Women in Digital Health – Amina Ibrahim MBE

Amina is our very first guest from Somaliland. She is here to tell us about her journey into digital health and experience as an African woman in STEM;

Hi Amina, it excites me so much to host you at this moment when we are focusing on “hybrid” careers in STEM, especially for African women. Thank you for joining us
Thank you for having me, Winnie. And for the good work you do. I shared it with my friends and they were very impressed.

Thank you, Amina! Kindly introduce yourself to our audience
Hello Winnie, hello everyone. My name is Amina Ibrahim MBE, I work in the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK. I live and work in London but was raised in Sheffield, northern England, which is Yorkshire.

I am British but also identify as East African as well. My family comes from Somaliland, which is a 31-year-old country that broke away from the Somalia on 18th of May 1991. Many people might not be familiar with us but we are a fully functioning country, we host our elections, have our won current, passport, and all necessary things as a country.

I have been working in the NHS for 14 years now as an Operating Department Practitioner (ODP). My job is to look after you when you come in for surgery. I help you to sleep and look after you throughout the entire surgery, plus help you to wake up after surgery. That anesthetic side of surgery is my area of specialization.

This is a job that I have enjoyed and loved but feel like it’s time for me to venture into something else. Because of the pandemic, we as healthcare workers have been at the forefront in fighting this virus, which has got me thinking about other things that I might enjoy doing outside this. I now feel a little bit burned out and exhausted from the work. What I have been looking into is what I want to do next and how I want to live my next life. What can complement all this experience that I have!

Traditionally, NHS people have had three routes to follow in their careers; teaching the next generation of healthcare workers, management and leadership, and the business side which comes with marketing and innovation. I am not a salesperson, I enjoy teaching and managing people – since I am the oldest of 7 children, haha – but I don’t want to do that for a living. I have been soul-searching since 2018 until I landed in the world of technology. My brother works in IT, so it was easy for me to look into things like coding.

My natural self likes being kept on my toes – this is something I always liked about my NHS job. It’s always dynamic, there’s no routine. Each patient comes with different requirements and expectations in a day. So, I see how coding could be exciting but it wasn’t my kind of exciting. So, I let that go.

In 2019, I heard about Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. We are already doing robotics surgery, meaning I am already in the field of robotics and AI, when it comes to healthcare. In September of the same year, I saw a course called healthcare analytics and artificial intelligence. I knew I wanted to do that immediately. I wanted something where all my experience doesn’t go to waste but is complimented. This was the ideal masters for me.

I went to the university for the first time when I was 18 and went back when I was 36. That’s a whole different experience! I am scared of academia, computers, current technology,….and many other things. After a physically draining night shift during the pandemic, I realized that I couldn’t do this anymore. That was the catalyst for me to apply.

I entered scared, doubting my ability and skills. The only thing I knew for a fact was that I couldn’t continue working the way I had been working. My only direction was the future of healthcare and where I as a person can fit in. That’s where I am at the moment. The course ends in September 2022 and I can’t be more excited about my future.

I want to do a lot of things; virtual reality, change the way we teach healthcare students, change how patients access their healthcare, plus so many other things. I want to be part of realizing the full potential of digital health.

I like the fact that you have realized your strength in healthcare and technology. Digital health is something we all look forward to.

What has this journey or choosing to pursue a “hybrid” career in digital health been like so far?
I had to learn how to integrate technology into healthcare. For me, it was because of my brother who was in technology. He did pure computing sciences and people thought he would be in Somaliland owning an internet cafe down the street. I feel like as Africans we haven’t fully understood the potential of a computer.

When I interact with young people from Somaliland they will tell you their parents want them to become accountants. I have to explain to the parents that now accounting is mostly done by computers. Things have changed and have changed the way we work and live.

I went into healthcare because my dad died when I was 18 years old.  It was the exact time for me to start filling out my university application forms. Initially, I wanted to do public relations but the way the team looked after my dad before he passed made me want to do the same for another person in their sad moment.

I ended up taking biology and all of these healthcare-related courses that I wouldn’t have thought of before. During my first year at placement, I was always sent home because I would faint every time I saw a needle and blood, haha. I remember this one day my supervisor invited me to watch surgery up close. After looking at all the open guts I just said, “yeah, goodbye”, down to the floor, haha.

I have got enough fainting stories to tell people but the thing is though, I am a very curious person. I finally got used to the sight and started appreciating all the work people in the medical field do. Seeing the anatomy up close made me want to play my part in improving the health of people in this world. Because I was initially not made for this, I had to push through and I am glad I was able to overcome my challenges.

