Selwa Al-Hazzaa: The Saudi doctor giving the gift of sight

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Selwa Al-Hazzaa was granted the degree of Doctor of Humanities, Honoris Causa the highest honor of the Franklin University in Switzerland in 2017 and presented the 48th commencement address at the graduation ceremony. (Supplied)
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Selwa Al-Hazzaa speaks during a health care event. (Supplied)
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AN photo by Ali Aldhahri
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Updated 14 January 2020

Selwa Al-Hazzaa: The Saudi doctor giving the gift of sight

  • Selwa Al-Hazzaa shares her 27-year journey of devoted work to bettering the health care system

RIYADH: Professor Selwa Al-Hazzaa is a Saudi female success story set on the road to excellence from childhood.

Speaking to Arab News, Al-Hazzaa, an ophthalmologist and chairman of the ophthalmology department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center (KFSHRC), told of her 27 years of devoted work to bettering the health care system, becoming the first woman to hold a high position at the hospital where she dedicated her life, energy and time to making a difference in her field.
Al-Hazzaa’s career took off in 1995, as the first Saudi woman to be made a member of the Medical Advisory Council at King Faisal Hospital. Her journey wasn’t the easiest, but with her talent, hard work and ambition, she was recognized by the Saudi leadership early on and used the platform to pave the way for future women in medicine and other fields.
Born into a family of five girls, she grew up in Tucson, Arizona in the 1960s while her father was completing his studies.  
She excelled in her school years, always living up to the highest standards and expectations which she has placed upon herself.

I didn’t choose ophthalmology, ophthalmology chose me.

Prof. Selwa Al-Hazzaa

“I went into medicine not wanting (to do) it,” she said. Nevertheless, she put all her energy into studying, because she had a higher ambition and was keen to make a difference.
One of her biggest challenges was when it was time for her to enroll in university. She wanted to travel abroad to study, but was unable to, because it was rare for women to do so at the time.
Back then the only two real professional options women had were medicine or education, and her father gave her a choice: Either to become a teacher or a physician. She chose the latter.
After obtaining her medical degree from King Saud University, she did her fellowship at the Wilmer Ophthalmologic Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Washington, DC.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Selwa Al-Hazzaa became the first woman to hold a high position at the hospital where she dedicated her life, energy and time to making a difference in her field.

• With her talent, hard work and ambition, she was recognized by the Saudi leadership early on and used the platform to pave the way for future women in medicine and other fields.

• Her first patient was a 9-year-old Saudi girl born blind, a case Al-Hazzaa had followed since the girl was less than a year old.

She returned to the Kingdom, where she was later chosen by the head of KFSHRC, Dr. Anwar Jabarti, to be the late King Fahd’s ophthalmologist. She credits Jabarti for realizing her potential, dedication and skills by looking beyond gender and solely at talent.
Her dream of representing her country came true, though under sombre circumstances, when she went on her first diplomatic mission after the fatal Sept. 11 2001 terror attacks in the US, remembering her father’s words: “When people trust you, they will then let you represent the country.”




Selwa Al-Hazzaa. (AN photo by Ali Aldhahri)

And represent her country she did, as she was the only woman between men, and with no training whatsoever in the political arena, she spoke from the heart, connecting with people. “From that day on, the government took me as their voice of Saudi Arabia after Sept. 11.”
Through a lifetime of giving, people would ask her what was the secret to her success. “There is no secret — females are always givers. When we are young, we take care of our siblings, when we are married we take care of our husbands, we get pregnant and take care of our children,” she said.
Elected as an executive member of the International Council of Ophthalmology (ICO) in 2002, she became the youngest member, the first woman member from the Middle East, and the only female on the council from 2002-2006. She stood down in 2010.

NUMBER

2.2bn - There are an estimated 2.2 billion people with vision impairment or blindness globally, with an estimated 1 billion who suffer from moderate or severe distance vision impairment or blindness (WHO 2019).

In 2017, Al-Hazzaa was granted the degree of doctor of humanities, honoris causa, the highest honor at Franklin University, one of many honorary titles she’s received in her career. She is also a member of various editorial boards, fellowships and committees, and was one of the first group of women appointed to the Saudi Shoura Council by late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in 2003, in a historic move, allowing women for the first time to be part of the Kingdom’s formal advisory body.

FASTFACT

Last November, Selwa Al-Hazzaa, alongside her colleague Dr. Mohamed Khuthaila and a medical team consisting of entirely of Saudis, put the Kingdom on the map as the first country in the Middle East, and the 5th globally, to utilize LUXTURNA, the first USA FDA-approved gene therapy treatment for any genetic disorder to treat blindness in children.

With her 27 years of experience in the field, publishing 69 accredited papers and more, her life’s work finally paid off in November of last year when she, alongside her colleague Dr. Mohamed Khuthaila and a medical team consisting entirely of Saudis, put the Kingdom on the map as the first country in the Middle East, and the 5th globally, to utilize LUXTURNA, the first USA FDA-approved gene therapy treatment for any genetic disorder to treat blindness in children.
Her first patient was a nine-year-old Saudi girl born blind, a case Al-Hazzaa had followed since the girl was less than a year old. The successful utilization of the treatment was one of her finest career achievements to date.
“If you are going to take a certain specialty, don’t take what everybody’s taking — take something that doesn’t exist and make it exist. Take something hard, because then when you are called upon, it will be regardless of your gender.
“I didn’t choose ophthalmology, ophthalmology chose me.”


