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  • Writer's pictureAslam Abdullah

Dr. Najma Khan: A star that will not fade

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

A South Asian Muslim woman became one of the first female physicians and part of the first wave of immigrants from Asia to the US in 1967. An ethical humanitarian who served thousands and influenced even more!

She delivered my daughter, Butool Abdullah, who is now working in Iowa as M.D. I remember her as a kind and compassionate doctor who helped everyone in need. Here is a write up that his son, Saeed Khan, a friend of mine wrote. She is a role model for anyone who has the courage to challenge oneself.

Najma Khan was the second of eleven children born in Hyderabad, India, in 1931. Even as a child, she had a strong sense of purpose and was inspired to do great things against all the odds. Initially, she was unable to attend school due to cultural norms for girls at that time, but she lobbied her conservative father until he gave in. She was excited to learn, but had to start as in first grade at the age of 9. Unfazed, she quickly picked up English, worked hard, and skipped multiple classes each year. Eventually, she graduated high school early at the age of 15.

She then had aspirations to do something unheard of among Indian women of her era. At 19, she enrolled in Medical School at the prestigious Osmania University. A few years later, in 1957, she completed a specialized residency and received the school's first OB-GYN diploma, one of the few awarded in all of India.

As a practicing physician, she was determined to do the best work possible. In the late 1950s, three of her dynamic brothers pursued graduate work abroad in the US, UK, and Canada. It created a lot of extra room in the family home, and she had a plan on how to use it. A humanitarian at heart, she and another doctor friend and a pharmacist, set up a free medical clinic to volunteer their time and provide medical services. The young social entrepreneurs opened the doors for those in abject poverty.

Her son, Sayeed Khan, recalled stories they heard while growing up. "Our relatives would tell us about 'lines around the block' of India's miserable waiting to see her for medical care. For her, being a doctor was primarily a way to serve humanity."

Najma Khan married in 1961. A few years later, America embarked upon a fundamental change in foreign policy when the landmark "US Immigration Act of 1965" was passed to address a shortage of doctors and engineers. Najma and her husband, a chemical engineer, were part of the first wave of the "Asian Brain Drain" when immigrating to the US in 1967. Living on a university campus on the East Coast, her husband pursued his Ph.D., and she studied for her medical board exams, while also raising three very young children. She received an offer for a medical residency in Chicago in 1970, and soon, the young family made the windy city their new home.

Life was challenging for the new immigrants with virtually no family, community, or support system. It got tougher when Najma faced with breast cancer in 1972. She underwent successful surgery and treatment, but the diagnosis was five years maximum to live. She was a fighter and lived every day to the fullest, while helping establish many relatives in both India and America over several decades. Meanwhile, she turned those five years into almost 50!

As a physician, she worked for the city and had a private practice. She did considerable Pro Bono work in some of the most underserved neighborhoods in Chicago and her growing Muslim community of Chicago over four decades. Najma and her husband were pillars of the community, and her family was an integral part of Chicago's Muslim Community Center(MCC) during its early years.

Her eldest son, Hasan, a highly respected physician who ran a medical center, passed away in June, 2019. One year later, Dr. Najma Khan died peacefully in her home on June 15, surrounded by loved ones. She was 88.

Dr. Najma Khan's wisdom, kindness, unquestionable ethics, and good intention made her the one everyone trusted. Her perseverance through adversity while always doing right made her an inspiration to many. Her legacy lives on in many thousands of lives she touched directly and indirectly while making the world a better place.

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