Growing up in a marginalised region of Kenya, Asma Awadh’s career was always at the forefront of her mind. While it may have been the dream of owning her own car that motivated her as a young girl, it was her first-hand experience caring for her mother as a teenager that ignited her interest in health and inspired her to become a doctor.
Asma studied a dual Masters’ in International Public Health and Health Management (MIPH/MHM) at UNSW Medicine. Now she has returned home to Kenya, where she is leading the fight against COVID-19.
Asma, tell us about the work you’re doing in Kenya…
In Kenya, I work as the Sub-County Director of Health in Westlands Sub-County. This involves overseeing all health activities in the region, ranging from financial planning, policy implementation, monitoring and evaluation of health programs, preparation of funding proposals, performance management systems, and management of complex medical conditions and treatment in the area.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I have been working as a Clinical Team Lead. I head a team who work on case management, case identification, testing, contact tracing and line listing, quarantine, isolation and training of healthcare workers and community members on infection prevention control measures.
What was life like for you growing up, before you decided to study medicine?
I come from Mombasa, a coastal city in Kenya, it’s hugely marginalised. When I was growing up the majority of women didn’t opt for university studies, preferring to get married as well-cultured girls.
I come from a humble background, and getting school fees was a struggle for my mum. My siblings would all help in one way or another. For instance, I used to help sell food after school. I was pretty good in sales (I reckon I’d do ok in Business Studies too). My mum and elder sister always urged me to study.
On my way to school, I would pass by the house of the Provincial Director of Education and observed this lady being picked up by a driver every morning to be driven to work. That was my main motivation to study hard - so I could be as important as her, to have a car and a driver. I remember telling my mum that I wanted to have a car and work in a big office.
What inspired you to study medicine?
My mother was my inspiration. She was an herbalist. Being the young one in the family I became an errand girl for her by default. That was how I developed my interest in medicine. One of the things that my mum praised me for was my good memory, which she believed would make me a good doctor, so she encouraged me to study hard.
When I was in high school, my mum was diagnosed with diabetic foot, diabetes and hypertension. My interest in medicine resurfaced as I was trained by the hospital to care for her, identify the signs of low and high blood sugar and manage her lifestyle changes. In 2000, I lost my mum due to hypertension encephalopathy. This was right before my university entry results were released - by that time I was pretty sure about a career in medicine.
As for my role now, I owe my passion to my mentor at UNSW - Professor Raina MacIntyre, who made me see public health in a different light. As a young doctor, I focused on curative medicine as opposed to prevention and health promotion. I had initially taken this as a minor part of my practice as a doctor but now I feel it is the main part, strengthening and supplementing my curative background. For this, I thank the wealth of knowledge, experience and mentorship I received at UNSW.
What hands-on experiences did you have at UNSW that influenced your career?
Among the many invaluable experiences that have proved helpful in my career was my internship at the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence, Integrated Systems for Epidemic Response. During this program I learnt leadership and presentation skills, research and analysis of data and improved my computer skills. I also took a short course on academic English which really helped my report writing, communication and analytical skills.
What advice would you give someone who is considering studying medicine at UNSW?
I would say go for it, you won’t regret it, especially because of the combination of theoretical and practical knowledge and abundance of resources, including the teaching staff. Also, the university setting in the heart of Sydney offers a diverse experience and plenty of opportunities to enjoy life in a big city.