Resident Spotlight: Dr. Faizal Haji, PGY6, Neurosurgery, Clinical Neurological Sciences

In his last year of the Neurosurgical Residency program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Dr. Faizal Haji says the great mentors he has encountered over the years, and at all levels of education, have helped him to realize his potential and accomplish new feats. Dr. Haji says he aspires to model empathy and understanding when attending to patients and their families, as he realizes the circumstances of their visits can be quite serious. Outside of work, Dr. Haji cherishes time with his family and admits he has a slight addiction to fantasy novels.

Where were you born and raised, and which degrees do you hold?
I was born in Toronto, and grew up in the Greater Toronto Area. I went to high school in downtown, Toronto and then did my bachelor of health sciences degree at McMaster University. I stayed at McMaster for my Medical School studies, after which I came to London, Ontario for my neurosurgical residency.

During my fourth-year of residency, I took an academic leave to complete a PhD at the University of Toronto focused on medical education and health care simulation, with fellowships at the Wilson Centre for Research in Education and at the SickKids Learning Institute. I came back to London in 2015 to finish my neurosurgical residency, and will be graduating in June 2018.

Did you have a role model or mentor who inspired you to follow your academic path? If not, why did you decide to pursue medicine? When did you know that you wanted to pursue your specialty?
I am fortunate to have had many great mentors in my life. I’ve always known I wanted to be a doctor, but I attribute a lot of my success to the great teachers I have had along the way. When I was in the sixth grade, my elementary school teacher told my parents to put me into an afterschool tutoring program to help me get ahead of the rest of the class so that I could enter an international baccalaureate program in high school. In Medical School, my first preceptor was a cardiologist who helped me to set up a series of observerships so I could figure out what I liked. When I tried neurosurgery for the first time, I was lucky enough to work with a vascular neurosurgeon in Hamilton who was a fantastic surgeon, but also one of the kindest and most empathetic clinicians I have ever worked with. I learned a lot about what it means to be in a specialty as demanding as neurosurgery, but also one in which you enter people’s lives at a critical moment and the impact that you can have on the trajectory of their illness.

I remember one of the first cases I saw with him was a young woman, no older than I am now, who presented with a seizure. She was found to have a brain tumour and after we operated, it was pathologically determined to be high grade. Telling her about her diagnosis, the additional treatments she would have to undertake and her poor prognosis was one of the most devastating things I have ever been a part of because all she could think about was what would happen to her two-year-old son. The way the surgeon handled that case – from the point of her coming in to the hospital, to doing her operation, and then walking her through her diagnosis – that is what made me want to be a neurosurgeon. I thought, I can’t imagine a worse moment then being told you have this unimaginable illness, but if I can do something to help in that moment, either surgically or through an honest and open conversation, then I can go home every day feeling like I have done something meaningful. Those conversations are still the hardest part of the specialty for me, but also the most rewarding.

What has been your most rewarding experience to date in your residency?
It’s hard to pick one thing, but if I were to choose one clinical experience it would be completing my time as Chief Resident. It’s one of the most gruelling times of our residency in terms of the time we spend in the O.R. and taking care of the neurosurgical service, but it’s also one of the most gratifying because you get to lead the team, manage the patients admitted to the service and operate on a variety of pathologies –and at a level you may never get to again (even after you graduate). It’s nice to be at the peak of your training, when your consultants trust your judgement enough to let you take the reins, both in the O.R. and on the ward.

On the research side, it was probably defending my PhD. Truly, I had no real sense of what I was getting into when I embarked on my graduate training, and along with gaining a whole new skill set and way of thinking, I also developed a new found respect for what research at that level consists of. It was a proud moment when my mentor shook my hand and told me my thesis defense was successful, because there are not many times in your life where you will be called on to defend work that you have spend years doing. In the end, it’s a celebration of your contributions to a field of study and for me, how much I had grown as a scientist.

What has been the most challenging experience to date in your residency?
There are a lot of challenges that punctuate residency, some small and some a bit bigger. It seems like everything is the most challenging thing when it’s happening, but then you look back and realize that time and distance makes any situation look more manageable. The transitions were particularly difficult for me – not as much starting residency, but transitioning from the junior to the intermediate-level (what we call the second or third year slump). I felt bogged down with junior calls and wanting to have more autonomy or time to operate, but I was also exhausted from being on service for nine-months straight and just trying to survive. It’s the time when you wonder if you’ve made the right choice and if this career is really for you. Transitioning into my PhD was also really challenging, because as I said, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and I was challenged (rightly so) to be functioning at a different level than I had ever before in research. Transitioning back to clinical training was challenging and anxiety provoking because I wasn’t sure if my skills would be up to par and I worried that because I was away for four years that I would never ‘catch up’.

Looking back on those moments, I can see how lucky I was to have the support of my family, a great group of mentors and my peers – it helped me get through those difficult moments. The challenges were also the times when I grew the most, both as a person and as a surgeon, so in retrospect I am glad that I went through them. 

What learning from your undergraduate medical education or early residency do you return to often now as you are pursuing your residency?
I often think back to the conversations I got to observe between physicians and their patients. As a trainee, you are privileged in that you are exposed to some of the most difficult moments in a person’s life and what you say and do in those moments can have a huge impact on what that person takes from that moment. I’ve also had experiences with my own family navigating the health care system, so I can appreciate some of what its like to be a patient or a family member of a patient who is dealing with illness. These are often the experiences that I carry with me and that help to shape how I approach patients and their families. Maybe not at three a.m. when I’m running between consults and the O.R., but whenever I can I try to remember what it was like for me sitting in that chair or in that bed, and think about what I would want my surgeon to say to me or what I would want them to do as we work through a diagnosis or a surgical management decision.

How do you maintain balance in your life (hobbies, interests, voluntarism, etc…)?
Balance in residency is hard, especially in the surgical disciplines. I think you need to find out what makes you happy and make sure that when things are tough, you find your way back to that. I’m lucky, because I love to operate and being in the O.R. makes me happy (most of the time). I’m also lucky because I really love the research I do. I find it intellectually stimulating in a way that is very different from clinical medicine, and I get to work with really smart people who challenge me to think differently.

Of course, you can’t work all the time. So because I’m a bit of a foodie, I love trying new cuisines (always takeout, because I shouldn’t be allowed to cook). I do love TV and movies and have a secret addiction to fantasy novels (Tolkien, Game of Thrones, even Harry Potter). I’m also a proud dad, and even though I have the most understanding family in the world (because they tolerate being away from me so much of the time), I love it when I can sneak away to spend a day with my wife and daughter – whether it’s going to the beach, the park or just playing at home. Kids are simple and it’s amazing to watch them discover the world.

Rapid Round:

If you were to create a slogan for your life, what would it be?
Don’t worry, be happy – it’s something that I aspire to, but am still working on!

What are three albums that give a glimpse of who you are as a person?

  1. Uprising, by Bob Marley and the Wailers (but really everything by Bob Marley)
  2. The Score, by the Fugees
  3. Views, by Drake

What is the most random thing you’ve ever watched on Netflix?

Ha, so I don’t have a Netflix account, but I do steal my sister’s from time to time. The most random would probably be this new movie about genetically engineered super pigs (Okja) or a series that one of my Attendings recommended called Sense8, which is about a group of people spread out over the world but connected telepathically because of an enlargement in their frontal lobes – it’s cheesy but surprisingly addictive.