She was born in Afghanistan. She saved my life.
Buckled in stomach pain, I am taken to the Emergency Room at St. John’s in Santa Monica. After a series of scans, it is determined my gallbladder is critically infected. They call Dr. Meena Said, who performs the surgery that removes the infected organ. As she checks on me in recovery, she estimates she has performed some 300 such procedures, and that I was lucky with my timing. If I had postponed the knife…an option I had considered…I would have died, she says.
Thankful beyond description, I look up from my bed in the PACU to thank her, and notice the petite surgeon is wearing a surgical cap that I mistake, in my post-op haze, as a tsādar, a head scarf worn at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. I ask her story, and she shares her family escaped Afghanistan when she was very young, and after 18 months in Germany, where her parents felt discriminated as immigrants, they brought her to the U.S. Though her mother-tongue was Pashto, at age three she learned English. With adulthood she decided to devote her life to wellness, not just in Santa Monica, but in the country of her birth, and then beyond, especially for children in desperate need. She shows me wrenching photos on her iPhone of children she has assisted from almost 8,000 miles away, children stricken with cancer and pocks. She says she founded a humanitarian organization called Wellness Worldwide with a mission to provide healthcare as well as educational and social support to vulnerable populations, first in Afghanistan, but then, she envisions, in the neediest communities, struck by insurmountable obstacles like war and poverty, around the world. “Every human life has equal value,” she says. “Every man, woman and child deserve a chance to live—irrespective of gender, religion, political beliefs, ethnicity or race.”
Curiosity piqued, I ask if I might learn more about her endeavors and invite her to my home for tea and teachings.
Socially distanced in my backyard, Meena tells me a story that seems bildungsroman in its flowering. At an early age, she chose medicine as her professional pursuit. “Medicine I thought was an expression of compassion and that was my idealistic view, and that’s what prompted me to go into it.”
When Meena was a teen studying at UCLA she found funding to travel back to Afghanistan to work on her undergraduate thesis on maternal and child health in the refugee camps. This was during the Taliban era. While there she connected with a woman who knew her father, Thalia Cunningham, who helped Meena obtain medications in short supply, such as antibiotics and Tylenol. Meena helped treat a number of children refugees and felt she had made a difference.
She returned to Afghanistan several more times, volunteering for an income generation and literacy project for widows in the Peshawar refugee camps; helping fund a clinic in Jalalabad; interning as a volunteer in the main hospital in Kabul. Each trip was a teleological frame of feeling, an expression of compassion, and purpose.
With return to the U.S. Meena finished her studies and became an endocrine and general surgeon specializing in cancers of the gland. One evening she found herself scrolling through internet news and came across an Al-Jazeera story featuring a shocking photo of severely burned children. It was a piece on war. She immediately recognized the children as Afghans.
“I had an idea that I had a good chance of finding these children and helping them,” she remembers. “I thought about it and I thought about it. Then I called people in Afghanistan I knew in the government and in non-governmental organizations. With their help I was able to locate these children and arrange for them to get treatment.”
Afterwards she got pleas for more help from friends in Afghanistan. A surgeon at a government hospital in Kabul would reach out when a child patient was admitted who could not be treated locally. Photos were posted on Facebook and Instagram of very poor children with complex diseases, some a result of residual carcinogens from four decades of chemical and ordnance warfare, even from the “Mother of All Bombs,” the most powerful non-nuclear weapon ever deployed, which U.S. forces dropped on Afghanistan in 2017.
As Meena stared at their faces she felt the weight of neglect. She knew she could not ignore them; could not allow these young candles to burn out. So, she started a campaign to obtain funding. She devised a plan, which she calls a regional tertiary referral for children with complex diseases, a scheme to transport the afflicted kids to nearby Pakistan or India where they could get care unavailable in Afghanistan.
Such an exercise would typically be an expensive proposition, beyond the reach of only the wealthiest families in Afghanistan. If a child needs heart surgery, the transfer to Kabul, the initial imaging, the medications, passports and visas, the trip to Pakistan, the lodging, the interpreters, the operation, the medical care from start to finish would tab up at about $6,000. Meena has been able to arrange soup-to-nuts help for her distant patients for a fraction of that cost.
With passionate personal pleas, Meena secured assistance from the Shaukat Khanum Hospitals in Peshawar and Islamabad in Pakistan, which now accept three children per month from Wellness Worldwide, free of care. The Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai has also assisted Meena’s children. She recruited doctors in Norway, Abu Dhabi, India, Pakistan, and the Providence Saint John’s Cancer Center (né John Wayne Cancer Institute) in Santa Monica to pitch in.
She is 12 years old awaiting funding for a heart operation.
Meena has never said no to any child who has asked for her help. But all on her list are from Afghanistan. She aspires to help the vulnerable around the globe. But it makes sense for Afghanistan, her homeland, to be the case study. She says that over the last 41 years Afghans have been the most traumatized, abused, and slaughtered population in the world. And the most vulnerable are the children. And of those, the impoverished children, stricken with chronic, severe illnesses like cancer, who are in pain, are the most in-need populations on earth. Meena was lucky to take flight from the troubled country as a little girl. Part of her motivation, she admits, is driven by survivors’ guilt. “It’s hard. I struggle. But in some way, this is my antidote to finding meaning.”
