Dr. Ferrahs Abdelbaset: “Knowledge”

Knowledge: We live in the age of information and the ability for people to search the internet for anything. People are also exposed to information even when they are not searching for it. Having the knowledge and credentials and, depending on the state one wants to be in, having the licensure will ensure a foundation […]

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Knowledge: We live in the age of information and the ability for people to search the internet for anything. People are also exposed to information even when they are not searching for it. Having the knowledge and credentials and, depending on the state one wants to be in, having the licensure will ensure a foundation for a successful career in health and wellness. Health is extremely dynamic. My normal may not be someone else’s normal, and knowing what the textbooks and research says about how the body works and how health is attained allows a practitioner to develop a plan for each person around what their body’s needs and what their state of wellness is at that time. An example: I get patients all the time telling me, “They say that if I eat this, or drink that, or do such and such, I will lose 20 pounds or my sugar levels will normalize,etc.” The first thing I ask is, “Who’s they?” After we analyze the bit of information that they’ve shared, we decide if indeed it is applicable to them, as well as possible adverse effects of trying things learned from ‘they’, and then we use the knowledge to come up with a plan.

Dr. Ferrahs Abdelsbaset is an Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for the Master of Medical Science at Ponce Health Sciences University. He believes in the profound power of education, and he strives to educate his patients and students every day about their health and their state of well-being.


Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?

I grew up in a low-to-middle class area within the northern region of St. Louis, MO. I also spent a few of my teenage years living in Jerusalem. I worked during my college years in Ferguson, MO. Being immersed in different environments and cultures throughout the years allowed me to learn and see things from different perspectives. I learned that what made sense to one culture didn’t necessarily to another. I saw that available resources mainly drove the decisions of everyday life for people. I also experienced the differences and similarities of cultures and peoples, and I found that even though there were similarities, those similarities were also different.

Was there a particular person or event that inspired you to live a wellness-focused lifestyle? Can you tell us about your main motivation to go all in?

I don’t know exactly when, but there was a time where I began to look at myself differently. I began to ask myself the questions that I would ask others. I became focused on what makes me feel good and what doesn’t. From then on, every person and every event has added to the inspiration of living a wellness-focused lifestyle and educating others about it. Being conscious of your body and mind is the first step to wellness. Helping people make sense of the things they know is how I promote wellness.

Most people with a well-being centered lifestyle have a “go-to” activity, exercise, beverage, or food that is part of their routine. What is yours and can you tell us how it helps you?

For me it is learning something new. Exercising my mind helps me greatly. I read a lot, I research things, I take in information about something or someone and think about how I can use it later or who can benefit from the new information. I also really enjoy the ‘see one, do one, teach one’ model. Learn something new, master it, then teach it to others.

To live a wellness-focused life is one thing, but how did it become your career? How did it all start?

I think I have always been the type of person who likes to help others, and my leadership style is more of the servant leadership philosophy. So, as I went through grad school and attained the credentials and licensing, it was a natural process to promote wellness, well-being, and a healing lifestyle. Most people want to be wellness-focused; it is just a matter of helping them understand what they already know about their body and life to allow them to attain what they want.

Can you share a story about the biggest challenges you faced when you were first starting? How did you resolve that? What are the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

One of the biggest challenges I faced, and to be honest, I still face today, was to take the “Mr. Ferrahs” hat off and put the “Dr. Ferrahs” hat on with the people that I have forged a relationship or friendship with, or even just random people I newly meet. Part of it is my style, I tend to be just very nice and eager to help, and part of it is that I infuse my personality in the way I give advice. My personality is what it is — I genuinely care about people and society such that I try to be as friendly as possible. But the manner in which you give advice can influence whether people follow the advice or not, and I’ve found that the environment plays a big role.. Talking to a friend in the office is different from talking to a friend at a restaurant or on the phone. A change in environment changes the way they perceive the advice and it also allows them to adhere to the advice better. I get stopped and asked for advice or recommendations randomly by family, friends, students, and even strangers all the time. Before I give advice, I try to assess if the environment is conducive to them accepting and implementing the advice.. It creates a slightly different challenge because as much as I don’t like to, sometimes I defer the question to a later time. But it makes sense to do this because I’ve found that when people don’t follow advice it gets registered in their brains as having not worked even though they didn’t even try it. So the time and place of giving a piece of advice is also important.

