- Dr. Zulekha Daud came to work in Sharjah in 1964
- Prior to that, she had worked at the American Mission Hospital in Kuwait
- In 1992, she set up the first private hospital in Sharjah – the Zulekha Hospital
- On January 23, 2019, Dr Zulekha was awarded India's top-most honours for overseas Indians – the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award
- Between two hospitals in Sharjah and Dubai, three medical centres across the emirates, the Zulekha Group treats 550,000 people annually
Dubai: She is all of 81, but barring those strands of grey neatly tucked in a bun, her agility and spirit are remarkable.
Dr Zulekha Daud, founder and chairperson of Zulekha Healthcare Group, including Zulekha Hospital UAE, Alexis Multispeciality Hospital, India, and Zulekha Colleges, India. And as you sit down for a chat with her, you come to realise that here's a person who has dedicated herself to tireless service to the community. Today, Dr Zulekha aka ‘Mama Zulekha’ — a moniker the veteran has rightfully earned during the five decades of her stellar medical career in the UAE — is a household name in the UAE.
There is hardly anyone in the country who does not recognise her - a much loved and respected personality.
Dr Zulekha greets us in the lobby of the multi-speciality Zulekha Hospital, which she built in Sharjah. She makes a light conversation with the staff before leading us into her cabin. In spite of a bandaged leg, the veteran maintains a swift pace as we are led into her decorated room. She brushes away any question from the staff about her leg and we know she has seen a lot more not to fuss over it.
Blast from the past
It all began during her childhood. If it was not for her parents who encouraged her to study medicine, the UAE would not have witnessed a pioneer doctor who set foot in this country 55 years ago, working tirelessly in the health-care sector.
“I belong to a conservative Muslim family from Nagpur, Maharashtra. My parents, however, were liberal in their thoughts and never discriminated against me because I was a girl. In fact, my father, a construction worker, had a dream to see my siblings and me educated,” recalled Dr Zulekha.
“My maternal uncle was a doctor and my parents wanted me to study medicine. My mother was also impressed with our neighbour, a Christian family, where the lady of the house was a nurse. She (my mother) was quite impressed by the fact that the lady nurse could save lives every day and she dreamed I would do the same one day.
"There was little money in the house, but education was the key and was regarded a means to livelihood," Dr Zulekha said.
She recalled how proud her father was when she began her studies in medicine. “Once there was a ceremony in the city felicitating a minister. My father took me to the event and handed me a garland. "I was instructed to decorate the minister. While doing so, my father proudly introduced me to the local politician, saying I was a budding doctor. Even today I can recall the pride in his eyes for me.”
Dr Zulekha graduated with Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees from the Government Medical College in Nagpur, India, specialising in gynaecology.
Prior to coming to work in Sharjah, Dr Zulekha had worked at the American Mission Hospital in Kuwait. Her husband, Dr Iqbal Daud, had found a job as an ophthalmologist in Ras Al Khaimah.
Starting a new life
In 1964, when her husband moved to Ras Al Khaimah, Dr Zulekha too started working as a doctor for a local clinic in Sharjah. “There were very few doctors in the Trucial States. There were mostly nurses and mid-wives. I was the first lady doctor to work in Sharjah. We travelled on sand. It used to take us four hours to travel between Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah,” she explained.
She recalled the era when electricity was scarce: "There were no X-Ray machines, laboratories, or ultra-sound machines to diagnose an illness in those days. There were no medicines as we see today for treatment. It was the skill and experience of the doctor that mattered most for accurate diagnosis and treatment."
As the first lady doctor to arrive in Sharjah, Dr Zulekha would soon find a lot falling on her platter. No sooner did she arrive here than Dr Zulekha was inundated with patients who came from as far away as Muscat and everyone found an immediate connection with her and felt comfortable. Since then, 'Mama Zulekha' never looked back.
Gynaecologist and more
“I was a gynaecologist by specialisation, but I was treating patients with a number of medical issues -- from small-pox to a dislocated arm to viral infections. Malaria was rampant those days and they had to be treated immediately. Added to this, there were only few doctors in the city,” she recalled.
