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Dr Waheed Arian - how a Chester medic is using digital technology to help people across the world

PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 November 2017

-Dr Waheed Arian on a recent visit to his home town of Kabul

-Dr Waheed Arian on a recent visit to his home town of Kabul

not Archant

The heroic efforts of a Chester medic to help those suffering in a war-torn region will touch your heart, writes Martin Pilkington

Dr Arian talking to a patient at the Malalai Women's HospitalDr Arian talking to a patient at the Malalai Women's Hospital

Listen to Dr Waheed Arian’s clipped, confident Cambridge tones and you may conclude that he’s followed a pretty conventional route into the medical profession. You’d be very wrong. And if you thought Arian was settling for a standard career path you’d be compounding the error.

‘I arrived alone in London from Afghanistan aged 15 with just $100,’ he says. ‘I worked doing a sales job in a shop in Edgware Road and then did kitchen porter and cleaning jobs, so for the first two years here I juggled work with studying English and reading schoolbooks on the way there, at work, and late in the evening.’ After taking his GCSEs he enrolled in three different colleges to study five ‘A’ levels in the evenings...gaining five A grades.

Paradoxically it was an unsettled and at times terrifying childhood that drove Dr Arian to become a high achiever and then some – earlier this year he became the first Briton to be given a Unesco Global Hero Award in New York, giving a speech before over 400 world leaders at the ceremony. He was born in Kabul during the Soviet occupation; fled with his family to a refugee camp in Pakistan where they suffered near starvation and he and several of his siblings contracted malaria and tuberculosis; then returning to a briefly peaceful Afghanistan found it quickly engulfed by civil war.

A friendly refugee camp doctor who loaned the bed-ridden Arian his medical textbooks to occupy him opened up a new world to the sick child, which was taken on with determination when he arrived in England. ‘I hadn’t had much formal education in Afghanistan, and the ‘A’ levels were really done ad hoc in the evenings with a few classes, but I put in a lot of hard work. I had a big dream to become a doctor and help people in conflict zones around the world, and I was always determined to succeed regardless of the challenges. Because I’d seen so much suffering and war all these other challenges were minor in comparison.’

With Avina on a recent visit to the refugee camp on the outskirts of KabulWith Avina on a recent visit to the refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul

His teachers tried to put him off applying to Cambridge, but he went ahead and won a place at Trinity Hall: ‘Professor Bradley there told me I was in the top five per cent of applicants, and I think that’s possibly because I wasn’t prepped and polished but was thinking on my feet.’

Arian speaks warmly about the supportive family atmosphere at Trinity Hall, citing his tutor Dr Bampos and Professor Bradley as particularly helpful, but he still found things tough: ‘It was a big culture shock, and I struggled culturally - Cambridge was my first proper full-time education.’ Finances were a problem too, given that he was also supporting a younger brother who arrived in England after him (doing very well today as a dentist in Scotland).

He qualified as a doctor in 2012, and is now a senior radiology registrar and emergency medicine doctor, living in Chester with his wife Davina and son Zane, who’ll be two in a few months. ‘I worked in Chester for six months after qualifying, and we’ve lived here since 2014. We love it, the environment is very safe, and there are so many activities for my son.’ Arian’s ventures back to Afghanistan, where most of his family still lives, are not so safe: ‘I was in Kabul with my family when there was an attack on the hospital military hospital where my younger brother, a junior doctor, was working, and I’d visited the day before. We were all waiting for the dreadful news because my brother was inside, but thankfully he’d escaped.’

Dr Arian supports his family by working long weekend shifts at Chester Hospital and several others, which also gives him time (and funding) to run the medical charity he founded in 2014, connecting doctors in the UK (and now in Europe, Canada and the USA) with their under-resourced counterparts in war-zones. ‘The whole idea started after I’d graduated as a doctor and was making frequent visits to Afghanistan. I couldn’t find other doctors to come with me, and that’s when I started thinking how to connect the two worlds, health care systems in war-zones and developing countries and health care systems in developed countries.’

Dr Waheed Arian ready to offer guidance using Skype and Augmented RealityDr Waheed Arian ready to offer guidance using Skype and Augmented Reality

The solution is hinted at in the charity’s name – Arian Teleheal. ‘We use mobile phones, and social media,’ he explains, ‘and we were the first to use ordinary technology to implement live international telemedicine, and also the first to show how augmented reality could be used to combine medicine in the field and education.’ Starting with a pilot in five hospitals in Kabul the charity is now connected to all the emergency departments in Afghanistan; at the start of 2017 independent doctors in Aleppo, Syria joined the users, and it’s now planned to add Nigeria, Iraq and Liberia.

Dr Arian is keen to emphasise the two-way benefits: ‘We see many educational cases and learn from them here, so that educates the NHS doctors and doctors in other countries working with us,’ he says. The network now extends to about 100 practitioners in the developed world: ‘Initially I went to doctors I knew personally or who worked at hospitals where I worked, and then from one hospital to another I kept going, exploring the concept and recruiting, but now we have word of mouth and media to help and they find out about us.

‘It’s important to note that this is done in free time, they’re not giving a committed chunk of time but contribute on their days off, or in the evenings they can be watching TV, look at their phone and as part of a group can opt to comment or not on a case,’ he adds.

Focussing on expanding opportunities for the charity has not allowed Dr Arian and his colleagues to apply for government funding yet. ‘The volunteers give their time for free, but we incur costs in travelling to war zones, meetings, and paying for communications, so I work Friday to Sunday as an A&E specialist to support my family and the charity, but I hope we’ll be able to get people to donate now,’ he concludes.

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