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On Shaken Ground

This is the 524th story of Our Life Logs


It is in the state of Maryland where my story began. I was born there in 1975 to Egyptian-American parents, my younger brother and I being the first-generation Americans. Looking back, I had a pretty “Americana” childhood. I have fond memories of collecting baseball cards, skateboarding, walking the family dog, Rex, admiring my favorite superheroes—I could go on.

Still, my brother and I had cultural input from our parents, specifically concerning our education and careers. In Egypt, planning for the future is essential. Since we had the means, I was pushed always to “go for the gold.”

Me, in third grade. I won an essay contest, the prompt being “Why I’m Proud to be American.”

Knowing this, I would often ponder about what I wanted to do with my life. I’d toy with many ideas, but there was one that I thought about the most. Art. It made sense, for I was growing up in a time of rapidly advancing animation and a variety of new styles in every comic book, TV show, and film I consumed as a child. From Superman to Scooby Doo, art surrounded me.

My dad, though an engineer, was an excellent artist. He taught me the tricks of the trade, and I began to dedicate hours and hours of my days to my sketchbooks. As the years passed, the steadier my pencil became, and the more pronounced my passion was. After countless hours of poring over my work, studying my favorite artists, and learning new techniques, I saw a path stretch out before me.

Thus, when I finished high school in 1992, I had my heart set on becoming a comic artist. My head full of ideas for wild adventures and stories to tell, I excitedly began to browse art programs in nearby colleges.

It was then that my parents stepped in.

While my parents wanted me to be happy, my mom and dad expressed their concern that my career choice wouldn’t be the wisest. It wasn’t anything against artists—no; the job market at that time was changing rapidly, and, though the availability of art jobs across animation, comics, advertising, and what-have-you, were on the rise, so was the competition. They wanted me to choose a job that they felt would give me the best security.

Though their intentions were good, I resisted. Why couldn’t I do what I love? All those special techniques I learned, all that time spent learning, sketching, correcting…it would all amount to nothing. I even felt my dad betrayed me. Why did he even bother to sit and draw with me if this is what would happen in the end? But I needed an education. I knew I couldn’t resist forever. So, that fall, I made my way across the quad to my first class in my new chosen field: Pre-Med.

It wasn’t a fun jump. As my artbooks morphed into chemistry tables and biology textbooks, I found myself wondering if this would ever make me happy. While in my general education classes I did dabble in the arts a bit—and even developed a love for other mediums, like film—I accepted, though grudgingly, that I had to focus on a more secure future.

At first, I didn’t feel much excitement for my prospective career. But as I continued in the program into medical school, I began to truly immerse myself in medicine, I felt something rise within me. A passion, perhaps? Its flame wasn’t particularly strong, but I found myself beginning to look forward to classes more and more. Then, as I shadowed doctors and did work in clinical settings, I began to see where my education was leading me.

It wasn’t all reading and memorizing. With the rainbow of scrubs of doctors and nurses alike flashing by, white coats swirling as they ran on the scene, I saw a picture so familiar to the stories of heroism I dreamed up as a child. Maybe they weren’t wearing colorful capes with mysterious emblems, but they tirelessly followed the same ideals as those who wore them in the comics I loved so much.

The more I saw of them, the more I wanted to do to become like them. The books became less boring. The endless streams of diagrams and medical texts became my brain’s favorite food, and I’d voraciously devour as much as I could. But, to me, with this opportunity lighting up this formerly dreary path, it was never enough. I hungered for something deeper—experience beyond the text.

• • •

In my last years of medical school, accompanied by a team of doctors, I was given the chance to go on a medical mission to Kosovo…during the war in the Balkans. Despite the objections from most everyone who knew me, I knew it was something I needed to do. I felt called to go. The people escaping the war desperately needed a hero.

So, if I couldn’t draw my heroes, I’d just have to become one.

Navigating our way through the warzone was no easy task. As I avoided minefields, the pops of automatic gunfire, artillery exploding around us, and the inescapable fears of death that lingered darkly at every corner, I wondered if I had made the right decision. Perhaps, I thought, I’m getting ahead of myself. After all, I was only a medical student. What if I couldn’t really help? What if I didn’t get home? “What ifs” ricocheted across my brain, and the closer we got to the front-line, the greater the lump in my stomach became.

Yet, when we arrived, I had no time to dwell on worries. My team and I got to work instantly. We worked together as the patients came in and out, their eyes full of hope for recovery. Even if I was only able to assist in some procedures, seeing the relief wash over a war-battered face as they were “discharged” from our care, I felt like I was finally doing the work that was meant for me.

In Kosovo, in our mobile clinic with a patient.

Though my team and I were constantly at work, our hands never unoccupied with a bandage or scalpel or the like, my appetite, strangely, grew stronger than ever. We saw a plethora of cases, a myriad of pains—and I wanted to know about them all.

