Going the Distance
The truly amazing measure of how far Haysam Akkad, MD, has come since his birth in Aleppo, Syria, isn’t the distance he has traveled. It’s what he has achieved along the way.
As a youth in one of the oldest cities in the world and the second largest in Syria, he labored each day to become one of the best and brightest in his class, acutely aware that education and good grades were keys to his future.
“It is a very competitive environment there, especially for those who want to go to medical school,” Dr. Akkad explains. “Basically you have to maintain an A-plus for the whole 12 years.”
He remained at the top of his class while studying medicine at the University of Aleppo. His commitment didn’t stop at graduation, as his goal to practice medicine in America meant that he first had to translate all he had learned from Arabic into English.
“It took me one year to translate the six years of my medical education,” he says. “I had to study 15 hours a day. You sit and read and translate. It was a struggle to come here.”
Strengthened by what he had done and determined to keep advancing, Dr. Akkad moved to the U.S. in January 1991.
“All I had was a $20,000 grant from my country, my medical degree and my luggage,” he recalls, smiling.
Two suitcases – and a dream.
The first thing he did after he arrived was learn some more.
Dr. Akkad completed his internal medicine residency at St. Francis Medical center in Pittsburgh, Pa. He followed that with a fellowship in critical care medicine at State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, a cardiology fellowship at MCP/Hahnemann University in Philadelphia, and an interventional cardiology fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Between the first two fellowships, he served as an emergency medicine physician.
In October 2002, Dr. Akkad accepted a position as an interventional cardiologist in St. Petersburg, Fla. He worked there nearly two years, but he never really felt that Florida was where he needed to be.
“The people I worked with were wonderful,” he says. “They suggested I look at positions in the Midwest. So I got on the Internet and found a job in Omaha.”
The next thing he did was go to a map and find Omaha.
Intrigued by the opportunity, he came to the city to discuss the position. “I liked what I saw and what I heard,” he says. “I accepted the job after one interview.”
In December 2003, he joined the physicians of the Nebraska Heart Institute at The Nebraska Medical Center as an interventional cardiologist.
It wasn’t an easy move to make. “I came here without knowing anyone,” he says. “I rented an apartment by phone.”
About five years later, the doctors at the Nebraska Heart Institute made the decision to join a different local medical group. Dr. Akkad chose to remain independent and in 2008 he started Clarkson Heart Center, where he is the medical director. He also is an interventional cardiologist at The Nebraska Medical Center and its vascular services program.
Dr. Akkad and his fellow specialists work together to provide patients with a collaborative and comprehensive approach to cardiovascular care. He sees scores of patients every week, in the hospital and clinic settings, and in an outreach clinic in Shenandoah, Iowa.
“Coronary disease is an epidemic illness,” he says. “It’s an issue for me. It’s reality for everyone else.”
His successful transition to America and his accomplishments likely would not surprise Dr. Akkad’s late father, Mouzafar. A veteran of Syrian military service, the elder Akkad was also an attorney and a judge.
“We had a very regimented family,” Dr. Akkad says. “We valued education and work.”
His mother, Jahida, is a former school principal who still lives in Syria. Because of the continuing violence and unrest there, rather than meet in Syria, Dr. Akkad and his mother flew to Turkey for their most recent visit.
Dr. Akkad’s sisters are also successful in their chosen fields. Wafa is a family practice physician in Sioux Falls, S.D.; Dia is an internist in Saudi Arabia; and Shaza is a mechanical engineer in Aleppo.
He met his wife, Sima, in Syria and they were married there. She joined him in Pittsburgh his final year of training.
Sima is a dentist currently studying to become a periodontist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. They have a 9-year-old son, Danny.
When Dr. Akkad first entertained the idea of moving to Omaha, he says it came as a shock to his wife. “But we have both grown to love this city,” he says. “It’s got a good medical community and it is a nice city, a safe community, a good place to raise a family.
Faced with the decision of practicing medicine in the U.S. or in Syria, Dr. Akkad says the choice was clear.
“United States healthcare is the best system, the most advanced system in the world,” he says. “Here everything is available. In Syria, healthcare is all private. There is no insurance, no Medicare, no Medicaid. If you are sick, they will take care of you like a king — if you can pay for it.”
As for cardiac care, he says considerable advances in medicines, devices, procedures and technologies are being offset by a nation that prefers to super-size rather than downsize.
“Prevention, prevention, prevention,” he says, adapting the familiar real estate mantra. “I don’t smoke but I had an issue with my weight, so I lost 70 pounds in eight months. I exercise on a treadmill, and instead of eating heavy meals I eat smaller portions.”
When he isn’t seeing patients 12 or more hours a day, Dr. Akkad loves to travel. “You name it, I’ve seen it,” he says. “When I’m off, I am out of town.”
Among his favorites are the cities of Seattle, Wash., and Vancouver, B.C. “They are so beautiful,” he says.
Despite the allure of other locales, he has no plans to move.
“I am happy where I am,” he says. “I am at the top of my career. I am very lucky to be where I am.”
Dr. Akkad is in a city 6,000 miles from his homeland, where achievement is measured by the many patients he serves.