Dr Fernando Hakim is following the lead of his father Salomón Hakim, who discovered normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) and developed the Hakim valve as a cure. Although born and bred in Colombia, he never forgets his Lebanese origins…

Article by: Anna Cecilia Juri

I was born into a Lebanese family and inherited a love for the Lebanese people and their customs. I was fortunate to have been born into a family with a father who loved his profession, and passed on this love and his love for Lebanon to me. My mother, daughter of Camilo Majdalani, was also part of a long line of Lebanese, and she too instilled in me a love for the country. My grandfather, Camilo Majdalani, left Lebanon with no money, convincing the captain of the ship to let him travel in third class. With his Lebanese business acumen, he bought dried fruits and nuts in the ports and, when food became scarce, he sold them to passengers and managed to make a good profit. He eventually arrived in Colombia in first class with savings in his pocket.

He reached Colombia via the port of Buenaventura and immediately felt that he had a future there. He married my grandmother Edvik Mash Majdalani, and they settled in Cali, where he opened many businesses.

I have always felt Lebanese because of my last name. It made me wonder about where I came from. They have always talked about Lebanon and Lebanese people in my house; they talk about people from the same “blad” country.

If I was born again, I would still want to be Lebanese because I follow my heart, and my heart wants to come back to Lebanon. My children, too, are Lebanese at heart, although they weren’t born in Lebanon.

During a congress I chaired, I paid tribute to my ancestry by presenting photographs of the Port of Beirut 100 years ago. I gave a speech about my grandparents leaving Lebanon and arriving at the port of Colombia, next to what is today known as Barranquilla, a very large port where all the immigrants arrived. I ask God to be reborn in this beautiful and generous race.

“My grandfather left Lebanon with no money, convincing the captain of the ship to let him travel in third class. He eventually arrived in Colombia in first class with savings in his pocket.”

Q & A with Dr Fernando Hakim

How and why did you choose medicine as your profession, and then neurosurgery as a specialty?

When I was young I decided to become a doctor because I wanted to help  people. There was a particular moment in my life when I decided I wanted to become a doctor. When I was little we were in the US on vacation and my mother wanted to visit a friend who had recently had an operation in Miami. As we were walking into the Miami Heart Institute, my mother lost consciousness due to problems with a heart valve. My brother quickly found a stretcher and entered the emergency room with my father. My father immediately assumed the worst, and informed us that from that moment on he must act as both our mother and father. Miraculously, Dr Ernesto Traad, a Lebanese doctor, was able to change my mother’s heart valve and she came back to life. At that moment, I realized what great things a doctor can achieve.

It is Dr Guillermo Umaña, my senior from a military hospital, who once asked me what I was thinking about specializing in. I told him that I was undecided between cardiovascular surgery and neurosurgery and he said to me: “Do not throw away the work your father has done.” He said if I didn’t become a neurosurgeon, it would be as if my father gave me millions of dollars and I was throwing it all away.

This encounter persuaded me to specialize in neurosurgery.

Today I feel fulfilled as a neurosurgeon, carrying on the great legacy that my father began. My brother Carlos is a biomedical engineer and I am working with him to develop the new Hakim valve. Rodolfo (my other brother) is a pediatric neurosurgeon.

What makes surgeons successful?

They must love what they do. They must work every day with great dedication, even on difficult days, they must never be disappointed by failure, but rather learn from it. They must have persistence, never give up and always think big. Lebanese people have this persistence within them. I am very disciplined in my life and I think this takes me a long way. There are people who ride on the coattails of their parents, but my intention is to achieve more than the great legacy my father left me.

Your father discovered NPH – it was he who opened the door to reversible dementia. Let’s talk a little about that great discovery.

My father’s greatest achievement was to describe NPH. Developing the Hakim valve was very important, but the greatest thing he did was to define hydrocephalus as a disease that resembles Alzheimer’s but is different from it –and, unlike Alzheimer’s, it can be cured. There are currently no statistics to indicate how many people who were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s actually have NPH, but there is no doubt that he helped many people who were misdiagnosed. NPH and its cure were discovered in 1964. This discovery gave people the possibility of returning to a normal life, to their families.

A group of us are creating a clinic within the Santa Fe Foundation Hospital in Bogota to study patients with this disease. An important goal for me in my life is to resolve the confusion between Alzheimer’s and dementia, since millions of people in the world are misdiagnosed.

“All you need in life is love, even when you are fighting you must learn to fight with love.” Salomón Hakim

Obviously, your father, Salomón Hakim Dow, has greatly influenced your work. In what ways?

My father was my best teacher in medicine, in neurosurgery and in life. The second floor of my house was the laboratory where I developed my skills since my father had all the instruments there when I was a child. Being the son of Salomón Hakim was difficult since the level of expectation was very high, but this strengthened my spirit and helped me to become the person I am today. My father was a very intelligent man. From the time we were children, he taught us everything in a playful way, as if it were a story. He gave me the instruments to succeed in life, and told us: “All you need in life is love, even when you are fighting you must learn to fight with love.”

I have a desire to succeed and help people. The human body is a perfect laboratory. Current technology in craniotomy allows us to reach an untouchable part of the brain, allowing a very sick person to make a good recovery. To finish a cerebral aneurysm surgery at 2.00pm, and at 4.00pm see that the patient has recovered, is very gratifying.

What is the biggest challenge you have had to undertake as a professional?

The biggest challenge is being able to remove a tumor without doing any harm. Telling someone they are cured gives me a great sense of achievement. Patients arrive in a wheelchair and unable to control bowel movements. We study them, treat them, and make it possible for them to live normal lives. Being able to watch patients enjoy their day-to-day life again is a great accomplishment. My work in neurosurgery at the Santa Fe Foundation University Hospital in Bogota, curing people by operating on tumors, aneurysms, and spinal problems, gives me huge pleasure.

Do you think your scientific soul and love for medicine comes from your last name Hakim (which in Arabic means doctor, Galen) or from a family vocation?

I once visited my family’s village of Batroun in Lebanon, where surnames are given according to occupation. Farid Hakim was the only one who stayed in Lebanon; he is a great doctor. Everyone in the family was a doctor. It gives me pride to know where my surname comes from and the meaning behind it.

 See as published