My Corner of the World: Ali Suliman, MD
Bone Marrow Transplantation and Cellular Therapy
Ali Suliman, MD, remembers the routine: Wake up, eat breakfast, walk to school. Then walk home, eat a snack and do homework.
Suliman's late mother, Blalah Alobied, always checked his homework before she cooked dinner.
She used a charcoal stove for years, Suliman recalled. "It wasn't good for her asthma. We usually told her to stay away and tell us what to do.
"She was amazing," Suliman said.
A new faculty member in Bone Marrow Transplantation and Cellular Therapy, Suliman grew up in Shendi, Sudan, a city of 50,000 people 100 kilometers north of the capital Khartoum and more than 7,000 miles from Memphis. A sliver of green connects the desert terrain of Shendi to the Nile's east bank.
Suliman's parents advised their six children to do well in school. Suliman, the second youngest, and his siblings all attended university and built careers in respected fields: computer science, accounting, electrical engineering and medicine.
When Suliman was 7, he came home from school one day with a sharp pain in his abdomen. Soon, he couldn't move his leg. Dr. Seif, a Sudanese physician, diagnosed a ruptured appendix and saved the young child's life.
Something else about the physician impressed Suliman. Seif talked to Suliman, patiently sitting down and answering the boy's questions. He spoke with compassion.
"I wanted to be like him," Suliman said.
Suliman was a good student who also found time for sports and music. From an early age, he played soccer (he's a Barcelona fan.) He also played basketball for his high school team.
When he isn't working, Suliman sometimes plays his oud, a stringed Middle Eastern instrument, at home.
Suliman graduated from the University of Khartoum medical school. During a pediatrics clerkship, he learned that Sudanese children with cancer usually died.
That harsh reality spurred Suliman to come to the U.S., where he completed a master's degree in tumor biology, a residency in pediatrics, and clinical fellowships in hematology-oncology and bone marrow transplantation.
Suliman describes his work at St. Jude simply: "I treat kids with cancer. If it's too hard to treat it with conventional therapy, then I do a bone marrow transplant."
How many Sudanese children with cancer today do not survive?
"It's still grim," Suliman said, citing an 80% to 90% mortality rate.
Without advanced tools and medicine, the pediatric cancer mortality rate in Sudan will remain high. Suliman praised St. Jude Global’s mission to improve quality of care worldwide.
"What we call 'capacity building' is mainly training health care providers in developing nations to move the needle in the treatment of kids with cancer," he explained.
"I want to be a part of this effort," Suliman said. "I want to look at my life and say, 'I'm the little kid who came from a small city in north Sudan, where the child mortality rate for all causes is 40%, who was lucky enough to live, and I did this.'"
Suliman's parents never had a formal education. They learned how to read and write while their children went to school.
"For me to go from Shendi to Khartoum to receive my medical education was a huge thing for them," he said.
At some point during Suliman's high school years, his parents said, "OK, now we're done. It's your life. Do whatever you want, but this is what we suggest: Follow the tracks of your brothers and sisters."
Suliman's father, Yassin Mohamed Suliman, once owned a market selling fruits and vegetables. He is now 80 years old and still lives in Sudan. As a young man, he procured a boat to cross the Nile, ferrying his family and belongings from a small village to the big city, a move that meant his children could go to school.
He regularly visits Memphis to see his son; his daughter-in-law, Aala Yassin Ibrahim; and his 6-month-old grandson.
"My child has my father's name," Suliman said.
Yassin's first steps might be a bit wobbly, but he need only follow the footprints of his family to live a meaningful life.
A few of Suliman's favorite things
- Reading "One book that I keep going back to every couple of years for a new perspective is 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by South American writer Gabriel García Márquez."
- Sudanese bread "One of the things that I really miss, and I'm trying to master, because I'm not good at it, is Sudanese bread." (Try a recipe recommended by Ali Suliman.)
- Global Café "There is a Sudanese chef who makes dama with rous. It's rice with beef stew. And it's amazing."