I am a stubborn person, so as a child, I didn’t want to do healthcare because that’s what everyone assumed of me. I made sure they all knew I didn’t want to do what they wanted me to do. Every time my mom said that I would respond with, “no mama, I am going to be an actress”. But see where we are now, haha.

I must acknowledge that what you do requires a lot of patience. So I understand when you explain your reason for joining the field
Oh yes, my father’s passing had a big impact on the entire family. For me, it was a change in career choices and the realization that I was now a real African first-bone child. The privilege of two parents was not there anymore. I had to choose to help my mom and siblings. For my mom, it was a period of serious grief, change, and sadness. During all this, the care he was given helped with all the grieving; we grieved quicker than we thought we would.

Coming from a different career aspiration to digital health, what were some of the most challenging things?
I have talked about the countless fainting encounters but another thing is the tests we have to carry out while in training. There’s this eye-hand coordination test which was very hard for me; I failed all my tests, haha. I remember this one time, I knocked down the trolley that had all the stitches we were to use in the room. So, yes I have had very challenging experiences but because I care about this, I have been able to push forward and look at challenges as adventures.

Amina, you are very good at telling your story! It has the fun bit but still puts the point across
Haha, thank you! I have been thinking of trying out storytelling in virtual reality to help calm patients down for surgery. I think it will be a good thing for digital health. While talking to you about my course earlier, I forgot to mention something. Digital health has allowed me to see that Africans and Africa, in general, have a real chance in competing when it comes to the online digital world.

Through Covid, the world has been able to see all the disparities – let’s call it the great equalizer. It has allowed us to share knowledge across continents, without having to physically travel between countries. Through these conferences, I have discovered Rwandan neurosurgeons that I have never heard of. That’s when I realized that we might not be able to compete physically but the online system is our chance to create a space where people hear our voice and put a spotlight on our people. Even the Africans in the diaspora are discovering Africa differently.

Tell us about some of the most prestigious moments throughout your journey
I have received some recognition, like my MBE, but personally, two moments always stand out when this question is asked;

In 2015 I was part of the team for someone who was having a scan and she got her all-clear from cancer. It was an emotional experience being there; they scanned and looked for any traces but there was nothing. I was very happy at that moment.

Another time was when I was walking in Saudi Arabia. Ahead of me, there was a black Saudi Arabian man buying coffee. His coffee got charged together with mine and I was okay to pay for both. This “very proud” Saudi man said he could never let a woman pay for his coffee. I just told him that life wanted me to pay for his coffee for whatever reason, so, accept it and pay it forward. He later opened up and said, he and his wife had been trying IVF for ten years and that night, his wife had just given birth. I told him that was my congratulatory drink to him.

These are not things that happen every day but these two always fill me with such warmth every time. Sometimes the job is not so bad! Watching people get a second chance at life is always a privilege for me. There’s no greater honor you can bestow onto a stranger than trusting them with your life when all organs are at a stop. We get that daily.

With all these busy hours, do you get any time for yourself? If you do, what do you enjoy doing outside digital health?
Girl, I love me some Netflix – I wanna give a shout out to Korean Netflix for getting me out of the worst 2 years of my life, haha. It started as a joke and I got hooked. After the first wave, I decided to do a reflection on how we got through everything and realized it was Korean Netflix for me.

I also love reading books as well. I enjoy reading a book by my friend and fellow Somalilander, Nadifa Mohamed, called The Fortune men. My other happy place is with my two nephews and baby niece. So I do family, friends, movies, books, and switching off.

Do you have a favorite quote?
I am not sure if you have seen it before but it’s from Maya Angelou’s poem – And Still, I Rise. Her work is one of the content I laid my hands on when I got my first library cards. The content of that poem speaks to me on a personal level. It’s not just “I rise”, but “and still I rise”. Meaning no matter what life throws at you, you have to still rise up.

Another quote my mother always says from the holy book of the Quran that says “with hardship comes ease”. Whatever you are going through, just know that good times are coming ahead.

How would you encourage a young African girl who is passionate about STEM?
Trust the process and most importantly don’t give up, keep trying and keep striving. Not all of us got into STEM the traditional way. Think outside the box, if plan A doesn’t work then try plan B. In case a job requires you to study courses A and B that you can’t afford, try to intern at a firm that does what you want. Get that experience through another plan, different from your original plan.

Grab all opportunities that come your way and make sure they find you ready for them. The problem with young people these days is that we look down on things that are not as obvious as we expect.

Thank you for speaking with me about your journey and teaching us about digital health. I wish you well in your transition and look forward to reading about your amazing work in the future.

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