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Dr Azra Raza.—White Star Photo

KARACHI: Dr Azra Raza’s credentials are just as awe-inspiring as her ability to recite Ghalib’s couplets at the drop of a hat. Director of the MDS Centre at Columbia University in New York, she completed her medical education in Pakistan, training in Internal Medicine at the University of Maryland, Franklin Square Hospital and Georgetown/VA Medical Centre in Washington DC, apart from doing her fellowship in Medical Oncology at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York.

Last week Dr Raza was in Karachi on a personal visit. While here she also delivered a lecture on ‘Decoding cancer: armed with genomics, is the end in sight?’ at the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation.

But when asked what brought her to Pakistan after a lapse of a little less than a decade Dr Raza replied: “Dr Adib Rizvi is a dear friend and my hero. He recently lost his wife who I know was his best friend. So the purpose of the visit was to offer my condolences to him. I believe Dr Rizvi is the single most valuable person alive in Pakistan. Ghalib’s couplet ‘Ghalib nadeem-i-dost se aati hai boo-i-dost/Mashghool-i-huq hoon bandagie-i-Bu Tarab mein’ fits his personality. There are multiple ways of looking at this couplet, and one of them is that to reach God one has to serve His creatures. Dr Rizvi has dedicated the whole of his life to serving humanity without thinking of reward. That’s the way he is; he can’t help himself. I think hamari bakhshish un ki waja se ho gi (we will be accepted in the afterlife because of Dr Rizvi).”

One would imagine that it’s rather unusual that someone belonging to the realm of medicine and science would be so passionate about poetry. But Dr Raza disagreed.

“Poetry and science are the two sides of the same coin because for both one requires creativity to unravel the mystery,” she enthused.

“Knowing about human genomics is pure poetry. Research opens a world of mystery and wonder of great secrets. It’s a sublime experience. Isn’t it fascinating to know that a spider and a bacterium operate on the exact same code of life? The DNA codes are the same. Humans have a difference of only two per cent. Both poetry and science go for the grand themes of life. The human genome sequencing project led to a massive revolution in science. The mapping of the human genome is an extraordinary thing because it is the language of life.”

Dr Raza lives and practises her profession in the US. This is what she had to say about the country.

“There’s a culture of merit in America. Their infrastructure is such that whoever tries to circumvent merit can be challenged. This is the reason they’ve done a lot in every sphere of life. Those in Pakistan who curse the US are terribly mistaken. America is 50 years ahead of even Europe — it’s going from strength to strength.”

The question as to what latest research had emerged in the quest for combating the lethal disease of cancer made Dr Raza respond with the compassion of a person genuinely affected by human suffering.

“With the current technology and modes of investigation, and with the help of those suffering from the disease, I’m optimistic that in the next 10 years while we may not be able to cure it, we will be able to convert cancer into a chronic disease that patients will be able to live with and not die of. A majority will be helped.”

Dr Raza has suffered a personal loss, a cruel irony as she called it, when her own husband, Dr Harvey Preisler, died of the disease they had both worked hard on finding a cure for. The tragedy once led her to reflect upon “the infinite helplessness of being on the other side of the bed”.

On the subject of her husband Dr Raza became misty-eyed. “The composure with which he handled death was amazing. There was total acceptance. This is what keeps me going: seeing Harvey fight. Everything I feel now is coloured by this rule of life: ‘the aesthetic is to reach poise.’”

As for what to do to keep the disease away, Dr Raza advised: “Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t eat unhealthy things.”