another is an EMT, and her sister is a pharmacist in Jerusalem.

And while success abounds in the Salameh family, Shaden’s achievement of becoming the first Arab woman to head up an emergency room in the State of Israel — with ceiling glass shattering all around — is achievement extraordinaire.

The Media Line: Dr. Salameh, you’re the first Arab-Israeli woman to head a hospital emergency room in the State of Israel. How does it feel?

Shaden Salameh: A great responsibility; a lot of pride.

TML: Take us through your day.  

SS: Well, I start, actually, late at night. I’m on call; I’m the head of the emergency department, so I can receive calls every hour, every minute. I am responsible for this department. With my little three children, beautiful children … they are little so I can wake up for them. So, I’m a mother, I’m a doctor …

TML: You have young children – 5, 3 and less than a year. How do you juggle family and running an emergency room?

SS: It’s quite challenging actually. But as a woman — you know women can multi-task where men cannot — so a lot of multi-tasking. I don’t have more time than other people but I can multitask my day. Sometimes I’m more with my family and sometimes I’m more [at] work, depending who needs me at this point.

TML: How did you get there? This certainly could not have been easy.

SS: No, it’s not, but I’m very motivated by difficulties. I grew up in the north, in a small village. It’s near Nazareth. I came over to Jerusalem in the mid ’90s to study medicine in the medical school at Hadassah University. … Hebrew University and Hadassah. I graduated [in] about 2001, and since then I’m [at] Hadassah. I completed my internal medicine specialization here and since 2006, I’ve worked in the emergency department, first as a trainee and after that as a senior doctor. I just love the place and the specialization. 

TML: People would say that you can’t do what you did. People would say, how can an Israeli who’s also Arab get to the position that you did?

SS: Yeah, they told me that all the way. Even before I was accepted to the medical school. They told me you have no chance because you come from a small village; you know it’s very difficult, [the] Hebrew. … Even before I was accepted to the medical school here, they told me I had no chance to be accepted. You know there are a lot of challenges over there — a lot of other students who want to be accepted and your chances are very low. But as I said before, the greater the challenge, the greater I’m motivated. I love challenges. … I look at the threats, or at the challenges or the barriers or the obstacles, as an opportunity.

TML: What are those obstacles?

SS: You know, I’m special and different. I come from a very small community in the village. I never lived alone, I never left the city for more than a couple of hours or one or two days. Just to move to a big city, to Jerusalem with a different language. OK, I studied Hebrew [at] school but it’s not the same. Not at all. And it’s quite hard. You know the people around you — not the family, the family was a great support for me — but the other people, like, doubt your ability, so it’s quite challenging every day.

TML: Did your family have a problem with you working in an Israeli hospital? 

SS: No, not at all. They were proud that I’m holding this position, in this country. No, not at all.  Very proud.

TML: Do you feel you are a role model for other young women who aspire to go into medicine? Do people from your village look at you as a role model?

SS: I hope so — you have to ask them. Being a director, a senior doctor in the emergency department, is quite challenging, as [is] being a mother of small children, but I proved that you can do it. [At] this stage, I can say for the young medical students and the young women doctors, dream big, as Henrietta Szold said once, and persist, and your dream will come true. A lot of obstacles may be in the way; I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s possible.

TML: Let’s look at those obstacles. I’m trying to understand because everyone has them. What was the worst situation that you remembered encountering when you thought you weren’t going to make it — [that] this was too hard?

SS:  Well, the first year of medical school was very hard for me. [I] came not prepared, with not enough background [in] chemistry, biology, and it was hard for me. And besides that, the language; everything was in Hebrew and English, and my mother tongue is Arabic. It was very hard for me in the beginning to understand even the lecturer and to write down the notes and all these small things. I came from excellence. I was a very good student in high school, so it was very challenging for me. Maybe a small obstacle, a small barrier, but it was [just] in the beginning.

TML: What was the most difficult thing you encountered in the emergency room, where at that moment you said, “I can’t do this, this is just too hard”?

SS: Yeah, you know, there were a few moments like this with a critical patient, when you do everything you want to do with a patient and you don’t save the patient. It’s very frustrating. You want to help and do whatever you can. You know, we deal with very difficult cases; trauma patients, people with heart attacks, stroke. It’s every life-threatening situation, and sometimes, despite all the efforts, we can’t save the patient. It’s [a] very frustrating moment for me. In the beginning, especially, when [my] first patient died. I remember that he was 90 years old and he had an infection in his whole body, and he was even with dementia. He’s 90 and there [is] nothing you can do. I did everything, but I couldn’t save the patient. We deal with the life-and-death issues every day, every hour and every minute; it’s challenging and it’s very hard, and it’s a very emotional burden.

TML: You’re in a hospital that treats everyone: Jewish-Israelis, Arab-Israelis, minorities. Do you ever see a difference in how they are treated? 

SS: No, not at all. When I came to medicine, I came to save people. With my small family, we didn’t have doctors and [I] remember my grandfather was very [ill] with heart problems. I was 10 years old and I remember that, and all the time we would call the ambulance for him. It was very hard to [reach] the village; we didn’t have any ambulances around, so it took a lot of time. All the time, I thought we were going to lose him, and at this point I decided to be a doctor. I took an oath between me and God that I’m going to help anyone with no bias — not race nor gender nor religion nor anything else as a human bias.  

TML: What have been the best moments of your career so far?

SS: The best moments. … There are a few. It’s hard to pick one … but I remember in the beginning of my training as an emergency physician, I walked around in the emergency department. I saw [a] patient; I didn’t know who that patient was. He had convulsions and [as a] first impression, I thought he had epilepsy. But when he was connected to a monitor, I looked at the monitor and I saw ventricle arrythmia, which is a very life-threatening situation. I saved his life. The day after, I went to visit that patient and he was so thankful, and it was a very good feeling.

TML: What is your message to younger women who are just starting out? What are the tools they need to become leaders?

SS: Well, it’s a very hard question. How do you define a leader? First, I think you have to be honest to yourself, be authentic and do what you really believe in. Otherwise, it won’t work. Believe in what you do and work hard. I never said it’s easy, but you can get there.  

TML: Who are your role models?

SS: It sounds a little strange to say my mother. She was married when she was 17. She came from a city, from Nazareth, to a village. When she had us, she did not complete her university or anything in those years. But now she is completing her master’s degree in coaching. Now she’s 63 years old and she never gave up. So she’s my role model.

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