Healing Hoosiers for a Century: The Doctors

In 1938, when Dr. Waheeb Salim Zarick died of a heart attack at the age of 43, the city of Indianapolis lost a prominent medical educator and one of its great Arab American leaders.

W. S. Zarick attended med school at Indiana University. Credit: Arbutus, 1925

W. S. Zarick was born in 1894 or 1895 in the city of Tripoli, today located in the modern nation-state of Lebanon, but then part of the Ottoman Empire. Around the age of seven, Dr. Zarick left this beautiful town overlooking the Mediterranean Sea for Frankfort, Indiana, where he attended public school. He went to college at the University of Michigan and received his M.D. in 1927 from the Indiana University School of Medicine, where he was a member of Tau Kappa Alpha, the Debating Team, President of the Cosmopolitan Club, President of the French Circle, and Secretary of the Skeleton Club, which is what the student medical club was called.

Like so many other Arab Americans in the 1920s and 1930s, Dr. Zarick was deeply involved in civic life. He was a member of St. George Orthodox Syrian Church, a leader of the Syrian-American Brotherhood, and most significantly, he was the first president of the Midwest Federation of Syrian Clubs.

He must have been a busy man because he also volunteered as president of the Indiana Society of Magicians.

His day job was at the Indiana University School of Dentistry, where he served as assistant professor of anatomy. In addition, he was a public school physician.

W. S. Zarick taught Anatomy II at the Indiana University School of Dentisty, which first occupied the building pictured here in 1933. Credit: IUSD.

Dr. Zarick was one of the first Arab Americans trained in the United States to become prominent in Indianapolis health care.

He is one of many who have been healing Hoosiers for a century.

Perhaps it is not an accident that so many Arab and Arab Americans are health care professionals. The field has deep roots in Arab cultures. “The earliest documented general hospital,” according to David W. Tschanz, “was built in 805 in Baghdad, [Iraq].” During the middle ages Arab and Persian discoveries in disease treatment, anatomy, pharmacology, and nutrition revolutionized the practice of medicine throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe, where Arabic language medical texts were used to train doctors for hundreds of years.

Arab American physicians have had a significant impact on the way medicine is practiced in the United States, too. First, there are the sheer numbers. Tens of thousands of Arab Americans, both Christians and Muslims, those born abroad and in the United States, are physicians. Though Arab Americans account for a small percentage of Americans overall–perhaps one to two percent–it seems safe to conclude, based on studies of Muslim American physicians, that the number of Arab physicians per capita is greater than the number of non-Arab physicians.

Then, there is the quality of their work. One of the most important health leaders in the nation is Dr. Elias Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health. Other physicians have made path-breaking contributions to their respective fields. Dr. Nawal Nour changed the way gynecological patients who seek healing for female genital cutting (FGC) are treated. Dr. Michael DeBakey was perhaps “the greatest surgeon ever.” Dr. Huda Zoghbi explained the genetic mutations associated with Rett Syndrome, a disease that deprives one in 10,000 girls of their “ability to speak, walk, eat, and even breathe easily.”

The legacy of Arab American physicians in greater Indianapolis is similarly impressive, as the story of Dr. William K. Nasser illustrates.

Dr. Bill Nasser published his autobiography in 2003 just two years before his death.

Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1933, Dr. Bill Nasser is sometimes called Indiana’s “father of cardiology.” His parents, Tawfiq and Mahmoudy Nasser, were Christian immigrants from Damascus, Syria, who made their living as owners of a grocery store. Dr. Nasser, the author of Near to My Heart: An American Dream, was a self-described “late bloomer.” After serving in the U.S. Army in Korea, he finished his undergraduate degree at Indiana State University. He then completed an M.D. at the IU School of Medicine, where he also finished a fellowship and taught cardiovascular medicine until the early 1970s.

In 1972, St. Vincent’s Hospital asked him to help establish their heart program, which has become one of the largest and most successful cardiology practices in the country. During his lifetime, he received numerous awards for his achievements. Many years after his death, St. Vincent’s honored him by opening the William K. Nasser, MD, Education and Simulation Center.

Today, it is impossible to imagine health care in Indianapolis without the expertise and labor of Arab American doctors. Look at any hospital in central Indiana and you will find Arab Americans working there.

For example, Dr. Shadia Jalal is an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine and the leading esophageal cancer expert at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center. Among the many clinical trials for new cancer treatments that she has conducted is one that led to the approval of a medicine called pembrolizumab, which works with a patient’s immune system to fight esophagal and other cancers. She also conducts research in a laboratory to understand how genetics has an impact on the effectiveness of various cancer treatments. She publishes what she discovers in peer-reviewed journals.

Of all the tasks that she performs, Dr. Jalal is perhaps most grateful that “my patients trust me with their health at their darkest and lowest moments.” Dr. Jalal works two days a week at Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center, treating military veterans who have various forms of lung cancer. She is “very passionate” about her efforts over the last several years to “build the oncology research program to ensure veterans have access to good clinical trials.” Dr. Jalal is also co-chair of “the committee that is defining the best medical practices for the treatment of lung cancer at VA hospitals across the country.”

Shadia Jalal was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to an educated family–Dad was a PhD; Mom was a lawyer. Before she was a year old, her family moved back to Amman, Jordan. She grew up there and finished her MD at the University of Jordan in 2002. She returned to the United States in 2003 to complete her residency in internal medicine at Indiana University and stayed for a fellowship in hematology and oncology.

Dr. Jalal did not enter her residency thinking that she wanted to be a cancer doctor, but then she worked with Dr. Larry Einhorn. “I was amazed by the humility of a man that seems to know everything,” she remembers. “I strive to be that kind of teacher and mentor.”

Dr. Jalal poses with her family and Olaf from Frozen. Credit: Shadia Jalal.

She did not expect to settle down in Indiana either, but then she married a Hoosier. “My husband Tarick has Arab roots,” she said, “but grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana. He is a podiatrist. We met at Methodist Hospital in 2005 when we needed a podiatry consult for a patient with an infected diabetic foot ulcer.” She jokingly chastises herself for not knowing what she was getting into. “I should have known,” she opined, “that marrying a Hoosier meant watching way too much football and college basketball!”

In truth, she is very grateful for him, their children, and a career that gives her a chance to try to heal and be present for cancer patients and their family members.

Shadia Jalal is unique, but she is also one of many Arab Americans in central Indiana whose careers focus not so much on themselves, as she puts it, as on their patients.

There is Majdi Abu Salih, who directs the pediatric gastroenterology program at Community Health; Mohammad Al-Haddad, who serves as head of gastroenterology and hepatology at the IU School of Medicine; Amale Lteif, who studies thyroid disease; Zeina Nabhan, who treats pediatric diabetes at Riley Children’s Hospital; Ahmad Saltagi, who sees people with pulmonary disease and sleep disorders; Mohamad Saltagi, who is an otolaryngology resident at IU School of Medicine; and Taiseer Shatara, who treats patients with gastroenterology disorders.

There are so many more. The list of healers goes on and on. Their work represents one of the most profound contributions of Arab Americans to Indianapolis. It is work that makes a community proud of itself.

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