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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”