Can you share with us how the work you are doing is helping to make a bigger impact in the world? Can you share a story that illustrates that?

If you positively impact someone, they will go on and positively impact someone else and that cycle will continue. I help educate, whether it is a patient or a student or whomever. Education continues beyond our reach and lifetime. I had a patient long ago who had a lot going on due to physical ailments caused by stress and anxiety over financial burdens, etc. For that person, just being in the office was helpful, it was an environment that allowed them to be vulnerable and take down their guard. Over the years we worked on many things within my scope to get them where we wanted. I came to find out that they were sharing their knowledge and experiences with their family and friends and helping them also attain a healing lifestyle and better well-being. While I would have appreciated the referrals, I understood why they didn’t go that route, and it made me feel good nonetheless knowing I was making an impact on their circle.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Academia, as much as patient care, has always been a passion of mine; over the last few years I have transitioned from clinical practice to academia. I have this firm belief that the future of healthcare comes from compassionate and knowledgeable healthcare providers and the drive for that outcome comes from exceptional educators. Being in the classroom and part of the administration, helping shape the future of healthcare is what I have been working on lately. Positively impacting students, bringing what I have seen in the clinical world into the classroom, infusing compassion and empathy, highlighting diversity and health disparities so that future healthcare providers will have the tools they need to guide and help people. Specifically, I have been working in the realm of helping students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds work towards careers in healthcare, these are students who weren’t given the resources they needed to be within the standards of graduate school requirements. I work with students that aren’t looked at because of certain scores or grades they have and guide them through a practice run of a medical school curriculum to see how they perform and work with them to achieve their goals. Students whose parents couldn’t afford expensive four-year college tuition or MCAT prep courses. I work alongside an amazing team of faculty and staff to help students achieve a graduate degree and prepare them for a career in healthcare. People make decisions based on the resources they have and I am excited to be able to give these students the resources they need to make the best decisions for their future.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Generosity is very instrumental to shaping my present and hopefully, my future. My mother taught me to be generous, but not in the traditional way. I watched her, in awe, and continue to watch her give. Not only did she give to her children and family, I watched her give to anyone she met, liked or disliked, in need or not. What I see the most is what she gains from giving: satisfaction, peace, and happiness. Not worrying about the material things that we have given, the love we have shared, or the time we have spent, knowing that life replenishes all of that for us is what drives success. I learned a lot of things from her, generosity is just one of those things, and I hope to continue to be generous.
  2. Patience is a key part of my life and something that has shaped me tremendously. Over the years I have been both praised and chastised for my patience, and I get it. In some capacities, patience is a negative character trait, but I believe, even then, it is overall positive. I don’t have a specific story because patience is infused in everything I do, but I do have a few principles that highlight patience. For one, I try not to make a decision about something unless I have most of the information that I need, otherwise I feel like it is a 50/50 shot and if other people are affected by this decision, I will not gamble with their outcomes. Another, I don’t react to situations too often; many times, situations resolve themselves without intervention, reactions, or opinions. Society seemingly remembers your reaction more than the resolution, and if the reaction is perceived as negative then that is what they will remember.
  3. Respect is another character trait that has shaped me. No one likes a mean or disrespectful person. I strive to be as polite and as kind as possible to everyone. I believe that when you take a moment to understand a person or situation, you will come away with respect even if you disagree with or dislike them. Being respectful commands a very certain behavior and maintaining certain attributes. Being respectful will always lead to success.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. Wellness is an incredibly broad topic. How would you define the term “Wellness”? Can you explain what you mean?

