Jan. 17, 2019 —As the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings left many Middle Eastern nations in a state of upheaval, OB-GYN Reem Abu-Rustum, M.D. ’93, recognized a population with an urgent need for care. The expert in prenatal diagnosis and care, then practicing in her native Tripoli, Lebanon, watched as an influx of Syrian refugees flooded remote areas of northern Lebanon. As these women didn’t have access to physicians, she made it her mission to advocate for their health.
Abu-Rustum co-founded the SANA Medical Non-Governmental Organization in cooperation with the International Society of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology, or ISUOG. Named in memory of a neonatologist Abu-Rustum was very close to, SANA is an acronym for sustain, aid, nurture and assist.
“SANA was created to serve underprivileged women and to provide education to health care providers. We would identify high-risk moms and fetuses and route them to referral centers,” Abu-Rustum says. “If you educate in addition to providing medical care, you leave knowledge that will remain after you’re no longer there treating that population.”
By partnering with Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision International and local agencies, Abu-Rustum and her team provided obstetrical care for populations experiencing high levels of home births and maternal morbidity and mortality.
“Like a mobile clinic, we would see women in schools, in homes, in places of worship and in public health departments,” she says. “We brought all supplies with us, including a portable ultrasound. We only required a place for the women to lie down.”
Abu-Rustum’s passion for caring for women in need is an internal fire that motivates her every move, a fire that was sparked right around her 11th birthday, when her father, an OB-GYN practicing in Lebanon, invited her into the delivery room.
“My birthday gift was to attend a delivery my father performed because I was so curious. After that, every free second was spent with my father in the clinic or scrubbing in the operating room,” she says.
The flames of Abu-Rustum’s curiosity were stoked as she traveled to Gainesville to study at UF. From joining the Junior Medical Honors Program to completing her residency in the UF Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Abu-Rustum found a second home on campus.
“In medical school, I learned how to be humane, humble, a good teacher and assertive in the gentlest of manners,” she says.
She found mentors in Keith Stone, M.D., and associate dean for student affairs Patrick Duff, M.D., whose office she now occupies as an associate professor in the UF division of maternal fetal medicine. From these two, she learned patient care involves going above and beyond for patients.
“The UF College of Medicine is a nurturing culture dedicated to education and quality patient care. Everyone functioned like a family. After training here for seven years, UF remained my top choice for residency. I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” she says. “Family pressures brought me back home to practice in Lebanon, as well as a desire to serve my people, though the people of Gainesville have always been my people, too.”
Following her residency — during which she received the Most Outstanding OB/GYN Resident Award from the UF Medical Alumni Association in 1997 — Abu-Rustum practiced in Tripoli. In addition to her work with SANA, she completed two weeklong missions in Sudan, in cooperation with the ISUOG and Sudan’s Ministry of Health, to educate health care providers in obstetrical sonography. As Sudan has a high rate of maternal morbidity and mortality, Abu-Rustum’s team aimed to identify and care for at-risk women. She calls the experience a highlight of her career.
“To go to an area that’s extremely underprivileged and to see the will of the people there – their dedication to each other and their commitment to improving their skills and the lives of women – it was an inspiring eye opener,” she says. “It made me appreciate the luxury I had in Lebanon, which is nothing compared to what we have here in Gainesville. We complain so much, without realizing the bliss we’re in.”
Abu-Rustum’s career came full circle last August when she accepted a position as an associate professor at the UF College of Medicine. Her goal in teaching the next generation of providers is to retain a sense of humanity in patient care.
“When you’re allowed to touch a human, sense their fear and be with them in their most vulnerable state, that’s an ultimate privilege,” she says. “Seeing a baby in the womb or welcoming it into life is opening a window into a very special world. It’s wonderful to see a new life forming, with all the incredible hope that comes along with it.”