- Dr. Zulekha Daud came to work in Sharjah in 1964
- Prior to this, she 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 honors for overseas Indians – the Pravasi Bhartiya Samman Award
- Between two hospitals in Sharjah and Dubai, three medical centers across emirates, the Zulekha Group treats 550,000 people annually
She is all of 81 years of age. Barring those strands of gray hair tucked in a bun, her agility and spirit mar the eight decades of life she has celebrated.
But a chat with Dr. Zulekha Daud, founder and chairperson of Zulekha Healthcare Group, including Zulekha Hospital UAE; Alexis Multispeciality Hospital, India and Zulekha Colleges, India, and you know those grays did not crop up from the oblivion. Instead they sit as a crown of splendour, celebrating a life led in 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.
There is no one in the country who does not recognise her. And when we meet her for a chit-chat we know why she is much loved and respected.
With all her humility intact, Dr. Zulekha greets us in the lobby of the multi-specialty Zulekha Hospital she built in Sharjah. She makes a light conversation with the staff before leading us into her cabin.
Albeit 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 more and enough to not fuss over it.
Blast from the past
As we settle down for our tête-à-tête, the conversation leads into how it all started for 'Mama Zulekha' who in many ways helped shape health-care in the UAE.
Dr. Zulekha said it all began during her childhood which was a blessed one. 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 to revolutionise its health-care system.
“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 I 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 taken up with 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 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 a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery from the Government Medical College in Nagpur, India, specialising in gynecology.
"Prior to coming to work in Sharjah, Dr. Zulekha 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 let alone Sharjah. There were mostly nurses and mid-wives. I was the first lady doctor to work in Sharjah. Nobody wanted to work here. There were no proper roads. 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, a time when there was scarce electricity. "There were no X-Ray machines, laboratories, or ultra-sounds to diagnose an illness in those days. There were no medicines as we see today for treatments. 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 she arrived in town, Dr. Zulekha was inundated with patients who came as far as from Muscat and everyone wanted a piece of her as they felt a connection with her – especially since she was a woman. Now you know why she is 'Mama Zulekha'.
Gynaecologist and more
“I was a gynecologist 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 too those days and they had to be treated immediately. Added to this, there were only few doctors in the city as there were more mid-wives and nurses,” she recalled.
People came from as far as Muscat to consult with her – mostly women – who had heard about her immense capabilities as a doctor. “Women, heavily pregnant would land in my door step. It was also a time where there were no telephone. We had to make trunk calls to reach someone wirelessly. Telephones were introduced only in 1971.
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 requested help to deliver a baby goat. The year was 1966. I told him I was not a vet and to that he asked me if I had a heart. He asked me to feel the pain of the mother do something.”
I decided to do what needed to be done - deliver the baby goat. There were two legs sticking out. I took a gunny bag and did what I had to do. After the successful delivery, the Bedouin smiled and said he knew all the time I would do it. This incident humbled me totally,” said Dr. Zulekha with a vivid smile on her face.
When babies were delivered in homes
Deliveries mostly happened in the patients’ homes. Consultations and minor treatments took place at clinics located in various parts of the city. Dr. Zulekha recalled an incident when a woman in her final term of pregnancy, developed labour pains in middle of the night. It was the time when electricity was scarce. Holding a lantern in one hand, a basic medical kit in the other, Dr. Zulekha set out to the lady’s house to deliver her baby. “There was a nurse with me and together we were successful in our mission."
For the record, Dr. Zulekha has delivered over 10,000 babies in her career span.
In fact her adept skills as a doctor gained her fans from different the GCC too. “I learnt Arabic while working in Kuwait. This helped me connect with the local population as speaking Arabic helped break communication barriers.”
When I first arrived in Sharjah, there was no Municipality, no police 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 local authorities wanted a confirmation of the product. There were no laboratories to test this 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 those days. Whether it was diagnosis, treatment, we had to be in the moment and take those calls. There were external factors to rely on, it was all to do with our experience.”
Dr. Zulekha felt a strong need for a hospital to be set up. “In the 80s I set up my own clinic. I ordered the first ultra-sound from the USA. I was seeing 50-60 patients a day. My clinic only had three table 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 in the incident 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 it hard to bounce back,” she said.
Six months later and some intensive physiotherapy, Dr. Zulekha was back on her feet. There has been no turning back since. “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,” 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 centers and a chain of pharmacies. The Group is one of the largest private healthcare networks in the country. Between the two hospitals and three medical centers, a staggering 550,000 people are treated annually. And all this has been thanks to the grit and determination of this one woman who stood tall in times of crisis and withstood all storms.
Awards and recognitions
On January 23 2019, Dr. Zulekha was awarded India's top most honors for overseas Indians – the Pravasi Bhartiya Samman Award. The award is conferred on individuals who have made significant contributions to philanthropic and charitable work and for prominence in their field which has enhanced India's prestige in the country of residence. The veteran was presented the award by the Hon’ble President of India, Shri Ram Nath Kovind at a ceremony held in Varanasi, India.
Another special moment in Dr. Zulekha’s life was when His Highness Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation honoured Dr. Zulekha in New Delhi and presented her with a letter of thanks and appreciation of her five decades of valuable contributions to the healthcare sector in the UAE.
Forbes Middle East also recognised her contributions to the field of healthcare by including her in the list of 100 Indian Leaders in the UAE. Shaikh Mohammad 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.