By Regina Nuzzo
A Doctor’s Devotion
Pediatric oncologist Aziza Shad is on call for her patients 24 hours a day
By Regina Nuzzo
Photographs by Lucian Perkins
To a young pediatrician in Pakistan in 1978, most patients had neither names nor stories. Aziza Shad saw hundreds of babies and children every week, many dying from dehydration and infection. There was no time for deep connections. Still, she grew close to one 4-year-old boy, the son of a poor fishmonger. He had leukemia, and his mother brought cooked fish treats for the doctors when he came for treatment.
One day, the boy’s mother pointed out a small blister on his nose. It was a particularly busy day, and it seemed such a mild problem that all the doctors agreed it could wait. “I told her that it was fine, that we would take care of it,” Shad recalls. “And that’s the last time we—” She stops. “The next morning when I came back, his bed was empty.”
What Shad and her colleagues did not realize at the time was that even a small infected blister can quickly turn deadly in a child with an immune system weakened by leukemia treatment. “If that happened here and now, I would go nuts. But it wasn’t paid attention to over there,” Shad says. Doctors had neither the time nor education to make childhood cancer a priority. “That changed the course of my life. It suddenly made me aware of the fact that this child should not have died.”
Today, Shad is a pediatric oncologist at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she is the chief of the division of pediatric hematology-oncology, blood and marrow transplantation. She has made it her mission to help every child with cancer get the most humane treatment possible—no matter what the circumstances, no matter how much time it takes. “I need to give 100 percent to these children,” she says. “It’s a sense of responsibility that I carry on my shoulders very seriously.”
For Shad, that weight encourages her to extend herself in a way that would make some doctors shudder. “My patients have my cell number. They know they can reach me anytime. They text me, they page me, they call me at two in the morning if they’re hurting—and it’s OK,” Shad says. “That’s the kind of care I want to provide.”
Shad’s example for selfless care began with her parents in Karachi, Pakistan. “They never took a vacation in their lives,” Shad says. In exchange, she and her four brothers and sisters were able to attend the nation’s finest schools.
Shad’s mother had dreamed of being a doctor herself, but that was impossible for a woman in Pakistan in the 1950s. Shad was therefore thrilled to be awarded a government scholarship to study medicine in the East Pakistan countryside, in what is now Bangladesh. As the only female medical student from West Pakistan in her school, she was lightheartedly known by the Bengali villagers as “Punjabi Girl.”
The affection was short-lived. Within a few months, East Pakistan had declared independence from Pakistan, and a brutal civil war broke out. As a Pakistani student, she was no longer safe walking through the village—or staying in the dorm. The same villagers who knew her and teased her now regarded Punjabi Girl as an enemy.