Department: Physician Assistant Studies School: Health Professions Campus: Old Westbury
Member of NYIT Since: 2007
Cultural competency and women's health education are among the specialties of Zehra Ahmed (B.S. '04), assistant professor of physician assistant (PA) studies. She teaches NYIT students that understanding the culture of patients, whether in the United States or countries abroad, is vital to delivering quality medical care. Her classes focus on the importance of grasping a patient's point of view based on cultural factors such as geography, race, age, and sexual orientation.
As a faculty associate for the NYIT Center for Global Health, Ahmed coordinated medical service trips to El Salvador in July 2011 and 2012, where participants put cultural competency values to work. The NYIT faculty-student team trained their local counterparts in educational tools and resources for serving community health needs. They also studied the use of electrocardiogram analysis as a potential screening tool for Chagas disease, a neglected tropical disease prevalent in many parts of the world.
Her connection to El Salvador began through her role as vice president for CHISPA Global, a nonprofit committed to medical education and improving public health in communities in need. Ahmed is also a member of the Nassau County (N.Y.) Medical Reserve Corp. and has participated in clinics in Trinidad with Millennium Sistahs, a nonprofit provider of health care screening and education in New York and Caribbean communities.
Ahmed's experiences living and working in Asia inform her courses for the NYIT Certificate in Global Health program. She was born in Sri Lanka and raised as a Buddhist until political turmoil in the early 1970s led her father and mothera Sri Lankan lawyer and an Irish-Catholic nurseto move the family to the United States.
"I adapted easily and think that was because of an innate confidence and openness I have when dealing with people," she says. "Sri Lanka has a fair amount of diversity, and my parents' background and inclusiveness influenced our outlook on life and people."
Ahmed returned to Sri Lanka to earn an M.B.B.S., the equivalent of an M.D. or D.O. She found readjusting to Sri Lankan bureaucracy in the 1980s more challenging than when she moved to the United States as a teenager. She recalls that simple errands such as withdrawing money from a bank account could take hours.
While enrolled in medical school, Ahmed met her husband, a businessman from Pakistan, and converted to Islam when they married. His work took them to the Philippines, Malaysia, Pakistan, and back to Sri Lanka, where she worked as a registered physician in an ICU and at a family practice clinic for three years.
"In all the countries where I lived, I observed and learned quickly how to adapt and what was accepted and not," she says.
A flexible outlook enabled her to cope with difficult cultural attitudes toward women.
"As a woman, I was only identified as either 'the daughter of…' or 'the wife of…' " she says. "In fact, I had to take a medical exam to practice in Karachi as a physician and when my certificate arrived, it stated that 'Zehra Ahmed, wife of …' has been certified. I was pretty outraged."
The couple moved to New York in 2001 with their two daughters. Ahmed decided to pursue another career path as a physician assistant. She earned a bachelor's degree in PA studies at NYIT in 2004 and joined her alma mater in 2007 as an assistant professor.
"My professors, and now my colleagues, taught me a great deal and they continue to do so," Ahmed says. "I'm proud to be part of the PA program."
Her research is focused on global health issues and culture and their importance in health care. She is a past recipient of NYIT's Internal Support for Research and Creativity (ISRC) grant for the study, "Evaluation of Mothers Providing Care Program and Its Effectiveness in Reducing Maternal Morbidity and Mortality in Ghana."
"I have been ever so lucky and am enjoying every minute of my profession," Ahmed says. "It gives me the opportunity to continue to work in the field I'm passionate about and have a well-balanced family life, too. Besides being a tenured faculty here at NYIT, I continue to work clinically in multiple disciplines such as emergency medicine, nuclear medicine, family practice, and hematology and oncology."