From war-torn Kabul to the University of Cambridge
Dr Waheed Arian had to hide in a cellar as a child to evade the bombing. He's now a medic and a UNESCO Global Hero
Cambridge has heard – and created – a few incredible stories through the years, but rarely one as uplifting as that of Dr Waheed Arian, who runs Arian Teleheal, a platform which aims to “save lives and improve futures in war zones and in low resource countries by using easily-accessible technology”.
The service allows off-duty medics to share expertise and advice in front-line surgical situations and that it came about is all the more remarkable given Waheed’s background in Afghanistan. Speaking at the recent MedTech Futures Conference on the Wellcome Genome Campus, he described how he was forced to leave his homeland and arrived, aged 15 and with barely any English, in London’s Portobello Road.
“I was born in Kabul in 1983,” he told a rapt audience at the conference, a celebration of innovation and entrepreneurship in and for the NHS. “We had very few happy days during the first five years of my life. Most of the time, we hid in cellars from the shelling and rockets.”
At the age of five the 2017 UN Global Goals Goalkeeper – and subject of a 2017 documentary narrated by BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson – fled with his family to Pakistan. “It took seven days and seven nights… We survived three helicopter gunship, jet and tank attacks along the way before we made it to a refugee camp in Pakistan.”
Waheed got malaria in the camp, then TB. “I was under treatment from the local doctor. He was always smiling despite the challenges. I thought ‘why is he smiling?’. He said ‘I’ll look after you, this disease will go away.’ He gave me a medical textbook, and a stethoscope to play with.”
Somehow these gifts were enough to kickstart Waheed’s until-then invisible medical talent.
After three years, in 1991, the family went back to Kabul, where the ongoing “street-by-street civil war fighting” meant they lived in cellars. “That was where the self-education began.” He would listen to the World Service on the radio, in both Pashto and English. “To improve my English.”
Aged 15, Waheed found himself on Portobello Road. His parents had decided he had a chance of making a go of it. His job prospects were slim – “work in the chicken factory or as a taxi driver”. He studied hard in his spare time, and got 5 As at AS and A-levels.
“By 2003, I managed to get into Cambridge University before gaining qualifications at Harvard and Imperial.
“I’d learned from my childhood never to give up,” he says, “and that resilience helped me.”
In the first two years as a Cambridge undergraduate Waheed says he “struggled in various ways”, but by year three he “had it figured out”. As soon as he could though, he went back to Afghanistan to help.
“After decades of war every infrastructure was destroyed. I went from hospital to hospital, learning more than I was teaching. I tried, back in the UK, to get people on board to help and everyone said ‘Are you crazy? I’m not going to Kabul’.”
The problem, it turned out, was not that people – the medics – didn’t want to help, it was that they were waiting for the right technology to help in ways that made maximum effectiveness of their time – and that included being compatible with continuing their work in the UK.
“I started searching and came across telemedicine,” Waheed told the by-now transfixed audience at the Francis Crick Auditorium on the campus. “People said it would cost millions to set up but suddenly I realised – everyone has a smartphone, that was the light bulb moment for me and no one else was doing it. I thought ‘yes, we can do this’ and created some volunteer groups on secure social media, we had specialists who gave acute medical advice, from various medical facilities.
“After six months we realised that this smartphone business is saving lives on the ground, and it’s a shared service, it now has around 100 volunteers and is expanded in several countries.
“The end result is we have specialists where one, who’s in the UK, will have a discussion with medics and surgeons in Kabul.”
“So if you’re having trouble getting through to the regulators, think of Waheed,” said the one-day conference’s compere, Vivienne Parry, OBE, after the applause ended. “How do these innovations work?”
“In terms of technical aspects,” replied Waheed, “the things that require fewer and simpler steps to solve a problem are the best.”
“It’s been a most amazing presentation,” said Vivienne. “He’s come to the UK with faith and hope in the future, let’s hope we don’t let him down.”
Waheed is determined to continue innovating. His next start-up is to provide personal and professional development through his Arian Global Academy. Somewhere along the way the winner of the UNESCO Global Hero Award 2017 “realised what we could do, millions of us”, and his commitment to positive outcomes in agonising situations is a beacon of hope for all those who face their own trials and tribulations.