HWMH physician grew up in Iraq, but dreamed of coming to Canada

HWMH physician grew up in Iraq, but dreamed of coming to Canada
Dr. Omar Ezzat

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

DUNNVILLEGrowing up in the small town of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, Haldimand War Memorial Hospital Physician Dr. Omar Ezzat had a bit of a fixation with the Great White North.

“I used to love the Canadian flag,” recalled Ezzat. “My mom was a geography teacher. She would always tell me about this country or that country.… I told my mom when I grew up I would move to Canada and marry a Canadian woman.”

It would take years, but eventually Ezzat would fulfill those dreams and come to Canada. A decade later, Ezzat still has affection for his homeland, calling Kirkuk a city of mixed ethnicities and religions: “It was kind of like a small Canada, with the diversity here and the diversity there.”

Ezzat graduated from the medical program at the University of Baghdad in 2002, before returning home to Kirkuk, unaware that war would break out there just a few short months later. He still remembers the exact date, April 10, 2003.

When the war broke out, a number of people presented to the emergency department with injuries. That was a really big problem, because we didn’t have anything. The health care system was not equipped to see all these people in a short amount of time,” he recalled.

On that date, American troops entered the city, with many Iraqi government troops either withdrawing or surrendering. However, a number of pocket groups of resistance remained, and the fighting was intense.

I remember seeing over 250 bullet and shell injuries within three to four hours. We didn’t have a surgeon on site, and we didn’t have a blood bank. It was totally chaotic. There was only a few physicians,” said Ezzat. “This continued for several days.”

When you are in that situation and you know you have to do something, I think you forget about how bad the situation is and you just focus on your work…. It’s either that, or the person’s dead. That was a great learning experience for me. Trauma is one of the biggest things you deal with in emerg.

Despite building up resilience to tragedy, certain aspects of the fighting still overwhelmed Ezzat; he noted the passing of young children, killed by mistake in the crossfire, as the most draining thing he recalls from that period.

Eventually, Ezzat knew it was time to follow his childhood fixation and come see what Canada was all about for himself. His first stop was Ottawa, where he had an uncle living already. He stayed there for two years, during which time he began volunteering as an interpreter for the Catholic Immigration Society, being fluent in both Arabic and Turkish.

He then took a job as an assistant at the society’s clinic, and after a short, he was named the co-ordinator of the clinic: “It was a success story I was proud of…. I was very happy with myself, and meanwhile I was studying and preparing for my exams.”

Working as a physician in Canada with international training isn’t as simple as applying for a job:It’s very tough. I had to do four medical exams. The first was just for international medical grads, the second two as the Canadians grads do, and then I had to do an extra clinical exam…. I was lucky I passed all of those on my first attempts, actually.

Ezzat also had to do an English skills examination. By the time he had completed this process in 2011, the only Canadian province he could find work in as an international grad with his specific training was Newfoundland: “All other provinces, including Ontario, wanted Canadian experience to give a license.”

His first impressions of the eastern province were of how remote it was, with only one store available. He eventually found a job at a hospital in a small mining community: “I fell in love with it there. It was so nice.

He noted how outside of work he developed a robust social life, where he got to experience a number of activities that were new to him, including snowmobiling: “Newfoundlanders are suspiciously friendly… I love them, honestly.”

His eventual return to Ontario was based on his mother’s health. That is when Haldimand War Memorial Hospital first came onto Ezzat’s radar.

“I had a couple of friends that used to work here and I came to visit them once I returned to Ontario. I liked it a lot. I like rural medicine.… When I talked to them, there was another physician retiring. He retired and I took his practice. I’ve been working here since May 1, 2020.”

Ezzat used the same word to describe working in that war-torn hospital in Kirkuk and working at HWMH throughout COVID: unpredictability.

“It was affecting everyone. I’ve seen people in their 90s with COVID walk out without anything, and people in their 40s without any problems with their health, ending up having a tube. It was like a war, actually. You will have someone who has a bullet emergency to the leg die because of complications, while someone with 30 bullet wounds survives. Again, it’s unpredictable.

In spite of being a small hospital, HWMH has a very, very busy emergency room: That’s my passion. I do as many emergency shifts as I can. Although it is stressful and can be too much sometimes, when you finish your shift, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

Ezzat summed up his thoughts on the advantages of working at a hospital like HWMH:Rural medicine is mentally very rewarding. You get to do a lot more than physicians in big cities because it’s only you,” he concluded. “It’s always better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.