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.”


Saudi Arabia loses 120,000 hectares of trees every year

Awareness campaigns highlight the importance of trees. (Shutterstock)
Updated 21 February 2020

Saudi Arabia loses 120,000 hectares of trees every year

  • The fine for cutting down a tree can reach SR5,000 ($1,333) while the fine for transporting logs is SR10,000

MAKKAH: Saudi Arabia loses 120,000 hectares of trees every year through destruction and tree logging.
Trees help stop desertification because they are a stabilizer of soil. In the Arabian Peninsula, land threatened by desertification ranges from 70 to 90 percent. A national afforestation campaign was launched in Saudi Arabia last October, and there is a national plan set to run until this April.
The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture said that although natural vegetation across the country had suffered in the past four decades, modern technologies such as satellites and drones could be used to track down individuals or businesses harming the Kingdom’s vegetation.
“Harsh penalties should be imposed on violators such as the seizure or confiscation of transport and hefty fines,” Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Sugair, chairman of the Environmental Green Horizons Society, told Arab News.
These were long-term solutions and they needed coordination with authorities to ensure warehouses and markets did not stock logs or firewood, he said. Another solution was sourcing an alternative product from overseas that was of high quality and at a reasonable price. A third was to provide support to firewood and coal suppliers.
“The general public needs to be more aware of the importance of trees and should have a strong sense of responsibility toward these trees,” Al-Sugair added.
“They should also stop buying firewood in the market. We can also encourage investment in wood production through agricultural holdings as well as implement huge afforestation projects and irrigate them from treated sewage water.”
The fine for cutting down a tree can reach SR5,000 ($1,333) while the fine for transporting logs is SR10,000. These fines could not be implemented as they should be because there were no available staff to monitor and catch violators and, to make matters worse said Al-Sugair, there was a weak level of coordination between authorities.
Most of the Kingdom’s regions have suffered in some way from tree felling, and some places no longer have trees. These violations are rampant in the south and Madinah regions, as well as in Hail and Al-Nafud Desert.
Riyadh is the most active and the largest market for firewood. Many people in Al-Qassim use firewood as do restaurants in some parts of Saudi Arabia.
Omar Al-Nefaee, a microbiology professor at the Ministry of Education in Taif, said the reason behind the widescale destruction of the environment could be attributed to a supply shortage of imported firewood.
“Tree logging causes an environmental disequilibrium,” he told Arab News. “The Ministry of Environment, Agriculture and Water has launched an initiative raising public awareness on the issue and is asking people not to use local firewood. Several awareness campaigns have been launched for the same purpose to educate people about the importance of using imported wood instead of the local wood in order to protect the Kingdom’s vegetation.”
Official reports warn that the Kingdom has lost 80 percent of its vegetation and that the drop will have a detrimental effect on its biodiversity, as well as causing great damage to the environment.
The general public should use other heating options during the winter and stop using firewood, Al-Nefaee said.
Some local studies have called for farms that can produce wood from plants that do not consume too much water and do not affect vegetation, while at the same time reducing the pressure on other regions in the Kingdom that are rich in animal resources.
Falih Aljuhani, who runs a business that imports wood from Georgia, encouraged Saudi firms to import wood from the Balkans because it was a competitive market and the trees had low carbon percentages.