***APOLOGIES IN ADVANCE FOR THE POOR WRITING SKILLS, I AM STILL TOO OVEREXCITED ABOUT THIS TRIP***
Words cannot describe a feeling, and only a feeling can describe Pakistan.
I am not going to begin claiming that I have seen every side of Pakistan, but I truly believe this country is a hidden gem. I have never been in an environment where I was embraced with more love and warmth (and I stick by the stance that this is not only because of my *fake* blonde hair).
The purpose of my travels was multi-pronged; to conduct student interviews with my family business Study in Australia, deliver educational seminars and assist with business development AND speak at the 3rd International Conference at Shalamar Medical and Dental College in Lahore.
I hopped on the plane with a small anxiety that can only be truly understood by an incontinent person going to a country where the water can give you a very upset stomach. Apart from that, I was excited. I had been told by people that I should be more 'real' about where I was going - it was not a glamorous place like the Sex and the City 2 trip to Abu Dhabi that I was imagining.
On the first day, I was able to meet our team of staff in our Gujranwala Office, that I had assisted my mother in hiring just over 1 year ago. I had communicated with them on a daily basis over email, had many Facetime conference calls and done as many online investigations as possible but could not have imagined how perfect our choice was in selecting Abdul, Shuja, Nabila and Ali.
By the time I had arrived at the hotel in Gujranwala I had already featured in the selfies of many locals at the airport, and was swarmed by a group of young Pakistani men on a leisurely walk in the park, despite my headscarf and sunglasses disguise.
By Day 3, I had already been well acquainted with the local clothing shops and was sporting a Pakistani outfit costing less than AUD$18 purchased from the grocery store OF ALL PLACES. If that was not enough to convince me to pack my bags and move to Pakistan for fashion and financial reasons, Day 4 was what consolidated my decision.
We spent the day delivering seminars, first at University of Sialkot that had only been operational for 5 months, but was already filled with happy, bright students and some of the best academics in the country. They told me of the fashion designer of one of the royal wedding dresses coming to train their fashion students in a few months, and the focus on internationalisation of their students and university. Mum and I delivered a seminar and signed an MOU to assist UoS with their internationalisation endeavours, through assisting their students to have an Australian study experience.
After this (and me convincing Abdul take a speedy detour to follow this young man who was riding a motorbike with a sheep on his lap so I could get film it on the GoPro - was unsuccessful) we arrived in a narrow street near some fields where I saw a banner strung up anticipating our arrival, with a huge photo of my face (and much smaller photo of mum's face). We were greeted by a huge group of people who ran that Primary school, huge glittery bouquets of flowers and the flash of cameras.
We were guided up three levels of stairs before we got to the rooftop where they had put up rainbow fabric as the roof, filled with parents dressed in brightly coloured traditional Pakistani dress, and CUTE kiddos in their uniforms seated in an orderly fashion. We were walked down the aisle and seated underneath a golden canopy next to the stage and treated to a welcome dance performance by a group of young students in white, frilly dresses. Shuja, Abdul, Ali, Mum and I were showered in fragrant rose petals, hugs and smiles.
I was invited up on stage to speak and shared the message of true learning and discovery coming in many forms, not only what can be delivered in between school walls but in each life experience.
The trip was a blur of laughs, kind happy faces, interesting, honourable and dynamic 'personalities'. I fell in love with the people (ESPECIALLY our SIA Gujranwala team, the best in the business) - being handed babies at every turn, getting hugged by children in the street, my hands held by older women and watching my athiest mother give blessings to people (LOL).
In my travels and conversations I re-fell in love with the idea of love and sanctity of marriage; how even with arranged marriages each person treats their future husband/wife as their life partner - not temporary partner-, plans their life with this person and even saves their first kiss for them.
Abdul drove us into Lahore on the Friday afternoon and dropped us at the spectacular Pearl Continental Hotel that served us iced tea on arrival and took our bags up to our room for us. The hotel was adorned with chandeliers and shiny marble floors, a big change from our humble but lovely accommodation in Gujranwala.
On the Friday night we were invited out with the conference delegation on a Lahore Fort and Walled City by night tour. It was spectacular. We had the best tour guide - Javed - who led us through the history of each historical building. We enjoyed a traditional Pakistani flute (apologies if it was a different instrument) performance before being taken on a rikshaw ride to one of the temples filled with a thousand candles, and watching a dance performance in the 5 degree breeze of night (I did not bring a jacket).
We then were taken to the famous 'The Poet' restaurant of Lahore, given fresh flower bracelets as we watched live performances, fountain show and enjoyed delicious food. I was able to meet the organisers and other speakers at the conference who had travelled from places like United States, Turkey and Azerbaijan. I was the only non-medical person there, apart from Mum and Abdul who I had brought along with me. I was surrounded by experts and specialists in the medical field, learning about things that I had no conception about previously.
