Saturday, July 9, 2011

Finding inspiration over platanos maduros

Last night, I had dinner with a man who is literally building his dreams. Iftikher Mahmood is a Bangladeshi pediatrician who practices medicine in Miami. He’s in his forties, has three children, and is married to a woman he adoringly describes as “my voice.” My first impression when greeting him at the entrance of La Carretta Cuban restaurant in the southwest corner of Miami was that he was that this was a man with quiet fire inside him. He also radiated warmth.

My father introduced me to Iftikher because he thought we’d connect over our shared love of social entrepreneurship. Over a meal of mahi mahi, arroz con pollo, and platanos, Iftikher told me about an effort he has been running for the last 12 years to improve access to good health care for the poor in Bangladesh. “Especially women and children,” he added. Iftikher is trained as a physician, not as a manager, an entrepreneur, or a development expert. Yet, through the sheer force of will, he has built hospitals and clinics that have served tens of thousands of patients, brought health professionals from all over the world to volunteer in his villages, and inspired a growing list of organizations to fund his efforts - including the government of Japan.

Iftikher related the story of his Fistula Program, an effort to help women who have developed pathologic connections between the birth canal and either the bladder or rectum. A distressing condition that causes incontinence and social isolation, these fistulas are most often the result of prolonged, obstructed labor which goes untreated. Not surprisingly, poor women in developing countries are by far the largest group that suffers from this condition. The treatment is surgical repair that costs a few hundred dollars on average. Both the expense and the lack of available services mean that most poor women go untreated. The resulting human cost is high: a lifetime of embarrassment and physical discomfort, social isolation, and related depression.

Iftikher convinced a surgeon from France to perform 15 of fistula correction surgeries in 1 week in his hospital in Bangladesh. By comparison, there were no other hospitals in Bangladesh that were providing this surgery according to Iftikher. He showed me pictures of patients who had been treated in the fistula repair program. The joyful, relieved expressions on their faces spoke volumes.

Iftikher has ambitious plans for the future: expanding the network of clinics and hospitals and bringing in more health professionals to train local care providers. My father is one of the physicians who Iftikher recently recruited to volunteer time in the clinics in 2012.

Halfway through our conversation, as I was flipping through the wirebound program summary he brought along, I saw a donation page requesting $500 for a lifetime membership. I seriously thought about donating on the spot. What’s more is that I found myself working hard to think about people who I could tell about Ifthikar’s projects.

It’s a powerful thing when you feel called to go to bat for someone within 15 minutes of meeting them. Part of it was the amazing results Iftikher has generated. Part of it was his improbable story that took a lofty dream and transformed it into a rapidly evolving reality. He did this not with his management training, personal wealth, or connections (he had none when he began) but with single mind devotion to a vision he held of a better Bangladesh. It was Iftikher’s unqualified, heartfelt commitment that inspired me to want to act and spread the word about his projects. I’m pretty sure that's also what has inspired so many providers and patients to join his cause.

I suppose it’s no surprise that Iftikher’s organization is called The Hope Foundation ( Hope is what he provides wherever he goes. Hope for a happier, healthier life. Hope for a way to participate in making the world a better place.

As I left dinner feeling hopeful and inspired, I was thinking about how many of us are hungry for more inspiration in our lives. When we sense it in other people, we are drawn to them. When we sense it within ourselves, even for a brief moment, we feel exhilarated and connected to the world, and we ignite a fire in those around us.

I believe there are sources of inspiration around us that we probably overlook each day. When I look for inspiration in my day to day life (not in speeches, conferences, or momentous events), I tend to find it in the people who normally inhabit my life - parents, my sister, my close friends, and my patients. It’s easy to go for days or months without being attuned to the day to day inspirations (I certainly have). But they are there.

Iftikher may have inspired me with his extraordinary efforts to serve the poor. But he also reminded me to look more closely at the day to day, to live life aware of the inspiration around me, and to open myself up to the ideas and feelings it may catalyze.

That’s a lot to get out of dinner. I was so full, I didn’t even have room for dessert.