Dr. Haissam Haddad says the best advice he’s received is to never quit.
“My father told me that,” says the unified head of medicine for the University of Saskatchewan and Saskatoon Health Region.
It is advice he has taken to heart every day since immigrating to Canada from Syria 30 years ago with his bride. Although his wife was fluent in English when they arrived in Canada in 1986, having immigrated to Halifax with her family as an adolescent, her husband was not.
“I went to medical school in Arabic, and my second language is French,” Dr. Haddad says, adding that he came to Canada after having practiced family medicine in Syria for three years.
Dr. Haissam Haddad
He met his wife in the small, mountainous village on the Mediterranean where he grew up while she was visiting family. Soon after marrying, they left for Grenoble, France, where Dr. Haddad had been accepted to study cardiology in the hospital where his brother was working as a cardiologist. But instead of staying in France, he and his wife decided to live in Canada to be close to her family.
Dr. Haddad’s first goal upon arriving in Halifax was to learn English, which he studied intensively for three months.
“I could talk for hours and debate in other languages, then I came to Canada, and I wasn’t able to express myself. This was very stressful,” he says, remembering his first few months in this country. “I did understand it was not going to be easy, but I didn’t know it was going to be as difficult as it was.”
The first step he took towards studying medicine in Canada was to purchase a 2,000-page book filled with medical terminology. With two dictionaries in hand – one a medical dictionary and the other an English-Arabic dictionary – he set to work. The first day, it took him 16 hours to read one page.
“Sixteen hours!” he exclaims, adding in good humour that he was given the wrong advice.
“Reading that book was crazy. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it,” he says with a chuckle.
A year later, he wrote his Canadian medical exam and received an unpaid research position at a cancer clinic in Halifax, followed by another year working as a physician associate, before getting a residency in internal medicine in Halifax, followed by a cardiology fellowship in Edmonton.
In total, it took him more than three years to get into the Canadian medical system.
“It usually takes longer, especially for people who can’t speak English. I was one of the fortunate ones, but it wasn’t easy,” he says. “A couple of times, I thought about quitting medicine – I was married and needed to support my family – but my father said, ‘Never quit. Just keep going.’”
Today, he is an accomplished cardiologist who has worked in various provinces across Canada, most notably in Ottawa, where he was recruited to the Ottawa Heart Institute in 2001 to help enhance the institute’s heart failure transplant program.
“That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years,” he says, adding that through years of dedication and hard work, the institute is now Canada’s largest and foremost heart health centre dedicated to understanding, treating and preventing heart disease. When Dr. Haddad began working for the institute as the director of the Heart Failure Program, it was performing 10 to 12 heart transplants per year. Today, it performs 20 to 25 transplants.
While working as the director, he also practiced as a cardiologist, performing biopsies (removing tissue from the heart) on heart transplant recipients to determine if a patient’s body would accept reject the new heart. He also performed coronary (heart) angiograms on patients to detect heart problems, such as blockages in the arteries.
In 2015, the University of Saskatchewan and Saskatoon Health Region recruited Dr. Haddad for the unified head of medicine position that he has held since April 1, 2016.
Initially, he says, he wasn’t open to moving from Ottawa to Saskatoon until he visited Saskatchewan – the only province in the country he had not yet seen.
“After visiting Saskatchewan, and meeting with the people and administrators, I really got to like the place very much, and I got excited about the job,” he says. “The administrators have a really clear vision of where they’d like to be. The people here have been doing a great job in the last few years, but there are still a lot of things to be done. I see this as a challenge and an opportunity to contribute to and advance the healthcare system in this province, as well as the relationship between the health region, the College of Medicine and the public.”
In his role as unified head, Dr. Haddad is responsible for managing more than 200 people in the Department of Medicine, and in less than five months, he has successfully recruited new physicians specializing in neurology, cardiology and internal medicine to the Region. He has also made significant strides in improving in-patient services on the neurology unit at Royal University Hospital, and works one day a month in a heart failure clinic. He plans to put together a small group to conduct cardiovascular research, as well.
Five years from now, Dr. Haddad wants to be able to say that he has contributed to significant improvements in patient care, quality of teaching and research in the department of medicine.
“I would like us to focus on innovation, which means delivering the best service possible but in a different way to minimize waste and to be more effective from a financial point of view without affecting quality of care,” he says. “Right now we are delivering service the same as we have been doing it for 30 or 40 years. We have to re-think our approach. Prevention is very important – it’s the best way to keep our province healthy.”
Dr. Haddad describes himself as a clinician and researcher who is ambitious and likes to keep busy. He has written more than 200 research papers, taught hundreds of courses and received over a dozen awards. He also serves on a variety of boards and committees (e.g., advisory, financial, medical) that he has volunteered on for 10 to 15 hours a week for the past five years.
“I think there is no limitation for opportunities in Canada,” he says, explaining that on a personal level he has exceeded his own expectations time and time again.
“Every time in my career I reached one level, I thought, ‘This is the end,’ but I was able to work my way further up. So, I think if you work hard in this country, you go places. But if you ask me about one thing I’m most proud of, it’s my wife of 30 years and my two kids. My daughter is doing a residency in Ottawa. She would like to be a geriatrician, and my son is in his last year in medical school. He would like to be a cardiologist.
“I used to take my kids to Syria every year, and they loved it,” he says, adding that his love of travel goes beyond his home country, having visited most of Europe and South America. “It’s very important to meet people from different backgrounds, because when you do, you realize how close we all are.”
He also loves to play golf, saying he would play it every day if possible because of the exercise, good conversation with friends and relaxation it provides. But a life of leisure, he says, is not yet in the cards for him.
“My retirement day will come when I feel my presence is not necessary anymore,” he says. “But what continues to motivate me is feeling like I can contribute. When you’re able to contribute on any level, big or small, you are satisfied.”