St. Joseph Hospital of Orange
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OCMA 2010 Physician of the Year

Ophthalmologist and humanitarian Aisha Simjee, M.D., has been named the Orange County Medical Association (OCMA) 2010 Physician of the Year. The award is presented to the member physician who demonstrates extraordinary professional competence and hard work, is a respected educator and teacher, serves as a strong motivator and has a good rapport with patients. Three individual physicians nominated her for the award for her exemplary service.

A St. Joseph Hospital Medical Staff member for more than three decades, Dr. Simjee has been actively involved in clinical excellence for her patients and the area's most vulnerable, medically underserved patients. Dr. Simjee has generously given of her medical skills to serve needy people locally through La Amistad, Puente a la Salud and Access OC, and around the world. At the OCMA event, she spoke of her travels:

"Being in a position to help victims of poverty, disease and traumatic injury has become an incredibly fulfilling part of my life’s work. I have traveled to 24 countries around the world to help people who have so little to regain and retain their gift of sight. What has made this work particularly difficult is being surrounded by the unfortunate culture of bribery and corruption that seems to exist in most third-world countries. But throughout my visits I have enjoyed excellent health. It is as if a higher power wants me to continue to do this work and has protected me I’d like to tell you about a few of the other places I have worked:

"El Salvador. I went to work in a place called Santana. I saw a lot of young people with traumatic cataracts, before someone told me I was treating the prisoners, including a 15-year-old who also had traumatic cataracts in both eyes. On my last day there I told the warden to send this child home to his parents, so he could go to school!

"Thailand. Here, I was supposed to work with Project Orbis on a plane transformed into an eye hospital. Unfortunately, heavy monsoons restricted the electric supply to the plane, so the instruments had to be moved to five different hospitals, and I ended up working one day in each hospital.

"Armenia. I went there with two ophthalmologists from south Orange County. At the airport in Jaravan, the customs officer was thoroughly puzzled, and did not know what to do with the box I was carrying with 15 eyes for cornea transplant. They sent me to their office with the box on the desk, to determine what to do with me. I took the box, quickly left the office and joined my two colleagues waiting outside in a car. I jumped into the car and told them to drive to the hospital, and gave the box to the hospital administrator, who could deal with the customs officer if they had followed me!

"Romania. In Bucharest, I went to see the second largest building in the world. Lo and behold at the footsteps of that big building there was a row of disabled children with esotropia and exotropia, to say the least, begging for money. They had been discharged from the orphanage after the execution of the head of the country and his wife on Christmas Eve. This dictator had wanted to have a large population in Romania, and had encouraged young women to have children, no matter what. As a result, many ended up in orphanages without any medical attention.

"Bulgaria. A laser company in Minneapolis had donated a brand new laser machine to my organization – SEE International. They asked me to deliver it and train the local ophthalmologists to use it. I did so happily, but I was curious about why no elective surgeries were done during the time I was there, so I asked the chairman of ophthalmology on the last day of my visit. She clearly told me that this is "the unclean toilet of Europe.' It was sad to hear she had such poor esteem for her country.

"Ethiopia. Here, the time of day starts whenever the sun rises, and that's when they set their clocks to 1:00 am. This was a difficult adjustment time-wise. In this country they believe this year is 2003. I asked our interpreter why they didn't just switch to the time we use. He told me it was because they have the right time and added, 'California and the United States are not mentioned in the Bible even once. Ethiopia is mentioned at least 40 times.' It was hard to argue with that.

"There are two bordering African countries with border disputes, where there is nothing but jungle and wild animals. And yet, a 1,000-year-old animosity, hatred, hostility, political and social outrage led a group to plant land mines on play grounds, where children were traumatically injured, including their eyes. At the time of my visit there were more than 70 million people and the country has 68 ophthalmologists.

"Afghanistan. I worked in two teaching hospitals run by HOPE Worldwide and International Assistant Mission. I won’t go into detail about what I saw and did over there, because it was so extremely sad.

"Cambodia. I worked in Chey Chum Neas Hospital, run by Lions Sight First Eye International. They had no refrigerator for me to keep corneas and amniotic membrane for transplant, so I bought a refrigerator for them. The next day I saw the refrigerator and it was full of food and water, so I asked them to keep one shelf for surgical supplies I had brought with me. While I was there I visited S21 museum and the killing field museum, filled with thousands of skulls from professional people killed between 1975 and 1979 by Pol Pot.

"Haiti. I was there in April. This is a place with widespread poverty, bribery and corruption that was then hit with a terrible earthquake disaster. It was the worst I have seen. I am not a religious person, but when I left I prayed to the higher power to help these people. I came home in my slippers because while I was there I lost two pair of shoes, and one of the nurses with us from New York lost her IPhone, full of important information. When people are so desperate they will take anything. Like every trip I take, before I went my husband and children made me promise not to bring any (more) children back with me. On this trip, there was a young boy who would hang on to my leg and ask me to take him home because I gave him several of my meals. It was hard not to take him home with me.

"While in Haiti I worked in the Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization - JPHRO Hospital. I had never heard of (the actor) Sean Penn, but I ended up staying in his medical tent with three other doctors. I was impressed by how hard he worked. Along with helping patients with a variety of eye infections with foreign bodies, I also saw cases of scabies, gangrene, malnutrition, and even delivered two babies. One patient was literally dragged in with an extremely swollen leg and her mother wanted me to amputate it. I was unable to diagnose the condition, but I was able to get her a crutch so she could at least walk.

"There was a 15-year-old mother who delivered a baby girl three weeks prior to my visit. She lived just outside the camp, with no place to go. On my last day there she asked me through an interpreter to take her and her baby with me. I asked her if she knew where I was from and she said no. So I asked why she wanted to come with me, and she said it was because I had given her food.

"Just as poor nations are plagued with a culture of corruption perpetuated from generation to generation, we in the United States are perpetuating our own cultural disgrace: a culture of waste. While many of the people I have encountered struggle to have one meal a day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture over 25% of our country’s food gets thrown in the garbage can. Did you know that if just 5 percent of Americans' food scraps were recovered it would represent one day's worth of food for 4 million people? Not to mention what we would save monetarily and environmentally without the millions of tons of food waste that we as Americans have come to accept as 'normal.'

"Being named Physician of the Year by my colleagues is especially meaningful for me because it comes from my friends and colleagues. I assure you it means more to me than an accolade I can hang on my office wall. It is my hope that I can use this platform to bring attention to these very serious global concerns."

To view Dr. Simjee's profile, please click here .
To read an "In the Trenches" article about Dr. Simjee, please click here.