Dr. Zardasht Oqab: It’s about the journey
By Al-Karim Walli
As much as life is about milestones and achievements, arguably it is as much about journeys, connections and relationships that enable success. Dr. Zardasht Oqab knows that all too well, a trainee specializing in cardiology in Calgary at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta whose life has been generously dusted with paths forward amidst complexity, and hands of friendship amidst the unknown.
Born in the late 80’s in Puli Khumri, a city of 60,000 that is the capital of Baghlan Province in Northern Afghanistan, Zardasht is the second of four children of Burhan and Fawzia Oqab. Reflecting back at what was to overcome the region in subsequent years, it would have been difficult to predict his path to Calgary and the quite real possibility of a career as an academic cardiologist. One marker did exist, however; and that was his parents, their focus on education and their spirit of adventure that provided courage to not be afraid.
“My mother was a teacher and an accountant, and my father a mining engineer. They had worked hard in their youth for opportunities to educate themselves, and were driven by an adventuring spirit coupled with a long-term multi-generational outlook” says Zardasht. “This willingness to face unknowns and confidence in themselves was a very central learning that I’ve looked back to on many occasions.”
Ironically, in the early 90’s, it was not on-going fighting in Afghanistan that led the Oqabs to travel north to Tajikistan, rather, the hope for a medical diagnosis for Zardasht’s mother who had been unwell. There, over time, her condition improved and the family enterprisingly reinvented themselves retaining a stall in a bazaar bringing in textiles and clothing from neighbouring jurisdictions. The next phase of change and adaption, however, was not to be on their terms.
The escalating civil war in Tajikistan made for an unclear future in that country. Many had already lost their lives, and it was all the more complicated for foreigners. At the same time, a prior vision of moving back to Afghanistan was no longer a possible reality given the extreme instability in that country and looming war. By 1996, the Taliban had invaded and seized control of Kabul, which had been devastated by fighting leading up to that point. But reflecting back, it was this difficult situation that allowed for an inflection point in life.
“Through networks of friends and relations that the family had developed, we got in touch with FOCUS, the humanitarian assistance arm of the Aga Khan Development Network. They were helping people on the ground in Tajikistan and elsewhere and were facilitating Afghan refugees to come to Canada. I don’t think we considered ourselves to be refugees” says Zardasht. “No one plans to become a refugee, it just happens and it is not in your control.”
The Oqab family, in this way, found themselves on a flight to Toronto, Ontario with four other families, a flight that would change the course of their lives forever. Now one family among thousands of Afghan refugees that the Ismaili community in Canada, enabled by FOCUS and the Canadian government, had sponsored to come to this country.
“I still remember that flight to Toronto. We landed close to midday on the 26th of February, 1998. It was a crisp day but I recall seeing green. I don’t remember exactly what was green, it might have just been the arrival area at the airport, but whatever it was, the green to me represented a new beginning,” reminisces Zardasht.
This was an astute observation, as with all tales that are not in storybooks, every end is actually a new beginning. Zardasht, age 12, found himself in a new land with the challenge of learning a new language. He had the blessing of performing remarkably well in Tajikistan in a Russian language school and thus based primarily on mathematical assessments went from a partially completed grade five in Tajikistan into the second semester of grade seven in Toronto. At the same time, language challenges were not to be underestimated.
“Not knowing the language was difficult and frustrating because it was hard to communicate with others. There was a good amount of bullying at school due to this language barrier. I couldn’t defend myself but I think the key for me was to not let these things get me down” says Zardasht. “There are always going to be those who take advantage of another’s weaknesses. I ignore those types and instead look forward, building my life on my terms.”
Asked what helped him most through that first period, he points to community supports.
“We were welcomed by the Ismaili community in Canada with open arms. We attended Dundas West Jamatkhana and while it was new and different, it became home for us very quickly. I attended Bait-ul-ilm classes and for three years went to mini-school in the summers. The social supports we had were undeniable, and I continue to keep in touch with several people I met in our first months here. There was one other major help to me with language that is noteworthy,” Zardasht adds. “I became a fan of the show the Simpsons, and while television is not something I’d prescribe to anyone, there is no doubt that while Bart was not a spectacular student, he had a role to play in my gaining a handle on the English language.”
Another element of community support came by way of motivation and inspiration. Zardasht was encouraged to apply for an I-STAR (Ismaili Students’ Total Achievement and Recognition) Achievement Award, an award based on academic improvement. He was successful, and at the awards ceremony was exposed to a full breadth of students exceeding in academics, civic involvement, athletics and volunteerism.
