Physician recounts path from Lebanese ghetto to Wilmer Eye Institute


Moments before my first face-to-face meeting with Yassine Daoud is to begin, he politely asks if I can wait a few minutes as a young ophthalmology resident needs his counsel. "It will just be a few moments, thank you," he says with a smile so easy and genuine it could disarm an MMA fighter. His tall and lean body, which barely fills out his white lab coat, soon disappears into a side office.

Image caption: Yassine Daoud, seated, with classmates in second-year economics at the UWC-USA. They're gathered for dinner at a faculty apartment on the college's campus in Montezuma, N.M.

Daoud, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the School of Medicine's Wilmer Eye Institute, has few moments, and little desire, to slow down.

On a typical week he will teach and mentor medical students and residents on Mondays. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, he sees dozens of patients at his Columbia office. (He had seen 80 during just the past two days.) The rest of the week he will perform roughly 15 to 20 surgeries, mostly cataract removals and complex cornea transplants. He fills in his other time at the Wilmer Eye Institute conducting research, consulting with colleagues, and reading the latest medical and scientific journals. Daoud, a boyish-looking 37, scoffs at the notion of days off.

"There is no such thing," he says with a hearty laugh. "Days off will come later. Someone just last week said to me, 'Dr. Daoud, where do you get all this energy? When do you get a break and get some rest?' I [said] in 40 or 50 years there will be lots of rest. I'll have eternity to rest [laughs]."

It might be easy to classify Daoud as just your garden variety Johns Hopkins overachiever, but his passion comes from a different place. One quickly realizes Daoud is determined to extract all he can from a talent, a career, and good fortune that were anything but predetermined.

Born in Lebanon at the beginning of the country's civil war, Daoud spent his formative years surrounded by violence. As an infant, he lost an uncle—a civilian living with his family—who got caught in the crossfire during the fiercest days of the fighting.

With his family forced to move, Daoud spent the majority of his young life in a Palestinian refugee camp in the town of Baalbek, an ancient Phoenician city in the fertile Beqaa Valley known for its Roman ruins and burial sites of prophets.

In a 15-by-15-foot house, not much bigger than his office in East Baltimore, Daoud lived with his parents and eight brothers and sisters in a ghetto packed tightly with ramshackle one-story residences. A common pastime for the neighborhood's kids was to jump from roof to roof.

Daoud's own home consisted of walls made from mud and straw, a dirt floor, and a tin roof pocked with tiny holes.

"In winter, we used to love the music of the rain, until you got soaked as the water would leak through," he says. "We would have four or five buckets on the floor to collect the rain. You were lucky if you woke up in the morning and your mattress was not wet."

The single space served as bedroom, guest room, kitchen, dining room, and sitting room. At night, the kids slept back to back. The household joke was that if you went to sleep on your right side, you had to stay there.

He vividly recalls how his mother used a washcloth to scrub the hard floor, which often left her fingertips bleeding.

They had no running water, no refrigerator, and only intermittent electricity. During drought seasons, the family had to rely on water distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a three-gallon ration a day.

And then there was the violence. Fighting was commonplace, although the level abated after the Syrian army somewhat stabilized the area. When he was in third grade, his school was bombed and he lost family members, teachers, and classmates; he was fortunate to be home at the time. Air raids, armored vehicles, and soldiers were ubiquitous, and in 1984 the violence got so bad his family had to flee to neighboring Syria for seven months.

"After coming back from Syria, things were relatively calm," he says. "However, that is by Lebanese standards and not American standards. Heavily armed soldiers were a constant presence, and violence could break out anytime."

But despite the conditions, Daoud considered himself lucky.

"I can't think of a day we could not afford food. By our neighbors' standards, we were considered wealthy because we always had a meal on the table," he says.

"My parents would often give me food to deliver to neighbors in need. They would cry and thank me, as it might be the first meal they had that day. That was the norm, not the exception."

All told, Daoud remembers his childhood with mostly fond memories. His friends would play soccer, hide-and-seek, marbles, and a game that involved knocking a stick out of the ground.

A popular Daoud pastime was the atlas game he and his brothers and sisters would play. Their father, who worked in a gas station before he started his own fuel delivery business, would challenge them to find a particular town or city.

"We each had our own atlas from school, and whoever found the location first got a penny or two pennies," he says. "Those were some of my fondest memories. And I got really good at geography."

Daoud excelled in school. With each A on a test, his father would buy him a book to satiate his love of reading. A friend of his parents started calling the young Daoud "Doc," saying the bright boy was destined to become a doctor.

By third grade, Daoud had accumulated enough books that he opened his own micro library, using a hollowed-out old TV as shelving. He would lend the books to area children. Some were returned, others weren't.

"Looking back, I didn't have the proper system of checks and balances [laughs]. But if I could help impart some knowledge to another, or send someone to a dreamy place, then it was all worth it."

Daoud, too, would let books transport him to magical lands of palaces and cities far from his own reality.

In 10th grade, Daoud scored very high on a national exam, and teachers made him aware of scholarships to study abroad. One such scholarship was to United World College–USA, a two-year residential school in Montezuma, N.M., that serves students ages 16 to 19 from 73 participating countries. The school offers a unique program that combines academic challenge with an experiential hands-on and group approach to learning.

Daoud would not learn about this particular scholarship until the night before the deadline. With the clock ticking, he had to gather his teacher and the school's guardian to get access to his transcripts.