Wellness to me is a state of overall optimal health. It is the equilibrium of one’s life or the homeostasis of one’s life. Life is dynamic and things are constantly changing hour by hour, day by day; so, it depends on how we handle those changes and what we do to keep a balance so that we consistently achieve wellness. Wellness embodies physical health, mental health, spiritual health, environmental health, social health, and so on. Wellness is person specific; each person achieves it differently. Achieving wellness is also dependent on the person. The responsibility is somewhat on them, but to get there, an understanding of how to achieve it is essential. Often, we know what we must do without being told, but it is because we don’t completely understand it that we don’t do it. Understanding why things feel the way they feel, or why they are happening to our bodies or lives helps us implement the changes needed to achieve balance and wellness.

As an expert, this might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Can you please share a few reasons with our readers about why focusing on our wellness should be a priority in our lives?

Focusing on wellness should be a priority for many reasons. One is that we have wants in life, and I use the term ‘wants’ because for many people, the basic needs are indeed met, so everything else is a ‘want.’ Being conscious of that will allow us to work to achieve that ‘want’ without sacrificing a need. To achieve that goal, to balance those ‘wants,’ we have to be equipped for it. It doesn’t matter what the ‘want’ is, by the way. It could be material, emotional, spiritual, etc. Focusing on wellness, focusing on an optimal state of health, broadens our ability to balance the ‘wants.’ Another reason is that wellness is something that I don’t believe anyone disagrees with, many people just haven’t understood it or maybe have a misconception about it. I had a patient one time tell me that they were all-in on achieving wellness so they threw everything in their refrigerator and pantry away and went to Whole Foods and spent hundreds of dollars on new, ‘healthier’ food. They understood one part of wellness, a good diet, as being all-in. Needless to say, we quickly worked on that one so they could sustain the diet without breaking the bank. The point is, once people understand what achieving wellness means to them, it will naturally become a priority in their lives.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increasingly growing understanding of the necessity for companies to be mindful of the wellness of their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, can you share steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental and physical wellness?

Recently, I have seen many companies take initiatives to improve employee’s mental and physical wellness: from sanitary measures to counseling to customized work environments. Stories of being able to work a flexible schedule to balance work and home, especially if one has children, are so wonderful to hear. Being able to come into the office if they have to get out of the house, and conversely, being given the opportunity to stay home to maintain limited social exposure. To be honest, this has been something that I have been pondering for a while now, even before the pandemic, something I would call ‘workplace wellness’ which is just like individual wellness, meaning that it is specific to each industry and even granular to each company in an industry. For example, the food service industry must take a different approach to workplace wellness than the educational industry. What I have seen and hope to see in the near future is the implementation of positions dedicated to workplace wellness, like a Chief Wellness Officer or VP of Wellness, a person dedicated to understanding what wellness means to that company and implementing the changes needed so that each employee can achieve wellness in their work.

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The Health and Wellness Industry”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1. Knowledge: We live in the age of information and the ability for people to search the internet for anything. People are also exposed to information even when they are not searching for it. Having the knowledge and credentials and, depending on the state one wants to be in, having the licensure will ensure a foundation for a successful career in health and wellness. Health is extremely dynamic. My normal may not be someone else’s normal, and knowing what the textbooks and research says about how the body works and how health is attained allows a practitioner to develop a plan for each person around what their body’s needs and what their state of wellness is at that time. An example: I get patients all the time telling me, “They say that if I eat this, or drink that, or do such and such, I will lose 20 pounds or my sugar levels will normalize,etc.” The first thing I ask is, “Who’s they?” After we analyze the bit of information that they’ve shared, we decide if indeed it is applicable to them, as well as possible adverse effects of trying things learned from ‘they’, and then we use the knowledge to come up with a plan.

2. Experience: I know this one is obvious, but I can tell you from my own experience that I came out of school over a decade ago with a feeling of empowerment that I knew how to help everyone, and with the desire to help as many as I could. I started out on my own and I quickly realized that there were cases and disorders that I had never actually seen and that I didn’t know how to treat. I started working with other physicians and co-treating patients. I began to gain experience. Experience is important to have a successful career and we continue to gain experience each day we work at our passions. An example I can share is that I have helped co-treat many patients in my career with MS and even with the experience, I still see things today that are new and how it manifests differently in each person. I love that I continue to gain experience each day.

