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Mohamed Abdel-Wahab: No fear of thinking big
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 05 - 2002

Mohamed Abdel-Wahab:
No fear of thinking big
Rather more than rays of hope
Profile by Khaireya Khairy
(photos: Randa Shaath)
Dr Mohamed Abdel-Wahab: within medical circles he has been dubbed the godfather -- of radiology of course -- a soubriquet which, with characteristic modesty, he says was chosen in deference to his age. Not so insist his colleagues: the name came about because of the immense influence he has exercised over a generation of doctors when he was professor of diagnostic radiology at the Cairo university medical faculty based in Qasr Al-Aini.
He is a member of that rare breed, those who, rather than retiring when their sixtieth year approaches and resting on their laurels use the opportunity to embark on ever more ambitious projects.
He was never going to take retirement sitting down. In 1982, the year of his sixtieth birthday, and finding a little more time on his hands than he had been used to, he embarked on the first of the series of projects that have established him as one of the nation's leading entrepreneurs.
Cairo Radiology Centre Cairo Scan was the result of that first initiative, and its success drew heavily on Abdel- Wahab's experience as a university professor between the 50s and 1982. Eventually, the centre would expand, with additional branches, four subsidiaries, one sister company in Alexandria and a second in Tanta, with a managing company to oversee the entire enterprise.
Up until the early 70s Egypt's political affiliations with the Eastern bloc, with the Soviet Union, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, had had a strong impact on medical practice. While Israel and some Arab states were forging ahead in utilising new research and technologies developed in the West Egypt was lagging behind, its medical practice caught in a time-warp that Abdel- Wahab found increasingly frustrating.
Sadat's rapprochement with the West, though, broke that particular Gordian knot, presenting the opportunities that Abdel-Wahab was to seize in upgrading the applications and uses of radiology.
"In the early 1970s a major breakthrough in radiology was underway," recalls Dr Abdel-Wahab. "The 'computerised axil demography system' was being developed and for the first time it was becoming possible to radiogram the soft tissues beyond the first segment allowing any underlying disease to be detected and identified."
'Above all they must keep increasing their knowledge. They must keep up research and they must live up to the expectations of their patients'
While the British scientist responsible for the breakthrough would go on to win a Nobel Prize, and receive a knighthood, it was Abdel-Wahab who was instrumental in acquiring the new scan radiology system for the medical faculty at Cairo University. Egypt became the first country in the Middle East to employ the system, furnishing Abdel- Wahab with the experience on which he would further build in establishing his first private radiology centre, Cairo Radiology Centre Cairo Scan.
The success of this first project quickly spawned a host of copy-cat enterprises, a form of imitation that Abdel- Wahab finds gratifying.
"They even used the word Scan, which is actually a make of instrument, in their names. They copied our medical report formats, our paper work layout, even our receipts."
The sincerest form of flattery, perhaps, and one that had the additional spin-off benefit of upgrading an important aspect of medical service provision. Abdel- Wahab even assisted some centres in the selection of instruments, securing a 40 per cent discount for them.
Nothing breeds success quite like success, and Abdel-Wahab was soon engaged in expanding the range of medical services offered. His next venture was the Cairo Medical Tower, combining 80 clinics for doctors operating across a wide variety of specialisations, medical labs and a kidney dialysis centre.
He quite clearly possesses a propensity to think big. So it was that a leading North American construction firm was brought on board for the next project, and awarded the commission to plan the premises of Dar El-Fuad Hospital, which one might justifiably describe as the jewel in the crown of Abdel-Wahab's achievements.
"Dar El-Fuad hospital represented a challenge," says Abdel-Wahab. "At one time medical services in Egypt were under-resourced, while Israel and some Arab countries had acquired the most sophisticated hospitals. This appeared to me both unacceptable and unseemly given that Egypt is the cradle of civilisation."
Dar El-Fuad was initially conceived in 1996. It stands 36 miles from Cairo, in the satellite 6th of October City, and is set in almost ten acres of beautifully manicured gardens. It houses some 28 departments, among them specialist units in cardiology and cardiac surgery, orthopedic surgery, dentistry, oral surgery, gastroenterology, and a hypertension and epilepsy clinic. It is fully stocked with state-of-the-art medical equipment utilising the latest technology, and boasts a distinguished staff list. In critical cases it can also call on the help of internationally recognised experts. One of these, Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, the eminent heart surgeon, is also a member of the board of trustees of the hospital. He visits the hospital periodically, to perform heart surgery, free of charge, on children who would otherwise not be able to access such treatment.
