Dr Jameel Desai considers himself to be ‘an ordinary bloke’, but after having spent some time with him, we label him as ‘extraordinary’. This selfless maxillofacial surgeon donates his time and expertise in disaster areas and sacrifices financial gain to be of service to the larger South African community. In the face of tragedy and despair, he rebounds at life with a humorous and light-hearted outlook.
Jameel was privileged to have obtained his qualifications from two prominent South African universities; the University of the Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch University, and while his medical interest started early on in life, his desire to branch into facial pathology and surgery developed during his years as a medical student. He owes his inspiration to Dr Hafiz Kola, a family friend who is also qualified in the field, and in this way gets to positively impact the lives of people who’ve had to endure life-changing facial trauma caused by disease or injury.
His decision to give up private practice and work in a state setting was to fill a bigger role in society, but this did not come without challenges. He states that one of the biggest hurdles which South Africa faces is that state settings do not enjoy all the resources that private settings have and this results in a general apathy and negative mentality. “Trying to motivate and inspire people is a huge challenge,” Jameel says.
A typical day for Dr Desai starts with fajr salaah (morning prayers), a protein shake and a long drive to Pretoria from Johannesburg. He arrives at work in time to do his 7am rounds checking up on patients who’ve undergone surgery and inspect any new cases that have landed on his desk. A day of back-to-back theatre procedures sees him put the scalpel down at 5pm, but on days when surgery is not scheduled, he spends his time imparting his knowledge and skills to aspiring youth. Passion is etched on his face as he talks about teaching energetic undergraduates whose spark and vibe fills him with hope for the future of our country. “There are very talented and bright young people in South Africa,” he remarks.
An opportunity to assist overseas was presented to Dr Desai and his accomplished wife, Dr Shafeeqa Mayet (an anaesthesiologist), by Dr Qasim Bhorat, a core member of the Gift of the Givers medical team. A year after the war broke out in Syria, he contacted Jameel to ask the couple if they would contemplate risking their personal safety to donate their time and skills to help the victims there. This decision was not an easy one to make. The couple had to consider their children, but in the face of fear for their lives and their future, they put their faith in the Almighty and decided to answer this calling.
The Syrian crisis stands out in the doctor’s mind as the most brutal and horrific experience he has ever lived through. “To see the number of children being displaced, savagely injured, psychologically scarred and emotionally traumatised is something that continues to haunt me until this day.” He describes it as a genocide and not a conflict. He recalls an incident when a young boy stumbled into the hospital in Darkoush after having been shot in the chest. The Gift of the Givers team relentlessly worked on the boy for about an hour, but tragically lost the battle as he succumbed to his wounds. The boy’s father sat watching in a corner while an unbroken stream of tears flowed down his cheeks. His wife entered the hospital and responded to her husband’s embrace by beating him with her fists unable to contain her excruciating grief. The team discovered later that the husband was a part of the Free Syrian Army and that he had accidentally shot their only child.
After his service in Syria, Jameel subsequently travelled to various other disaster zones, including Gaza and Nepal. He is now on standby and forms part of the core Gift of the Givers medical team. He encourages those who would like to play a bigger part or assist in any way to never underestimate the value of their input and service since all these issues need funding and awareness. He also finds that a significant amount of word-of-mouth awareness is spread by the well-informed ‘aunty’ who is at home listening to the radio, chatting on the phone or online. “They awaken the communities around them,” he says.
Being Muslim is important to Dr Desai because it instils an obligation to live life with integrity and compassion, and to give of oneself unconditionally for the pleasure of the Almighty. He says that it’s a constant reminder that we are here to serve a purpose, and that Allah (SWT) has given us gifts which we should put to good use.
His definition of success is ‘the amount of free time you are able to generate and give of yourself without financial pressures and constraints’. He jokingly remarks: “Once I reach that stage, I will let you know.”
Today’s youth is at a delicate crossroads in that they are recipients of a culture of callousness. He feels that there is a lack of self-respect and respect for others. The youth need to recognise that they are the value of this country, the future of this country and they should conduct themselves accordingly. Upon reflection of his younger days, his advice to his young self would be to take better care of himself, and to come down to earth and get rid of arrogance at an earlier age because the biggest stumbling block is one’s ego.
When it comes to society, he doesn’t feel that he is important enough to be remembered but he would like his close family and friends to remember him fondly and say that he was a good guy, a gentleman who fought for what he believed in and fought righteously.
He says that it’s great to have organisations like Proudly Muslims of South Africa because it is important that society knows that even as a minority we make a sizeable contribution, and that Muslims are governed by a specific set of rules in Islam which forces us to be a people of integrity, compassion and love. “Muslims in SA are committed to the cause of bettering the community as a whole,” he confirms.
We’re all born blessed with a special gift or talent bestowed on us by our Creator, and while we may not all have the stamina and aptitude to specialise in the complexities of maxillofacial surgery, it’s clear that Dr Jameel Desai is indeed fulfilling his destiny as both a world-class medical professional and brave humanitarian. May he continue to touch the lives of hopeless patients and victims, and give them reason to admire themselves in the mirror and smile once again.