Journey to the Jude: Surgeon’s path of communal goodwill leads to global impact
By Mike O’Kelly
In simple, carefree evenings underneath Sudanese summer skies, young Hafeez Abdelhafeez, MD, found his calling.
As the nearby Nile River flowed unrelentingly, Abdelhafeez laughed and traded stories with his neighbors. The outdoor gatherings were the village’s nightly entertainment. Fond memories flow from those moonlit nights, where Abdelhafeez developed a genuine interest in people’s well-being.
Those childhood moments in his native Atbara, Sudan, fostered a lifelong love of people, helping him chart a course in the medical field. His growing sense of humanity evolved into a lingering question that serves as a guidepost in his life and work:
“How can I best help my fellow human beings?”
Conflicted on a career choice after excelling in math and physics in school, Abdelhafeez reasoned that medicine was his path of greatest impact.
His medical internship in Sudan was intense, yet extremely rewarding. Working with dedicated junior and senior physicians, Abdelhafeez was immersed in patient care for the first time. Many of his patients were children.
“We had really limited resources, but we would do anything to improve the lives of those kids,” Abdelhafeez says.
He and his intern colleagues donated blood for children in need; gathered their meager funds to buy medicine; and mourned with parents when children died. Abdelhafeez recalls the last moments of one boy’s life—he consoled and cried alongside the boy’s relatives. Abdelhafeez helped the patient’s mother and older brother dig the child’s grave and bury him, a common practice where neighbors and those close to the family assist in burial.
“There was a lot of mortality, malnutrition and many issues,” Abdelhafeez says.
Abdelhafeez left the African continent for the first time to train in general surgery and critical care at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. Later, in Dublin, Ireland, he trained in pediatric surgery. To gain even broader experience, Abdelhafeez took a pediatric surgery fellowship in Milwaukee—his first trip to the U.S. During his training, he developed an interest in surgery for pediatric cancer patients.
Coming to St. Jude
When Abdelhafeez explored pediatric surgery training options in the U.S., he found the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital website. He was unfamiliar with the hospital, but as he read the St. Jude story, he became intrigued.
“The history of St. Jude was amazing, like it was almost too good to be true,” Abdelhafeez says.
While in Milwaukee, Abdelhafeez applied for a pediatric surgery fellowship at St. Jude and got the call. After a two-year fellowship, he joined the faculty of the St. Jude Department of Surgery.
At St. Jude, Abdelhafeez has learned how to maximize his impact through joint roles as a surgeon and collaborator with the St. Jude Global initiative.
Working with St. Jude Surgery Chair Andrew Davidoff, MD, Abdelhafeez has seen firsthand how the hospital is advancing the field of pediatric oncology surgery and enhancing the lives of patients in operating rooms in Memphis and around the globe.
“The institution’s vision is enabling us to advance the way we see and remove tumors in the operating room using near infra-red camera and innovative minimally invasive technology,” Abdelhafeez says. “We have an opportunity to produce new knowledge and new approaches for precision surgery.”
How can I now help change the outcome of a child’s life like the one that I knew who died? It’s by looking at the big picture, and how we can work together with local leaders, oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgeons, the infectious disease teams, critical care, nursing staff, international organizations and foundations.
A global impact
The child that Abdelhafeez and his family buried in Sudan died from an intracerebral hemorrhage. There was little that could be done for the child, which vexed Abdelhafeez. He thinks of that day often—it’s a reminder of his past and his future work. Working with St. Jude Global, Abdelhafeez seeks to improve and create health care structures for surgical oncology in low- and middle-income countries like his native Sudan.
Prior to the pandemic, Abdelhafeez worked with government leaders, health care workers and international organizations to lay the groundwork in nations in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. One of the highlights of his efforts was a meeting with the Sudanese Minister of Health. Abdelhafeez discussed a potential strategy for improving the lives of children with pediatric cancer in Sudan.
“How can I now help change the outcome of a child’s life like the one that I knew who died?” Abdelhafeez says. “It’s by looking at the big picture, and how we can work together with local leaders, oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgeons, the infectious disease teams, critical care, nursing staff, international organizations and foundations.
“We are looking at how to improve service delivery, train the workforce, establish information systems, sustain the supply of medical products and technologies, and support families. These are the building blocks that will lead to saving that kid’s life.”
As his work comes full circle, Abdelhafeez takes satisfaction in finding more effective ways of helping others, on a grander scale than he ever imagined.
“I think the feeling of helping others is in every human being,” he says. “There are 101 reasons why I’m glad to be at St. Jude, but being part of an effort that helps children in low- and middle-income countries is extremely rewarding.”