"I still recall us going through my transcripts by candlelight at the school, copying all my grades and other information for the application," he says. "But that is the level of commitment the teachers had in my area. It wasn't just a job for them; it was a mission. And they cared for us. I quickly developed a level of respect for teachers that I have to this day."

Daoud was one of two Lebanese children selected for the scholarship (the other went to UWC-Canada), and a year later, after he finished 11th grade, he found himself on a plane bound for New Mexico. Up until that point, "a vacation" had meant a 50-mile trip to see his aunt in the southern portion of Lebanon.

"I remember being very scared," he says. "It was the first time I would go anywhere without my family, and to a place totally unknown to me. I think as the plane took off, I started shedding tears. The little kid in me starting thinking, This is real. In the beginning, you're excited. You got a scholarship. You are going places. Your dreams are coming true. Your future looks brighter. But the moment the plane takes off, you're leaving everything you know and you can't turn around. I thought, Will I ever see my parents again?"

Daoud arrived in New Mexico with only a rudimentary knowledge of English. In fact, his first visa application had been denied because he could not carry on a conversation in English with the consulate general at the American embassy in Damascus.

He was one of nearly 100 students in his class, and no two roommates could be from the same continent. Here was a true melting pot.

"My time at the UWC really colored my world view and shaped a lot of what I stand for. Here were kids from all over the world, from various backgrounds, some rich, some poor, all learning side by side," he says.

Ravindra Parashar, Daoud's economics instructor at UWC-USA, says the young man from Lebanon immediately impressed him. He described the teenage Daoud as always positive, smiling, and eager to learn, participate, and listen to all sides of an argument.

"He was good-natured and interested in everything. At first, he seemed awestruck by his new environment and the landscape. But what really struck me was there was no bitterness to him. He came from such meager beginnings in an area of crisis, but he didn't let that color who he was in a negative way," Parashar says. "He looked at everything so positively, and he had this burning desire to learn and grow and do something for the world."

After earning a bilingual international baccalaureate diploma, Daoud applied to and was accepted on a full scholarship to Amherst College, where he majored in chemistry and neuroscience.

Following graduation, he took a year off for research and to earn money for medical school. He was accepted to Harvard with a $25,000 yearly scholarship but needed $21,000 more a year. A wealthy businessman who knew of his back story agreed to pay the rest of his expenses.

"I had others come forward who told me they wanted to support my medical education," he says. "America is a really incredible place. There's a lot of good will out there, and people who, if they believe in you, will invest in you. I guess they saw the passion I had to become a doctor."

After receiving his medical degree in 2005, Daoud came to Baltimore for his medical internship at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. He followed that with a three-year residency at the Duke University Eye Center.

But then Baltimore beckoned again, and he got accepted for a cornea and external disease fellowship at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Following his fellowship, several universities courted Daoud for their faculty, but he ultimately chose Johns Hopkins, in part because he and his wife, Laila El-Haddad—a journalist and author originally from Gaza whom he met at Harvard—and their young two children were already settled in the area. But perhaps what appealed to Daoud most were the friendly culture and international reach of Johns Hopkins, and its reputation nationally and overseas.

He officially joined Johns Hopkins in summer 2010. The first day, he says, was a mix of nerves and excitement.

"I think I had six consults that first day, half of them from cornea specialists who had at least 10 years of experience," he says. "But I was ready for it. I have been lucky enough to have very strong training."

In the past three years, Daoud has earned a growing reputation for his surgical skills. He routinely sees patients from overseas and others who see him as their best or final chance to improve their sight. In one recent week, for example, he had two patients from Saudi Arabia and a doctor from Mexico who needed a cornea transplant.

"Almost weekly, I'll have a patient come in where cataract surgery didn't go well, and they say, Can you fix it?" he says. "Those are the challenging ones, but those are also the ones that I enjoy the most. That is one of the things I love about being here. I see things that almost nobody else sees. By that I mean the level of complexity, the level of clinical pathology that we have is really unparalleled because Hopkins draws from just about everywhere."

Daoud specializes in cataract and refractive surgery, as well as the diagnosis and treatment of corneal disorders, including Fuchs dystrophy and keratoconus. His research focuses on trying to better understand cataract formation in order to provide a medicine, drug, or vaccine that can treat or prevent the condition. In terms of surgery, he wants to improve and simplify the use of lasers in eye surgery to make it available to more patients overseas.

"Nearly 30 million people are blind from cataracts," he says. "For a lot of those people, blindness can be prevented by what should be a safe procedure. We need more people trained in the surgery."

Walter J. Stark, the T. Boone Pickens Professor of Ophthalmology and director of the Stark-Mosher Center for Cataract and Corneal Diseases at the Wilmer Eye Institute, says that Daoud is one of the most gifted, enthusiastic, and energetic corneal transplant surgeons he's ever met.

"I knew he had excellent training at Harvard and Duke before he came here, but he has exceeded all expectations," Stark says. "He's great with patients and an excellent surgeon. And his research will hopefully lead to improved cataract surgery. We are very lucky to have him."

Stark says he remembers that when he first met Daoud, he was taken aback by his "microscopic" handwriting.

"I asked him, Why so small? I could barely read it, and he says it came from the fact he was given only one notebook a year in school, and he had to write so small so he didn't waste an inch on the page," Stark says.

Daoud could afford to write larger today, but now he's frugal with his time: He's not wasting a single minute.

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