I retained this new desire as I moved on past school and to my internship. Following the advice of one of my mentors, who kindly allowed me a great deal of opportunity in medical school, I decided to do my internship in the ER (Emergency Room).

One of my mentors (left) and me (right).

After I finished, I moved on to a Family Medicine residency. I wanted to develop the broadest range of skills that I could, as I wanted to be able to help someone no matter the circumstances. In my residency, I wanted as many patient care opportunities as possible. That way, I felt, gave me the best chance to learn and expand my skills.

I eagerly dived in as planned, but instead of being greeted with patients and procedures, I found myself working more in documentation and charting. Thus, I transferred to another hospital—and was unfortunately met with the same ideology. As I documented another day at a desk, I wondered to myself again, Did I make the wrong choice? The job choice I made independently in my teen years was swept away by others’ doubt, after all. Should I have taken a step back, and maybe consulted someone else?

I decided to transfer yet again, this time to Texas. I had already worked in multiple states—Arizona, Ohio, and South Carolina. I remained hopeful, though, that I had finally made the right decision. After medical school, I had gotten married (back in 2000), and by this point in my life, my wife and I had two children. If for nothing else, I had to stay strong and keep my head up for my family. Thankfully, in Texas, I was able to complete my residency the way I wanted to; I could constantly apply my skills, as well as learn—and help—my patients. I gradually began to feel better about my choice.

Then, in 2006, just two weeks after the Kashmiri earthquake, I went on another medical mission. Instead of helplessly looking on as someone else treated a patient or being an assistant to the doctors, I was finally able to use the advanced skills I acquired. Doing so affirmed my purpose and my decision to be a doctor.

At the end of a day of hard work, I stripped off my gloves, sat back, and looked out at the heavenly landscape before me. Despite the toppled buildings and uneven ground, a natural beauty was evident beneath it. It would take months—maybe years—to return the place to its former state. And, even then, it would never be the “same.”

Exhausted and dusty, I looked down at myself, wearing the clothes of a doctor, far, far from home. It wasn’t how I envisioned myself, not by a long shot! Still, I smiled. My life’s “terrain” went through its own brokenness, but even with what was shaken, things weren’t all lost. The scene is different, but I can still gaze upon it with a look of satisfaction.

Now, as an ER physician who has practiced for almost twenty years, I can say that in my profession, there’s no shortage of excitement—and I’m not talking about the fun, amusement-park-type. In one shift, you may first see a couple of cold cases, and then…BAM! There’s a car pileup on Highway 5, and the emergency room becomes a frenzy of adrenaline, stretchers, and calls for help. In those times, there’s a huge mishmash of hope and of pain, of truly horrific and truly amazing things.

No matter the state of our hospital, no matter the state of our world, we’ll find a way to soar, up, up, and away. After all, we have before.

This is the story of Dr. Ali Shehata

Dr. Ali Shehata began his journey in 1975, Maryland, where he lived most of his childhood. During that time, he aspired to become a comic artist, but, due to his parents’ worries regarding job security, he ended up going to medical school. While he had difficulty adjusting to his new course, he revived his childhood dreams of drawing superheroes by striving to become one himself. Across his education, which involved medical missions to Kosovo and Kashmir, he developed a passion for his career and became an ER physician.

Now, Dr. Shehata works in Saudi Arabian emergency rooms and has done so for almost nine years. Though devoted to his job, he has never lost his love for art. He practices it with his children, enjoys learning about all its forms—most especially in film and animation—and even uses it when he holds classes for medical students and others. In his free time, Dr. Shehata enjoys spending time with his family and their seven cats, reading, traveling, and catching up with his old super-friends from DC and Marvel whenever a new movie is out.  While Dr. Shehata does not draw as often as he used to, his passion for art remains. Now, he mainly focuses on film, and he enjoys using his camera and even drafting scripts for videos he plans to do for his workplace.



Especially now, during the COVID-19 crisis, uncertainties and tensions in the hospital are higher than ever. It can be jarring to me how little is known about the virus, and how no matter what my colleagues and I do, we don’t know exactly what’ll help. Like an artist who brings out his canvas, even without an idea of what to paint, we “paint” this blankness with our own knowledge. We research, we treat, we experiment, all hoping we’ll be able to paint something that others following in our footsteps will one day look upon in study for their own masterpiece.

My COVID-19 protective gear—2020.

I’m no stranger to a new path, just like so many of us. Be it littered with the dust of dreams, mines, or volatile, microscopic unknowns, I know it will alter our familiar landscape. New pains, new fears, new disasters we never thought possible—all seem to darken our distant horizon. As we venture, we will stumble. Through those stumbles, though, we’ll discover within ourselves—and others—a potential we would not have found otherwise.

This story first touched our hearts on March 31, 2020.

| Writer: Safiyya Bintali | Editor: Colleen Walker |
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