A journey of love

When Dr. Fazal Ahmad first arrived in Harlan for training as a general surgeon, the Watergate scandal was winding down, Gerald Ford was falling down and Saturday Night Live was starting up.

The world’s changed a lot since those days, but Dr. Ahmad remained a constant presence in the Harlan County community as a gifted physician, a hard-working professional and a compassionate man.

After easing into “retirement mode” and moving away three years ago, visits to Harlan became fewer and farther between. Lots of patients missed him, and so did his many friends. Most of the former were both.

If there was just one word the people of Harlan used to describe Ahmad, it’s the word “devoted” because that perfectly described his attitude and approach to Harlan County, as well as the people’s attitude toward him.

When he recently came back for a brief visit the week before Christmas, his colleague, Dr. Samir Guindi, told an assembly of hospital staff that he only knew two words to describe him:

“The best,” Guindi said. “He’s the best.”

In 1975, following a year of surgical residency training at Emory University in Georgia, Ahmad came to Harlan for his final two years under the tutelage of the late Dr. Paul Walstadt. His classmates and the surgical training team convinced him that Harlan County was as good a home as anyone could hope to find.

He understood how much he was needed here.

For almost anyone coming from Lahore, Pakistan to Harlan County USA by way of Atlanta, it’s a journey that was sure to include a serious amount of culture shock. With Ahmad, it is best understood as a journey of love.

There are many, many stories of times he served patients when they were in a great time of stress and worry. His habit was to think of others before himself. If patients had practical needs, he did what he could to address them. His nursing staff recalls how he once gave his coat to someone in the winter because they needed it more than he did.

He gave money to worthy causes. He gave shoes, clothes and food — whatever it might be that people really needed.

Often he would travel with patients in the backs of ambulances heading for Lexington or Knoxville just so he could make sure they were all right. Many times he stayed all night with a patient just because he worried about them and he wanted to be there because he might be needed.

He did all these things because he genuinely cared; and still does, really. His Christmas trip back to Harlan meant a lot because his friends say he was afraid his “Harlan family” might have forgotten about him because he’d been gone so long.

If there was something that exceeded his compassion, people say it was his skill. He was very dedicated to his profession.

Priscilla Nails was his patient. As a breast cancer survivor and a colleague who spent her career at Harlan as a hospital administrative assistant, she put her confidence in Ahmad this way: “I’d let him take my head off.”

She wasn’t joking.

“When people asked why I didn’t go to Lexington or Knoxville to see the best, I told them I had seen the best,” she said.

There was a time not long ago when Ahmad’s name was brought up in conversation around town and the inevitable follow-up phrase was, “I don’t know what we’d do without him.”

As much as the community was good to him, Ahmad was very, very good in return. He remains well-respected in the community by his colleagues and just downright loved by the many patients to whom he gave his utmost devotion.