By the time I hit the pillow that night it was midnight, and I had an alarm set ready for the morning...
CONFERENCE DAY! We made our way to Shalamar Medical college and hospital. The facilities in the college were exceptional, with many lecture theatres and auditoriums. The young doctors were incredibly enthusiastic. There were over 3,000 attendees all together. Once again, Abdul, Mum and I probably the only ones who had not studied medicine or something related. We enjoyed incredible state of the art sessions that opened my eyes to advancements in medicine. In one particular session in the morning, mum and I were almost standing on our chairs cheering when Paul Barach delivered a session on 'Truth Telling in Medicine". Something especially resonated with me:
"There was a study done where we asked doctors if they would tell their patients if they had made a mistake in their treatment, and the majority of doctors answered 'No'. We then asked the doctors if they believed the patients would trust them more or less if they admitted they had done something wrong, the doctors answered "Less". We then asked the patients the same question, and they said that they would trust their doctor MORE if the doctor admitted they had made an error."
So any doctors reading this; please TELL US!
When it came time to deliver my presentation "Case Study: Patient Perspective of Complex Malformations" in the gynaecology and obstetrics section I was really excited. The presentation went exceptionally well, and the audience was very responsive and amazed as most had not heard of Cloaca, Imperforate Anus or VACTERL. I am sure some of the young male medical students had regrets of following me to this session when I began discussing the female reproductive system in GREAT detail, but that's another story! I also shared my top 3 tips for gynaecologists in how they can operate to improve the treatment of patients and reduce the potential psychological trauma of medical procedures.
After my presentation, I was swarmed by young, kind medical students who gave me positive feedback, and expressed that my presentation had changed their future patient care, and thanked me for my input. I know that if my presentation even raised awareness to one person, or improved one patients care in the future I have achieved what I aimed to do.
That night was the Gala Dinner. It was in a huge tent/pavillion that was set up on the hospital grounds, filled with flowers, chandeliers and people cooking curries, naan and much more in front of your eyes on outdoor cookers. There were white leather sofas positioned around a stage where there were performers appealing to every Bollywood fantasy I had as a child! The young medical students and male doctors all got up dancing together, and it was the GREAT (lost for words). Keep in mind there is no alcohol, so they were doing this bravely and having so much fun. I have never been laughing so much and so present in the moment as I was that night. I loved every second and had a new view of the Australian cultures unnecessary association of alcohol and fun.
Day 2 of the conference was just as perfect as the first. I loved being in the company of medical changemakers, and the future of Pakistani medicine. I was able to meet incredibly people from around the world and speak about our common vision to improve patient care, and have been invited to share my story in other platforms and at other conferences in the near future.
I also had the opportunity to meet two families with young daughters with imperforate anus. It was brilliant being able to connect with others with my condition, especially in the absence of a community support group for those with anorectal malformation in Pakistan. We discussed the need for the community to come together to be able to support each other and advocate for recognition and assistance in medical care and treatment, as it has become evident that survival of the more complex cases can be very low. 1 in 7 babies from all pregnancies in Pakistan - congenital malformations or not - die within the first few days of life so you can imagine that those with medical issues have a higher mortality rate. It was also brought to my attention that there is no supply of pediatric colostomy supplies in Pakistan. There are many people reusing the same colostomy for MONTHS (these are single use only), or wrapping the stoma in fabric until it is soaked in faeces.
Even though my medical diagnosis and issues have been very complex and resulted in many challenges, I realise I am in a privileged position to have a positive impact and help those in Pakistan with anorectal malformation. Firstly, I have created an online facebook support group for IA specific to Pakistan - you can find the group here - you will only be accepted to join if you or your family member have IA, or you are a doctor in Pakistan interested in treating or supporting this.
Secondly, I am in the process of connecting with the key doctors who operate on these babies. After connecting with them I will be able to assess the situation and see if there is any fundraising or liasing with companies that can assist in getting pediatric colostomy supplies to Pakistan, or helping in any other way possible. WATCH THIS SPACE (contact me if you're interested in assisting me with this project!).
My words SERIOUSLY could not describe how special this experience was for me, and the place it will always hold in my heart. Do not be surprised if I am living in Pakistan permanently in a year from now, I loved it THAT much.
Please check out my vlog that is now up on Youtube to be entertained by how bad I am with a Go-Pro, but also enjoy a taste of my trip.
Until next time xx
P.S. if you have any questions about my trip, just message/email me because I cannot stop talking about it.