PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT: Asad A. Sheikh, MD
Medical director for Hematology/Oncology, MD Anderson Cancer Center @ South Seminole Hospital
LONGWOOD - A confrontation with death inspired the life of Asad Sheikh.
He was only 18 years old and had just begun to pursue his education at Allama Iqbal Medical College in Lahore Pakistan. Sheikh’s father, Asghar, had suffered with an undiagnosed illness for several years. “This time was very frustrating and terrifying for me and my family. Our peaceful routine would often get interrupted with my father’s agonizing pain,” Sheikh recalled. “I clearly remember how helpless I felt not knowing what my father was going through and how to fix him and make him feel better.”
Then came a day that changed his life. “I was designated to accompany my father to the hospital for a simple checkup. While in the hospital, in front of my eyes, my father passed away of cardiac arrest. It happened in a blink and I was unable to do a thing. I was still in shock, not believing my own words, when I called my mother to give her the news. My world changed after that day,” Sheikh said.
Sheikh’s father had urged his son, the third of four siblings, to become a physician. As the owner of a business that exported manpower internationally, he had stressed the importance of job security. “He said ‘If you’re a professional, like a doctor, you can go anywhere and make a living,’” Sheikh said. “I wasn’t happy in the beginning about him pushing me (toward a career in medicine) ... but now I see how much how much faith he had in me.”
Sheikh’s older brother took over the family business and made a priority of carrying out his father’s wishes for his younger brother. “We were faced with some serious financial difficulties,” Sheikh said, “but I was able to survive and successfully complete my studies.” He received his Bachelors of Medicine and Surgery in 1995 and spent the next three years continuing his medical training and working in Lahore. It was during this time he chose his specialty.
“After medical school, I worked at the Shaukat Khanum Hospital, the first and only private nonprofit cancer hospital in Pakistan, when it newly opened. The influx of cancer patients, the majority of whom had no chance at life due to lack of financial resources and education, finally had a chance at life,” he said. “While working there, I sat on a roller coaster of hope and despair, more despair. (But the) moments of fulfillment of hope were priceless; to see possible of the impossible and the joy of the embattled patients and family was invaluable. ... I decided to become a hematologist/ oncologist.”
Sheikh decided that the place to “reach my fullest potential” was the United States, and the first step on his journey from Pakistan actually was more like a leap – of faith. “I did not have money to get there. I sold my father’s Rolex watch that I inherited and paid for my airline ticket. With only $500 in my pocket, I arrived in New York,” Sheikh said.
He was introduced to a couple who generously allowed him to stay at their house for almost a year as he worked jobs without pay because of his visa restrictions. In the meantime, he applied for research jobs. He found one in 1999 doing clinical research at the Radiotherapy Clinics of Georgia in Decatur. “Everything began to fall into place like a jigsaw puzzle,” Sheikh said. He received his Green Card and for the next four years “I was able to publish a lot of research papers ... mostly on breast and prostate cancer,” he said, while compensating his sponsors in New York. “I owed them everything,” he said.
While in the Atlanta area, Sheikh also was introduced by a family member to Sarah, a student at Santa Clara University in California. After a one-year, long-distance courtship, they married while she pursued her law degree, specializing in immigration law. Since then, there has been a “lot of back of forth,” he said. “It has not been easy, but we did it,” while also raising their daughter Zayna.
In 2003, Sheikh began a five-year affiliation with the University of Florida. He completed an internship and residency in Gainesville and then worked as an attending physician at the Veterans Administration Medical Center of North Florida and South Georgia. In 2008, he accepted a combined three-year fellowship in hematology and oncology at The Medical College of Georgia, which he praised as “an outstanding institution.”
And Sheikh has even higher praise for the organization he joined earlier this year. As the medical director for hematology and oncology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center’s South Seminole Hospital, he said it is a “privilege” to help establish a program where there is a “huge need for oncology and hematology therapy.”
Sheik said he has spent the past few months marketing the program, “meeting with physicians, staff and establishing a referral system” in the community. “We’re trying to spread the word” that MD Anderson is “establishing a chemotherapy infusion area” at South Seminole. To that end, he said the center’s staff and leadership “have been very helpful in providing me all the resources I need.”
Sheikh said he and his family have settled in Maitland, where he can be “close to both South Seminole and the Orlando Regional Medical Center.”
When he’s not working, Sheikh savors the time with his family, occasionally venturing into the kitchen to prepare “kebobs and things” with Sarah, who “is the best cook in the world,” and romping with Zayna, now the 9-year-old “joy of my life who makes me laugh every day.”
As a matter of fact, Sheikh said, Zayna already has an appreciation of his responsibilities, as well as an adolescent inkling to follow in her dad’s footsteps. “She wants to be a pediatrician.”