“There were amazing kids there. There was one girl in grade nine that had written a book. It was incredible,” says Zardasht reflecting on his first I-STAR experience. “Being the competitor that I am, I vowed to come back and win one of the higher level awards, not judged on improvement but out outright achievement.”
Zardasht attended Western Technical Commercial School from grades nine to twelve. In addition to finding academic success and maintaining excellent grades, he excelled in athletics. He joined the wrestling team and there he met one his most influential mentors, Coach Mitch Chuvalo, son of Canadian Hall of Fame boxer George Chuvalo. Under his guidance and training, he began to perform at the highest levels. He racked up 16 gold medals for his school, culminating in an individual provincial championship.
“Coach Chuvalo remains one of my dearest mentors and friends, and I owe him much of my success and development as an athlete and person” says Zardasht.
Zardasht returned to the I-STAR awards the following year, and won not one but two premier I-STAR awards.
Like in wrestling, one needs to be agile and respond to changes that sometimes hit you when you least expect them to, and in unexpected ways. Declining the pursuit of a wrestling scholarship to USA, Zardasht decided on attending one of Canada’s premier sports universities, Brock University, where he continued to pursue wrestling and sought a degree in business. Soon, however, he would be at a crossroad of change once again, hit with injury and changing context at home. Reassessing the situation, he moved back closer to home to support his family and attended York University, pursuing a degree in Kinesiology and Health Sciences. It was a decision needing to be made, as his father had undergone coronary bypass surgery and was unwell, and his mom had become the sole breadwinner in a modest blue-collar job.
The next phases of Zardasht’s education career followed a similar path in many senses. Remaining agile and positive, showing no quit, and achieving at an exceptional level. Realigning to pursue medicine at the Saba University School of Medicine, he subsequently completed his internal medicine residency at the well-respected program at Queen’s University. There he was the recipient of the prestigious PARO Resident Teaching Award 2014, which was the culmination of his excellent work with teaching junior residents and clinical clerks, and was also awarded the Michael Nault Award for Cardiology Teaching in 2015. He was similarly productive and recognized as a researcher. He was the recipient of the 2014 Queen’s University Resident Research Day Award and was Runner-up for the 2015 Award.
Zardasht, now a second year cardiology fellow at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta has already engaged himself in research and was recognized on the national stage for best trainee presentation at the Canadian Stroke Prevention Intervention Network’s Clinical Trials Workshop in Toronto early in 2016. However, despite his successes thus far, he knows it is not over. One of the first questions he grapples with is, once you are done, what fellowship are you going to pursue?
“Life is always a process,” philosophizes Zardasht. “We should never get down on ourselves for situations we didn’t create. Instead, we should look forward and do the absolute best with what we have. For me and my family, all in all, we’ve had it alright. I look to my mentors here, people like Dr. Katherine Kavanagh (Director of Calgary’s core cardiology training program and Associate Professor of Cardiac Sciences) and Dr. Robert Sheldon (Professor of Cardiac Sciences) and see a possible future as an academic cardiologist perhaps with a focus in electrophysiology. Taking care of people who have complex acute situations needs someone that can manage stress. I’ve got some experience in that.”
Upon completion of his training, Zardasht’s goal is to contribute back to the community by using his passion for preventative medicine to spread awareness of cardiovascular disease.
“Cardiovascular disease is one of those diseases that with the right lifestyle modifications, we can significantly reduce the burden of morbidity and mortality,” Zardasht says.
“My ten-year goal is to make impact beyond Canada. To find way back to Afghanistan to not only provide healthcare but also help train Afghan doctors of the future. The Libin Institute is a great place to learn the essential skills needed to make this goal a reality as there are a number of cardiologists who are already doing this work in other countries.”
If there is one thing we have learned from his journey from Afghanistan to now Calgary, is that no matter the goal, Dr. Zardasht Oqab has the passion and work ethic to achieve it. This is just the beginning of a promising career.
About the author:
Al-Karim Walli is Associate Director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta, an entity of the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services’ Calgary Zone conducting or coordinating all cardiovascular sciences research, education and care delivery across both of these organizations. From 1998 to 2005 he was a volunteer on the Aga Khan Education Board for Canada, where his focus in large part was the settlement portfolio including for a period the oversight and delivery of the national mini-schools program.