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A Survivor Mindset in Times of Peace: A Lebanese Experience

By Dr. Ahmad Mahdi

Six months into my medical residency, I have grown more comfortable waking up earlier than usual and at colder temperatures. I have learned to embrace procedure and operate on a regularly irregular schedule. Today on my way to work, I watch the fog clear and feel my pulse synchronize with my pace.

It’s been half of a year since I boarded my plane from Beirut International Airport. Flashbacks flicker in my mind as I hurry between isolated hospital units and make rapid mask changes between patient encounters. It reminds me of my homeland with its bittersweet mix of abundant dreams and scarce opportunities. It sends me back to the sweet smells of “Manoushe” (Lebanese breakfast) as well as the growing despair in the undertone of mundane conversations. It revitalizes the nostalgia of losing home while still at home and the hunger for growth and experience.

Leading up to my departure, my years of anticipation and work had finally manifested into a steppingstone. I spent a year advocating for myself to kind strangers abroad for residency interviews. I balanced my time between COVID-19-related research and collecting sweet moments with family and friends. Some days would be marked with the search for an empty hospital office where the electricity would be less likely to fail halfway through my interviews. I am grateful for all the imperfections.

This image was taken at the LAU Medical Center-Rizk Hospital at the night of the Beirut Port explosion.

I was in Lebanon long enough to witness a spiraling economic collapse, political instability, and shortage of resources. I was there to see the lines for gas, food, and medicine grow longer and angrier. I was there to witness marches plead and revolutions scream for basic human rights. I was there to see my friends take off on their flights before I did. Eventually, I was there to witness a ferocious explosion wipe out my city. A blast that crushed the people’s fragile hope for positive change.

As a researcher at that time, I never imagined my night would end with me dressed in bloody scrubs, clutching to a skin stapler and a half-filled betadine bottle. I never thought my night would stretch on, in a shattered hospital setting, as I helped to triage, stabilize, and console hundreds of shocked patients and their loved ones. Stitching up patients in an open field changes you forever.

The catastrophic port explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020, drew a mark in the timeline of the Lebanese people and decloaked a stark era. Ever since the Lebanese have operated in a survival mindset to overcome compounding crises. Collectivistic anxiety, lack of food, and instability were daily concerns for many.

The view from my window seat on the first flight to the United States.

Despite everything happening around me at that time, I had to control my emotions and stay focused on my prospective medical residency training in the United States. It was everything I had been working for, the apex of my career to date. It also became the shimmering light at the end of a dark tunnel for my family and loved ones. I eagerly navigated the onboarding process. I rushed through traffic to the airport, in a car heavy with anticipation and silence. We hugged goodbye and I departed quickly.

On my first flight to Turkey, I slumped exhaustedly into my window seat. It was the first time I was able to relax and reflect; my emotions burst from my eyes and I cried for almost two hours. The overwhelming sense of guilt of leaving my loved ones behind, despite my genuine joy for the upcoming journey, crippled me. I did not know when I would be seeing them again, but I knew that it was the right choice to rise to the challenge and to see what lies ahead for me.

While rounding on patients at Wesley Medical Center during Halloween time.

Now reflecting on six months of living in the United States, it has been a long voyage of growth and self-development. I have had time to recalibrate my mindset and am honored to share this experience with so many talented and diverse healthcare professionals. I have been blessed beyond count to matriculate in medical training and learn to participate in my patients’ care. I have marched into their lives at their weakest state and have been humbled by their pain. They taught me to heal and appreciate adversity as much as I appreciate peace.

I have learned how to carefully let my guard down and how to tame the survival mindset to be comfortable and better enjoy this journey. What I have learned about myself, my weaknesses and my strengths, the insights into who I am and what drives me, have been the most valuable part of my experience. I am connected to my family and the adversities in my country across the globe as much as I am connected to the life and career I’m building today. It is something that cannot be charted, scored, or diagnosed. It is a learning curve for the transition. It is my experience with a survival mindset in times of peace as a Lebanese ex-pat.