Molded by Civil War, a Leading Lebanese Surgeon’s Advice: Never Stop Trying, Never Be Afraid

Nadey Hakim is a Lebanese-born transplant surgeon who has pioneered a number of special operations throughout Europe and elsewhere in the world, including the first hand transplant in the United Kingdom recently. Currently, he works in London with his own private practice on Harley Street as well as acting as Surgical Director of the West London Transplant Unite at Hammersmith Hospital, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. He credits his surgical training in the United States as well as his war-torn childhood in the Middle East to make him the leader that he is today.

Additionally, Hakim was the past World President of the International College of Surgeons. His interests vary outside of medicine as well — he speaks nine languages, sculpted a bust for Queen Elizabeth and released a CD of his clarinet recordings. He spoke to Arabic Knowledge@Wharton about leadership, entrepreneurship, and the life perspective that gives him the courage to take risks, and compels him to never waste time.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What motivates you to be a surgeon?

Nadey Hakim: You can’t believe the pleasure you get from making someone better. If you have the gift and the training and the will and the time to improve someone else’s life by simply operating on them, it’s such a timeless gift to have. I’ve had the good fortune to have this skill as a surgeon. Every day I operate, it’s like the pleasure of doing it for the first time, unlike some other surgeons I know who get bored from surgery. This is why I operate on a daily basis. The more you operate, the better surgeon you are and the better results you get, the more respect you get.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: In the surgical theater, what qualities are important to lead a successful team?

Hakim: First I think is competence and you can’t be scared about what other people may be afraid of doing. This is how I look at things. I’ll give you an example.

Two months ago, I was invited to go to Nigeria to perform the first kidney transplant. They hadn’t done one before. I landed there and I was shown the hospital, apparently brand new. It turned out to be a tiny two-story house with a bedroom and a bathroom, which was supposed to be the operating theater. I decided I had to be courageous.

I had the kidney, which belonged to the brother of the boy who was there. Other surgeons might’ve said, "No way, I can’t do it." I said, "I’m going to do it." Within five hours, I finished the whole thing. The next day, it was a huge success.

The most important thing is to be courageous when you think no one else will dare to do it. There’s a French saying that goes, "If you don’t risk anything, you will have nothing."

The first thing is competence. You have to rely on yourself first. If you are well prepared, you know that things will go well. If you’re hesitant and allow people to put doubt in your mind, it will not work. That’s how I look at it.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: I’m wondering if the experience of growing up in the war and leaving Lebanon to finish school has made you feel this way.

Hakim: Maybe. During the war, I still remember at the age of 13 and 14 years old, hearing shooting and bombs all around the buildings where we used to live. We were Christians living in Lebanon and we were being bombarded with bombs and rockets. I did not take part in fighting. The thing I used to do was put my headphones on and listen to music because I played the clarinet. Schools were closed. Instead of wasting my time, I was playing my clarinet, reading my books and learning languages. You still have the urge to learn and progress, despite everything happening around you is a complete disaster.

At that time, I just wanted to survive this hell. When you see what’s happening in Syria is exactly what was happening in Lebanon. There was burning all over the place. Everything was burning all around us. We didn’t think we would survive. You achieve things against all predictions. We were surviving. There were bombs, rockets hitting buildings where we used to live. Still we managed to survive it and leave the country and achieve things people would’ve never thought of doing.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Any advice for would-be entrepreneurs in juggling the many facets of life? You’re a sculptor who has sent your work to Queen Elizabeth. You speak 9 languages. And you’re a clarinetist who has released a recording.

Hakim: The advice I would give is don’t waste any second on doing things which are completely useless. When we talk about the Middle East, I walk the streets of Lebanon and see people sitting in a café and smoking that shisha and sitting in a bar all day long, playing cards. I find this to be a complete waste of time. This is number one.

Number two is when people ask me how do you finish all these things, my simple answer is I am not too sure when I’m going to die so I have to finish my projects. It could be tomorrow, it could be tonight. I have to finish what I’m doing. It sounds like a joke but it’s true. You don’t know when you’re going to die, god forbid. You have to finish what you’re doing now, quickly and well. That way, you’ll have more time to do more things, if you’re given the chance to live longer to do more things. The way I look at it is why I’m in a hurry now is because I don’t know when I’m going to die. It helps if you think about it all the time.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think it’s because you’re a surgeon and you’ve seen people die? Also, growing up in the middle of war, it might’ve affected your outlook in life.

Hakim: This is a very good point. Maybe it’s a reflex to be avid in keeping life in human beings. I’ve seen many examples of people dying before my very eyes, not just in the operating room. It sometimes takes one second to reverse that trend of death.

Arabic Knowledge @Wharton: Did you know you wanted to be a surgeon even when you were a child in Lebanon?

Hakim: I did. My name "Hakim" means wise man in Arabic. And it means "doctor." If you ask to see the doctor in Lebanon, you ask to see the "hakim." The doctor is supposed to be a wise man. This has influenced me in my life in wanting to be a doctor.

I like to work with my hands. And this has translated in my work in sculpting. Every time I do an operation, I believe I’m doing a sculpture. You’re sculpting even when you’re looking at their kidneys, their heart, you are sculpting their anatomy with your fingers. This is the beauty about human nature. You heal yourself. You operate, you stitch it together and the body heals itself within a week. It has already healed and sealed. It’s almost simpler than sculpting clay because in clay, you have to do it properly because it doesn’t heal by itself. That’s how I look at it.

Hakim: You have to have someone to look at and what they do, to try to at least be as successful as this person or that person. But then you become independent in what you’re doing and try to exceed [expectations] in what you’re trying to do.

I think hard work is the secret. Nothing else. You don’t have to be very intelligent but if you’re hard-working, you’ll beat any intelligent person. There’s no secret. It’s just hard work. There are people who are very intelligent, very clever, but they do nothing. They fail.

I don’t consider myself to be very intelligent, maybe average, but I’m very hard working. And no one is exempt from failure. Everyone fails once or twice, or three, four, five times. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is to start again and retake that test again and again until you pass.

I will never take a "no" for an answer. Never. This is how I work. I will fail again and again until I succeed. I will never give up. This is the second [facet] about the way I work. We talked about competence but the second thing is never give up. Persist again and again and again until it works. You can say, "I’ve tried two or three times, I’m going to give up." I say, "Fine. If you stop, then someone from wherever will carry on and they will beat you."

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How do you prepare for your record-breaking feats? When you do something like the first hand transplant or the first kidney transplant or the first pancreas transplant, what do you do to get ready?

Hakim: I think the first thing is to do is to be very secretive. You should not tell the whole world what you’re doing. This is human nature. People do not want you to succeed because they want to be the one to do it. So be very secretive. I never tell anyone what I’m doing until I do it.

Until I have it in my hand and nobody can take it away from me, I will not tell anyone that I’m doing it. People will find a way to stop you or find a way to discourage you. It takes very little for someone to discourage somebody else. They’ll say, ‘It’s not going to work."

For instance, the hand transplant. If I had to tell anybody about it, they might say, "You’re stupid, you’re mad. How can you do it?" It was done. It was a success. And then you announce to the world. The same thing happened with the pancreas transplant, and the same thing with the sculpture of the Queen. I did it without telling anyone. And then the Queen wrote to me to say, "I like it." I never told anybody.

Even your closest friends will be wishing you luck and happiness as much as yourself. I prefer to keep to myself and when it’s a success, I tell people.

I’ve tried it before. When you start telling people before you finish, it never works.

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