Local for local: Saudi businesses find inspiration close to home

Rawan’s Stationery offers mainly Arabic stationary items, agendas, cards for every occasion and Rawan Stationery-designed wrapping paper. (Supplied)
Updated 24 November 2020

Local for local: Saudi businesses find inspiration close to home

  • New brands discover lively demand for clothes and stationery that draw on regional designs

JEDDAH: Rather than aspire for globalized standards and designs, Saudi businesses have started looking inward to represent their surroundings and their cultures.
Surprisingly, the public has reacted favorably. On several occasions, business owners and founders were stunned to find their designs flourishing because people were invested in something that positively represented their identity.
Faisal Al-Hassan, a co-founder of Own Design, said that the most memorable encounter for the fashion brand was during last year’s brand pop-up in the MDL Beast Festival in Riyadh. “People were coming in to grab one of our pieces and they’d immediately leave. That really made us proud and happy seeing people from across the country are familiar with our brand,” he told Arab News.
Own Design started in 2009 when three young men from Alkhobar came together to make money out of their hobby. “We started Own Design as a small project with minimum funds. We were three kids with big dreams. None of us had any background in designing, I have a degree in public administration, but it doesn’t stop me from doing what I love.”
Seven years on, the founders finally moved from makeshift offices in their homes to a concept store in the city.
“Every quarter, we launch a line with a specific theme. Our latest, the Sadu, has been exceptionally popular,” he added.

People welcomed us because there was something different about our stationery. They found products and designs in their mother tongue, which wasn’t available before.

Rawan Khogeer, Owner of Rawan Stationery

It was approximately three years ago that Sadu fabric became trendy, and Own Design wanted to take that design and introduce it into pullovers and then hoodies.
According to the brand’s Instagram, Sadu is “an ancient tribal weaving craft that artistically portrays Arabian nomadic people’s rich cultural heritage and instinctive expression of natural beauty.”
Sadu fabric is known by its vibrant red, green, white and black colors and seemingly geometric weaving.
Own Design’s clothes are designed to represent culture, with lines such as ODxKings featuring popular photographs of Saudi kings on auspicious occasions or popular quotes by them throughout history to merge “national themes with modern apparel.”
The clothing brand has also featured designs coinciding with the Kingdom’s G20 presidency, titled O20 and G20.
“Our designing process is very collaborative; we sit and discuss ideas and each member adds to what’s been said or alters the design in a way the others didn’t think of,” said Al-Hassan.
The brand is known for various limited edition apparel. Their Sadu line manufactures 400 pieces in each color due to the long production process; once it sells out, customers usually have to wait a year when the next Sadu line is launched.
“We’re approaching volume three of the Sadu design, while also collaborating with a special brand on a limited edition product,” he said.
“We have bountiful ideas that we want to showcase to the world, not just Saudi (Arabia) — we want to reach out to other Arabs,” said the co-founder. “(We want) to see foreigners wearing products that have a story.”
Another local business, Rawan Stationery, was started in early 2018 by Rawan Khogeer, a graphic design graduate. “People welcomed us because there was something different about our stationery. They found products and designs in their mother tongue, which wasn’t available before,” she told Arab News.
The market catered mostly to English content in stationeries. The limited Arabic content that was available was also not as pretty in comparison, said the founder.
From a young age, Khogeer’s pastime activity was to visit stationers. She delighted at the start of every term, merely because she got to shop.
She was always fascinated by gift-wrapping paper and the patterns on them. Whenever she visited a gift-wrapping shop, she pledged to open her own shop in the future.
While completing a training program at a company, Khogeer received the news that her mother had suffered an accident. Unable to find a suitable get-well card, she designed one herself.
“I decided to make her a card specifically for her, something that suited her taste, but I chose silver and gold colors, and printers would only print big batches; I was faced with the choice to either change the colors or go ahead with a large print run,” she said.
Khogeer chose the latter, and when her mother saw the card she was elated and told her daughter to start selling them.
Khogeer then went around small gift stores and stationers with her design, while running an Instagram account to publicize her brand. She was also looking into collaboration with stationers in Kuwait and, when they encouraged her, she expanded into the Gulf region.
“Demand was growing and the designs were increasing, and I felt like I’d found myself through this craft. At the same time, other work opportunities, although great, didn’t feel as fulfilling, so I approached Entrepreneurial Institute for support, and I never regretted that decision,” Khogeer said.
It was an adventure visiting governmental entities, carpenters and painters to get Rawan Stationery looking how it does today and fulfilling Khogeer’s dream of establishing a stationery/gift-wrapping store.
“I always wondered why stationers abroad were so meticulous and had such lovely local content, in their own language. I wanted to give that to people here and I wanted to elevate the Arabic language,” she said.
What makes Rawan Stationery different is its originality. It offers mainly Arabic stationery items, agendas, cards for every occasion and Rawan Stationery-designed wrapping paper, and has found a ready market.
As for upcoming projects, Rawan’s Stationery has plans to expand to a second branch soon.