3. Time: Long ago, in the beginning of graduate school I did an exercise where I wrote out how I thought I would be successful. Not all of the ideas panned out, but one did. I wrote that I would not be a high-volume practitioner (nothing against high-volume by the way). I wrote that I would spend as much time as the patient needed with me to make sure they had what they needed for healing. For some, it can be 15 minutes and for others it can be more. I have spent over 2 hours with a patient once working out their extensive health history and answering all of their concerns. This has been perceived as absurd by some of my colleagues, but it is what I believe. The point is that it takes time to be successful in anything and if someone wants to succeed in a career in health and wellness, they need to put the time in.

4. Presence: This is a complicated one because I give this advice all the time to whomever I can, whether patients, students, friends, or family. The advice is to be physically AND mentally there. In healthcare, I have seen physicians come into a room and based on lab values or images, the diagnosis is obvious, and the treatment plan is quickly given. It is an in-and-out deal. I have seen wellness practitioners have a plan ready before they even hear it all out because the issues are obvious. I have done both of those, by the way. In education, I have seen faculty and administration already know what to say or do because certain student behaviors can somewhat be expected. I have students come to me for the same thing each semester, it’s part of the process. I have patients come to me for the same things, many times, and I had told them they would experience it, but they forgot. When you see things over and over, it can be difficult to be mentally present, we default to a response we have said over and over, we default to a prescription that is given out over and over, or we default to blanket reassurances of ‘you’ll be fine’ without personal context. I have done this before and sometimes I mistakenly still do it. I used to teach in the nursing program, and I would also have medical assistant students at my office, and I would tell them the same thing, whether in the classroom or clinic, so I often go back to this story to remind myself:

When you take someone’s blood pressure, it may be the 15th time you performed that measurement, but for the patient, it was their first time in a long time having their blood pressure measured; for the practitioner, we’re looking for some numbers, for the patient, they’re wondering if they are okay or not. They need someone there who is there in that moment for them, with compassion, with empathy, with an understanding that it is important to them, even though it is a routine or common coming from the other side. You don’t just grab a patient’s arm and attach a cuff and begin pumping; you ask for permission, explain what is going on, assure them with your words and presence.

Presence is key, regardless of if you have seen it or said it a thousand times. Often for the patient, it is the first time they’ve experienced it or heard it, so it should be said with presence. Same thing in the classroom, giving a lecture for the 50th time is still being heard by the students for the first time and it should feel that way.

5. Passion: It is hard to be successful in anything if you have no passion for it. Without passion, it is hard to keep the patience needed to attain success, and it is also hard to maintain that success. It is hard to educate others and share the information you believe in if there is no passion. Passion ebbs and flows, by the way; we start out with the drive and fire to do the things we have set out for, we hit a few obstacles, begin to question the drive, and the fire sometimes dies down. But as long as there is a flame, a little fuel will allow it to blaze again, and that passion will force the drive. You just know when someone is passionate about something, you can feel it and sense it and you know they are successful.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would promote the most wellness to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

  1. I believe that education is key to promoting wellness and healing lifestyles. I would like to infuse wellness education in our educational and healthcare sectors. Children growing up having a better understanding of what is going with their health will allow them to make better decisions. Patients learning about why they feel the way they feel will allow them to make better decisions. But a lot of foundational wheels need to spin for this to manifest: educators and administrators need to be on board, healthcare providers also need to be on board.then we need to make education equal and accessible to everyone, healthcare needs be equal and accessible to everyone, and finally, people’s decisions will be based on the resources they have, so we need to give equal access to resources and healthier options to everyone.
  2. We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
  3. I think every day the prominent person I’d like to meet or have a private lunch with changes, in all honesty I’d like to meet them all and learn from their wisdom and experiences. I think today I’d like to meet Mark Cuban. We live in a technological world and his approach to technology is very interesting to me. I think we can leverage technology in an amazing way to promote healing lifestyles. I would also like to meet Bernie Sanders. The man has passion and I want to know how to keep that same level towards the things that I do as I age like he has.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow me on Twitter: @ferrahs

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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