And she adapts her mission situationally. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic she has arranged food aid for about 3000 people a month. She is funding a clinic and school at a refugee camp with 35,000 people and no doctor in the eolian hills of Eastern Afghanistan. And she is relentlessly recruiting for assistance and advice.
School for children in Kabul Camp funded by Wellness Worldwide. As of now they have no books.
A statistic Meena quotes is that 75% of the world’s operations are performed on 25% of the world’s population. In America, survival for all cancer children is 80%. In the low- and middle-income countries—Afghanistan is one of the five poorest countries on earth–that statistic is flipped: a 20% survival rate for children with all cancers. “These stats bother me,” she says. “And one of the ways I alleviate that anxiety is through this work.”
I ask if she can share a story of one of her successes. She pulls out her iPhone and holds the screen towards me. Even from six feet away I see the terribly deformed face of a little girl. Meena says the photo is a year old and is of an eight-year-old named Maryam. She had a retinoblastoma tumor, leaving her with a nucleated eye on one side of her face, and a growing globe of cancerous skin covering the other. She was blind and in great pain.
Maryam’s father sold everything, including his little store in Eastern Afghanistan, to pay for his daughter’s medical expenses, and had nothing left. He recorded and sent a video that pleaded “Meena can you help us?”
But when Meena’s partner in Afghanistan, Obaid, soon thereafter called and offered assistance, the father became suspicious. Some mountebanks and dodgy NGOs take advantage of sick children, using their disfeatured photos to ask for alms from big-hearted foreigners, which never reach the intended. Like Nigerian prince scams, it is a profit center in Afghanistan.
The father got nervous when a request was made to see Maryam, and he proclaimed she was dead. But when Obaid showed up anyway with a couple of hundred dollars in donations, Dad revealed she was in fact alive, in the house, but in great pain.
Meena raised the monies to fly Maryam and her father to New Delhi and got her admitted to AIMS, the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, a premier hospital, but not a cancer specialty hospital.
After the scans and examinations, the doctors announced the tumor was wrapped around Maryam’s brain stem and was inoperable. They declined to operate, and refused to give her pain medication, saying they were afraid such meds might affect her breathing.
Meena received a disturbing video of Maryam crying for her mom, saying she was burning. It scorched Meena’s heart. “No child should have to live with pain,” she says.
So, Meena arranged for another transfer, this time to the Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital in Mumbai. There the doctors conducted blood and cerebral spinal fluids studies to figure out whether she might be curable. After a tense week they concluded…she was not.
So, Meena persuaded the doctors to administer narcotic medication, which eased the pain. Arrangements were made for mom to join bedside. And Maryam was gifted candy and chocolate, which she loved. And even though Maryam was blind, and knew she didn’t have much time, she asked for a watch. Meena arranged for the timepiece, which gave Maryam great joy.
Maryam underwent oral chemotherapy, and radiation, and the tumor began to shrink, to the point that she was able to return to Kabul. Meena was emotionally involved at this point and asked Maryam if she wanted to make a special wish. She said she wanted a children’s battery-operated car. So, Meena arranged to buy the toy car in Kabul for about 150 bucks. And Maryam was so, so happy, and peaceful as she puttered around her home. A month later she was playing with her friends, and told her mom, “I want some pudding. And put me in the sun. I want to be in the sun.” So, her mom made her some pudding.
Maryam had her rice pudding in the sun, and then she passed.
Maryam in Afghanistan with Obaid. The sign says she received the donations arranged by Wellness Worldwide.
Maryam died in February 2020.
Success is relative, Meena tells me. To know even one life has breathed easier is to have succeeded. She considers this case a semi-success: “Palliation—alleviating suffering– is just as important as saving a life.”
The Messenger of Allah said: “Charity blocks seventy doorways to evil.” The small-framed doctor with big ideals and ideas says her goal is to exponentially implement the Wellness Worldwide mission to seventy countries or more as she finds new partners, willing doctors, and support. One example is Cambodia, she says, lacking in complex cancer care for children. She could arrange for patients to get to nearby Bangkok where there is excellent healthcare. Conflict zones throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America could use this model. It is scalable, she says, and applicable wherever there are disadvantaged children. Sic transit gloria mundi.
“If I have support and funding and especially people who have expertise and connections in these different regions, then there are no limits for compassionate help.” As philosopher Francis Bacon said, “In charity, there is no excess.”
As a purely volunteer-based organization, Wellness Worldwide prides itself on zero dollars in overhead costs, ensuring that 100% of donations reach those who need the aid most.
If Meena were not leading this noblesse oblige, no one would.
Now she invites all who can to help her help the vulnerable children thrive by visiting: https://wellnessworldwideprojects.org/
Five-month-old Subhan required surgery to fix a defect in his heart. He would have died without the operation. Wellness Worldwide arranged for heart surgery in Mumbai, and Subhan is now back home and recovering at his home in Kabul.