When Najah Adreak decided to pursue a Master of Science in Surgery at UBC, she already had been trained in cardiothoracic surgery in the Tripoli’s largest tertiary center, the Tripoli Medical Center, in Libya. The international cardiac surgeon trainee was motivated by memories of early childhood, when a close friend could not access the heart surgery she needed. By returning to university, she wanted to improve access to healthcare, help other children and become an academic cardiac surgeon.
“For me, going to grad school was about finding answers to questions that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Working with patients daily, you seldom have time to reflect on what you have done and what you could do more to improve their care. I wanted to take time to find answers to improve existing practices, and to better serve my patients."
Her research evaluates two surgical approaches to aortic valve stenosis, a heart condition where the aortic valve is narrowed and doesn’t open properly, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood. This often results in reduced supply of oxygen. Patients with this condition have a higher chance of sudden death, with 50% of patients dying after five years, and 20% after two if symptoms develop. A diseased aortic valve is fatal and requires surgery. The standard surgery is done by cutting all the breastbone to replace the valve. This causes a painful incision and is particularly risky in older patients with multiple health issues. On the other hand, proposed surgical technique uses only a small cut in the breastbone to replace the damaged valve; however, it is more challenging to surgeons to work through a much smaller incision, in a restricted space, and with difficult-to-master instruments.
By collecting data from BC Cardiac Registry, retrospectively, Najah assessed the clinical outcomes of two approaches in BC patients for the first study of its kind in this study group. She found that the smaller incision surgery is a safe and effective treatment for aortic stenosis without any increase in the risk of death or other significant complications, compared to the standard approach. She concluded that her study has limitations, and more studies are needed to generalize these results and she hope to get more data beyond her study period and broaden the study population to include patients outside of BC.
But Najah’s journey in grad school was not without its obstacles. Being in a new environment, at university in a new country and starting from scratch proved to be more challenging than anticipated. “Sometimes, I felt I was a misfit. I kept doubting myself. These feelings are natural, and they happen to everyone, but without being able to see other people who looked like me, it took longer to overcome them. I felt isolated and unsure about my place here.”
In the end,” she continued, “I realized, what makes me different also makes me unique. My background and my roots are valuable assets of which I am incredibly proud. This means I have a unique perspective and diverse experience to bring to the table.”
Outside of her degree, Najah is involved in a variety of initiatives—such as UBC Let's Task Science, the Anatomy Nights. She is currently leading the western committee for the Wear Red Canada campaign to raise awareness about women's heart health disease and the trainee representative for the Canadian Women's Heart Health alliance. She has authored many papers and works as a reviewer for the Canadian journal for cardiology.
Najah is also active in the Canadian Cardiovascular Society, and she has managed many clinical trials within her role as a clinical research assistance in cardiac surgery department at St. Paul’s hospital where she took great pride in improving patients care through research and innovation. She is also the mentorship director at the UBC Chapter of Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI).
She advises current and incoming students to chase opportunities. “Grad school is more than your degree. UBC opens doors for graduate students on and off-campus. Try to make the most of them and create your opportunities, don't wait for them. Be courageous to try new things and make sure that you have unwavering faith in yourself and the value you carry. Don't be shy to ask for help and seek opportunities outside your field. Hard work works!”
The master’s student is currently completing the last components of her degree and will graduate in May 2021. She knows that this is only the start in her many plans for the future including being a licensed cardiac surgeon in Canada. “The sacrifices you need to make as an international medical graduate are insurmountable. With courage and passion, I decided to start from scratch. This is how much I love cardiac surgery, and I know I will one day get there. It will all be worth it.”