Jerusalem — It was early May but Dr. Rabnia El Khatib was so busy studying for an important exam, scheduled for June, that she could not find time for a face-to-face interview. “I’ve taken the week off from work to study,” she explained apologetically.
The first Israeli Arab woman to become a plastic surgeon in Israel, El Khatib feels particularly driven to succeed, not only for herself but for her community.
Adding to the pressure is El Khatib’s growing public persona. There’s an article and brief video clip about her on the Foreign Ministry’s website, a shout-out to the world that there is equality in Israel.
In the article, the raven-haired 29-year-old notes that in Arab society, “plastic surgery isn’t very advanced and it’s not well accepted so I feel a bit like an emissary for my community, to go into this field and take it forward.”
While she doesn’t shun the role of Israeli goodwill ambassador, El Khatib, a third-year resident at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, is more focused right now on mastering the myriad skills required of a plastic surgeon.
Though a pioneer in her specialty, she is just one of the many Arab physicians training and working in hospitals throughout Israel. Despite the socioeconomic gap between the Jewish and Arab sectors, high-achieving Arab high school students are readily accepted into Israeli medical schools, or study medicine abroad and return to Israel.
Banned, officially or otherwise, from several professions for security reasons (or simply because many employers will not hire someone who has not served in the military, and Arabs are exempt), Arab students are increasingly seeking out careers in the medical, nursing and pharmaceutical professions.
“About 20, 21 percent of our physicians are Arabs,” Rambam’s director, professor Rafael Beyar, told The Jewish Week. “That mirrors the percentage of Arabs in the Israeli population. At Rambam, several of our Arab physicians serve in senior positions, either as heads of units or departments.
Though he emphasized that Rambam’s hiring criteria are based solely on performance and not “religion or ethnicity, having a diverse group of staffers “breaks down barriers and builds bridges, not only between the medical personnel and patients, but among staffers themselves.”
When a missile hits or a military helicopter crashes and the wounded arrive at Rambam, “everyone is treated equally. The head of our trauma unit, Dr. Hani Bahous, is Arab,” Beyar said.
During our phone interview, El Khatib, a graduate of the Technion’s medical school, said that many people, Jewish and Arab, “don’t fully understand what plastic surgery is. They believe it’s purely done for aesthetic reasons, not realizing that plastic surgeons deal with wounds, trauma, cleft palates, facial abnormalities and reconstruction.”
Dr. Yehuda Ullman, the director of plastic surgery at Rambam, expressed the hope that once El Khatib gains more experience, she will be able to use her position to raise awareness about treatment options in the Arab sector, especially among women.
Noting that fewer Arab women than Jewish women opt for breast reconstruction surgery, Ullman said it is “much easier for female Arab patients suffering from a breast excision to talk to a woman who speaks their language.”
Patients’ husbands, too, will likely feel more comfortable having their wives examined by a woman, Ullman said.
Ullman also hopes to raise the level of awareness of skin cancer in the Arab community, which he said “is low. People come with advanced malignancies that have spread very widely.”
El Khatib noted that Arab society “isn’t homogeneous.”
“We have modern, traditional and religious. Arab society is more liberal, more open to everything than it used to be.”
Community members who do undergo plastic surgery tend to keep it a secret, El Khatib said, making it impossible to compile accurate numbers.
Although he could provide no specifics, Ullman said that female plastic surgeons in the Arab world appear to be a rarity.
“At international meetings you don’t see female Arab plastic surgeons,” the physician said.
El Khatib believes she will be able to live up to her colleagues’ high expectations.
“I’m the first Arab woman plastic surgeon in Israel and I have a lot more to learn. But I already see that female patients often prefer a female plastic surgeon. They feel that a woman can understand them more, especially with something so intimate.”
El Khatib hopes to pursue all facets of plastic surgery, including some that are mainly cosmetic, once she completes her studies.
“I believe that aesthetic surgery has some medical components, looking at it from a psychological health point of view. Patients who undergo certain aesthetic operations feel better and are more successful in their work and family lives.”
El Khatib said her own family has been very supportive of her decision to pursue this unusual specialty.
“They understand that this is a special residency. They’re very proud,” El Khatib said.