People came from far-off places to consult with her – mostly women – who had heard about her capabilities as a doctor. “Women, heavily pregnant, would land at my doorstep. It was also a time when there were no telephones. We had to make trunk calls to reach someone wirelessly.
Doubling up as a vet
A rather quirky incident is said to have humbled Dr Zulekha in her five long decades of medical career in the UAE. “A Bedouin patient of mine sought help for a goat to deliver. The year was 1966. I told him I was not a vet. Then he asked me if I had a heart. He asked me to feel the pain of the mother and do something.”
I decided to do what was needed to be done and helped the goat deliver. Two legs were sticking out. I took a gunny bag and did what I had to do. After the successful delivery, the man smiled and said he knew all the time I would do it. This incident humbled me totally,” said Dr Zulekha with a smile on her face.
When babies were born at home
Deliveries in those days mostly happened at the patients’ homes. Consultations and minor treatments took place at the clinics. Dr Zulekha recalled an incident when a woman started having labour pain in the middle of the night. It was the time when electricity was scarce. Holding a lantern in one hand and a basic medical kit in the other, Dr Zulekha set out for the lady’s house to help her deliver. “There was a nurse with me and together we were successful in our mission."
For the record, Dr Zulekha has delivered more than 10,000 babies in her career. In fact, her skills as a doctor won her fans from various other GCC countries too. “I learnt Arabic while working in Kuwait. This helped me connect with the local population as speaking Arabic helped break the communication barrier.”
When I first arrived in Sharjah, there was no municipality, no police, no doctor and no hospital. The facilities were very basic. One day, I remember, a police official came to the clinic with a mound of marijuana and placed it on my desk. A visitor to the emirate was caught smuggling marijuana and the local authorities wanted a confirmation of the product. There were no laboratories to test the substance and as a doctor I had to find a way to do it. What I am trying to say here is that decision-making was critical in those days. Whether it was diagnosis or treatment, we had to take a call and decide on the spot on the basis of one's experience.”
With the passage of time, Dr Zulekha felt a strong need for a hospital to be set up. “In the 1980s, I set up my own clinic. I ordered the first ultra-sound device from the United States. I was seeing 50-60 patients a day. My clinic only had three tables and it was impossible to see all them in such a tiny place.”
First private hospital in Sharjah
In 1992, she set up the first private hospital in Sharjah – the Zulekha Hospital. But just a few days after the inauguration of her hospital, Dr Zulekha met with a terrible road accident. “The only saving grace was that my organs were intact. My ribs and bones were broken and it took me months to recover. It was a phase in my life where my mental strength was put to test. And I fought hard to bounce back,” she said.
Six months later and after some intensive physiotherapy, Dr Zulekha was back on her feet. “Physically, my injuries have not recovered 100 per cent, but mentally I was ready to be back in the game soon after my treatment. Lives had to be saved and my job was not done yet,” said Dr Zulekha.
Her mental strength has for sure rewarded her in more ways than one. Zulekha Hospital, which was initially set up as a 30-bed facility, today boasts of 185 beds in a sprawling 290,000 square feet unit. Zulekha Hospital Dubai is a 179-bed hospital and was established in 2004. The Zulekha Group has further expanded to include three medical centres and a chain of pharmacies. The Group is one of the largest private health-care networks in the country. Between the two hospitals and three medical centres, a staggering 550,000 people are treated annually. And all this has been possible - thanks to the grit and determination of this one woman who stood tall in times of crisis and weathered the storms.
Awards and recognitions
On January 23, 2019, Dr Zulekha was awarded India's top-most honour for overseas Indians – the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award. The award is conferred on individuals who have made significant contributions to philanthropic and charitable work and for prominence in their field that has enhanced India's prestige in their country of residence. The veteran was presented with the award by the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, at a ceremony held in Varanasi, India.
Another special moment in Dr Zulekha’s life was when Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, honoured Dr Zulekha in New Delhi and presented her with a letter of thanks and appreciation for her five decades of valuable contributions to the health-care sector in the UAE.
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Forbes Middle East also recognised her contributions in the field of health care by including her in the list of 100 Indian Leaders in the UAE. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, also awarded her with the Dubai Quality Award.
“The UAE is my home. It has given me everything. I have loved serving the community. It has been my pleasure,” said Dr Zulekha.