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As a young boy growing up in the provincial village of Aireem, Yemen, Rashid Abdu ’56 dreamed of becoming a surgeon. After retiring from a long and successful career, he continues to pursue his passion for improving the lives of those with limited access to healthcare.

Last year, Dorrance Publishing Company released Abdu’s autobiography, Journey of a Yemeni Boy, which chronicles his life from poor village boy to successful U.S. surgeon. The three-year project is now the publisher’s most popular title, and a linguist is developing an Arabic translation.

“Retirement does not mean idleness or self-absorption,” says Abdu. “It is an opportunity to expand life experience beyond that which in earlier years was restricted to building a career and raising a family. It opens new horizons in sharing and in helping those in need, especially the poor and the under-served.”

Abdu has traveled to Mexico’s Mayan country on the Yucatan Peninsula four times with the volunteer organization Mission of Love. During his last visit, he and two nurses delivered orthopedic equipment to a 58-bed hospital in the small town of Tizimin and held clinics for poor residents who rarely can visit a physician.

“They kept saying they had never seen anything like it before,” he recalls. “Their operating room tables were rusty, they had only one anesthesia machine, and half of the operating lights were not functioning.”

He was invited to return this February to perform and teach surgery. Ohio’s St. Elizabeth Health Center, where Abdu is emeritus director of surgical education, donated operating tables, lights, and an anesthesia machine that will be shipped to the Yucatan before his next visit.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Abdu traveled to New Orleans to provide medical care for police and military officers headquartered in a vandalized Wal-Mart. Abdu and a Mission of Love team constructed a makeshift clinic in the same store, where Abdu mostly treated leg and foot problems caused by contaminated water. They also provided a hot meal for the officers.

“Looking from one end of the street to the other without seeing a soul, except for a sporadic dog walking in a daze hunting for food, in what used to be a vibrant city was eerie,” he says. “It was physically and emotionally exhausting, but spiritually uplifting. To see those officers who had no bath, no hot meal for three weeks, and who had lost everything was heart wrenching. I will never forget a member of the National Guard, armed to the hilt, holding a hamburger with both hands, telling me it was the best hamburger he has ever had.”

Abdu was especially concerned about the diabetic police captain with an infected toe. Because a diabetic can easily lose a leg from such an infection, Abdu performed surgery on the captain, gave him antibiotics, and cautioned him to keep his foot elevated for several days. The captain’s toe improved the following day. He gave Abdu his badge as a token of his appreciation and mentioned his name on national television.

Abdu also has made six trips back to Yemen, often working with local medical personnel to improve facilities and techniques. His visit in 1971 was particularly meaningful. After surgeons in Aden refused to operate on his mother because they feared she was too sick to survive surgery, Abdu performed the operation himself, and his mother lived 28 more years.

His work impressed the villagers, who wanted their children to “be like Rashid.” The small village would produce 18 physicians – seven from Abdu’s immediate family, including a woman.

In subsequent visits, Abdu helped improve medical education at the University of Science and Technology in Sana’a. He gave the school’s first joint lecture to male and female students, and suggested that students anonymously evaluate faculty. He also was a consultant for the location, design, and construction of a 250-bed teaching hospital.

His advice to young surgeons has never changed.

“Honesty and integrity must never be compromised at any cost,” he says. “Second, approach those who trust you with their lives with humility and reverence, and always remember that each patient is attached to a family that loves her or him.”

According to Abdu, he was the first Yemini to attend college in the U.S.

“Lafayette prepared me to think as a human being first, and as a scientist second,” he says. “It provided me with broad and comprehensive education, which gave me better insight into what is important. It instilled in me a sense of idealism. Besides having healthy, wonderful, and loving children, grandchildren, and good friends, helping people is the greatest joy in life.”

Categorized in: Alumni Profiles