Abdel-Wahab was determined, in setting up the hospital, to secure the collaboration of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in the US, one of the world's centres of excellence when it comes to cardiac surgery. He succeeded, with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation taking up a four per cent shareholding in the operation, together with an option to acquire a stake of up to 46 per cent. In addition to the partnership, the Foundation makes important medical and administrative inputs.
Not that the realising of his Dar El- Fouad dream was without problems; there were major hiccups along the way and, initially, he had supposed that securing funding would be the major nightmare. That this proved eventually not to be the case is testimony to Abdel- Wahab's credibility, not just as a medical eminence, but also as an entrepreneur. Indeed, it took rather less than half the time spent raising the LE930,000 needed for his first project, Cairo Scan, to secure the LE130 million required for the hospital. His backers include leading banks, businessmen, colleagues, family, and supportive friends.
The plan also faced a barrage of criticisms from eminent Egyptian cardiologists, including a former minister of health, who felt that the venture would introduce competition from foreign surgeons on the lucrative patch over which they had for long held a monopoly. Abdel-Wahab was quick to rebut the criticisms they levied: "Foreign experts," he says, "are called in only for critical cases. But when they are here they bring with them a know-how that is lacking here. There is much to learn from them, and Egyptian colleagues are always invited to watch their performance and, often, to assist them."
Surely, now, it might be time for Abdel-Wahab to consider lessening the pace a little? If not quite ready, yet, to put his feet up, perhaps just cut back a little on what must be a hectic schedule. Yet no, he continues with his routine, constantly assessing the work of assistants and colleagues, keeping all around him on their toes.
"I cope with my work because I delegate responsibilities to my assistants. How else could I enjoy any leisure time?" he asks.
Abdel-Wahab celebrated his 80th birthday last April, and a large number of people turned out to share the occasion. Tellingly, none of the assembled throng were doctors.
"My friends tend to have different professions and I have learned a lot from them. Doctors are locked in their trade."
An avid reader, Abdel-Wahab also collects contemporary Egyptian art. And in addition to his more intellectual pursuits he is also a keen angler, an activity he has enjoyed since his earliest adulthood. Then he kept his own sailing boat. Success, though, has brought its rewards, one of them being the yacht he has moored at the Red Sea marina of Gouna, near Hurghada. His house there is his sanctuary.
An habitué of Gizira club, he enjoys socialising as well as entertaining. He is, too, very much a family man who enjoys spending time with his grandchildren and with his two daughters. He is widely travelled, attending conferences across the globe and holidaying simply for pleasure, having long ago caught the travel bug. His travels have taken him to every continent. A man, in short, who cares for the quality as well as the substance of life. Tall, trim, tanned, with a distinguished mass of grey rather than white hair. Time, unsurprisingly, perhaps, for one whose life appears charmed in so many ways, has been kind to him. Smart, erect, his image is that of the quintessential gentleman.
In choosing to become a radiologist Abdel-Wahab was following a family precedent: his uncle had already distinguished himself in the field. But while the family may have been responsible for the initial career choice, and for sending the young man to England for post-graduate studies, his steady rise to eminence can only be attributed to his own hard work and continuing endeavour.
"My relation with my students," he says -- returning to the godfather that has stuck to his name, "was very close."
He began teaching immediately after his return from England in 1954: "I delivered my lectures in English from A to Z, with the result that some of my students thought I was a foreigner. Having been taught English throughout my school years and at university I had an excellent command of the language. I was able, therefore, to convey the text of my lectures without being repetitive. A number of my students tells me that they took up radiology because of my relation to them," he says.
Today, when there is little that one can conceive of his having yet to achieve, thoughts of retiring from the fray are as far away as ever.
"As long as I am enjoying my work why retire? Retire to do what?" he asks.
As long as he can deliver, it becomes obvious, he will continue working. So what next?
He is considering a merger with other medical centres. A holding company, in his view, would be useful in raising additional capital which could then be funnelled into projects that could enhance national standards of medical practice.
And what does he believe is the most significant aspect of his legacy to a new generation of radiologists?
"A typical journalist's question," he scoffs. and then he answers. "Above all they must keep increasing their knowledge. They must keep up research and they must live up to the expectations of their patients."

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