I’ve always been different in every single situation in my life.
Dr. Amel Arnaout
Division of endocrinology & metabolism
Letting go ‘Marie Kondo style’ is a discipline for organizing your belongings, and, by extension, your life. It’s a talent Dr. Amel Arnaout currently doesn’t possess but desperately wants to. After binge watching a whole bunch of Tidying Up episodes on Netflix, Amel followed suit by KonMari-ing her own living space, thanked and said goodbye to things as is part of the ‘process’ and packed a bunch of stuff up to be spirited away. It didn’t last. Clutter problem…not solved.
While that particular solution may have been short lived – btw she’s not adverse to outsourcing now – Amel is by nature a problem solver. And, like Kondo who doesn’t transform people’s homes for them but gives them the tools they need to do it themselves, this endocrinologist slash educator develops tools for her patients and residents to help them navigate their respective worlds of diabetes.
What follows are a collection of thoughts from Dr. Amel Arnaout on, among other things, the most inflexible of travel companions, online shopping and prison.
I think people see me as different; hopefully interesting. I think they are surprised when they talk to me and I’m not as shy or reserved as they thought. I’ve always been different in every single situation in my life. I’ve always lived either in a country where I looked different or acted different and also by virtue of what I wear or my profession. I don’t see myself as different, but I can definitely sense it when other people are a little bit hesitant or timid to approach me. I try and break those barriers when I see it. I want people to know that I am a genuinely happy person, I’m funny and witty, open to new ideas and love when people engage me in conversation.
The cruelest thing a person has ever said to me is, “you’re in Canada now, you can stop wearing that on your head” or “how can you promote the subjugation of women?”. I should preface that to say that I am Muslim, and I choose to wear a hijab. I’ve been in Canada since I was a teenager, but I didn’t start wearing it until I was in medical school. It was a well thought out conscious decision at that time. I get that sometimes comments like that are not always coming from a point of prejudice, but rather from a point of someone feeling that perhaps as a woman in Islam I’m being forced to do this. But sometimes it’s just plain ignorance, influenced by what people see in the media in terms of how Muslims are portrayed. It’s amazing that this small piece of cloth can at times make people assume I’m dangerous, illiterate or unintelligent. I don’t get angry, but I do try and explain that this is a choice and it’s my choice, they don’t have to agree.
I grew up all over the place. I was born in Taiwan, moved to Jordan then to Canada at the age of 16. My father is Jordanian and an engineer by training, my mother Taiwanese and studied business.
My mom taught me resilience. Nothing fazes her, she is iron woman in my eyes.
What I got from my father was not backing away from opportunities and knowing that I’m capable of doing anything despite what challenges may come. My father is a huge role model, not just for me but for my entire family. He traveled many places for work and never let language be a barrier. He learned to start new businesses for his livelihood and our family wherever he went. For myself and for my sisters, we have always grown up with the notion that we were going to work, that was never even a choice. In life, you’re supposed to work hard and strive to do better.
Growing up, ‘quit’ was not a word I knew. My parents were not very prescriptive in what they expected of us, but the expectation to persevere was there for sure. There was ‘no, I can’t do this so I’m going to quit this sport or event’. If we asked to do it, we needed to see it through to the end.
Sibling psychology is really interesting. In my family, there’s four of us – all girls – and we’re very close in age. In some ways I think we are each other’s closest ally, but also each other’s biggest competitor.
When I was twelve, I wanted to be an astronaut. I am so interested in space. It’s the idea that there’s just so much out there we don’t know. It’s vast. It’s beautiful. It’s exciting to think of this entire expanse that is more or less completely unexplored. The space shuttle Challenger event was devastating for me as a child. I cried for weeks afterward. It was just heartbreaking to see what happened to those people and that program.
A turning point in my life was losing my sight in medical school. I had a retinal detachment requiring surgery in both eyes and lost 70 % of my eyesight. It was right around resident match time and it really threw everything up in the air. I wasn’t sure I was going to graduate because I wasn’t sure I was even going to be able to write the Licentiate of the Medical Council of Canada exam. Thankfully I had my family; they were very supportive. Those three to four months were probably the most challenging of my life but I always felt that at the end of the day it would all work out and I’d find something to do that would allow me to feel fulfilled. After several surgeries over the years, I am happy to say that I have almost 20/20 vision now.
Courage is telling the truth even when it negatively impacts you. I think it’s sometimes easier just to portray yourself as someone who knows what they’re doing, who’s super confident and who does everything right. But I think it’s also important to step back and say, no, I can’t do this or I’m having difficulty with this or even, I made a mistake.
A really big test of how kind a human being is, is their open acceptance of other people’s values and ideas.
It is important not to make decisions based on a temporary emotional reaction. I try not to make any decisions when I am tired or stressed and purposely tell myself to wait.
One characteristic/hobby I share with my siblings is our love of travel.
You don’t know what people are really like until you go on a trip with them; that includes people you thought you knew really well. I love traveling with other people, but I’m a go with the flow type and don’t feel the need to stick to an agenda . Also, how people adapt to change in sleep, food and culture can be interesting to observe. You can really find out what a person truly cares about by how they want to prioritize their time.
There’s no such thing as shortcuts in life, hard work pays off.
One rule of parenting: stay calm; just being there is doing something.
My definition of smart is knowing your limitations and maximizing your strengths. The best advice I was ever given was focus on what you do best.
The most indulgent thing I do each day or week is online shopping (more like monthly but I wish it was each day!). I’m guilty of being an Amazon lover. It’s such a convenience and so much faster. I do a lot of shopping online for my children; for their sports equipment and school stuff. I love to check in on my favorite stores and see what’s new. Sometimes I end up buying nothing. I do have a weakness for shoes and handbags, but who doesn’t?
The thing I’d find most difficult about being in prison would be the outfits; orange is really not my colour.
When I wake up in the morning I think of coffee! I do my best thinking in the morning when it is quiet, after I’ve had my coffee and I’m out for a run.
My stress reducing trick is talking to my husband; he puts things in perspective.
I have three children who are all in competitive sports, so my husband and I are ships passing through the night. Our daily life is a complicated process of trying to figure out who’s responsible for what. The best ritual of each day is having dinner with the family, no matter how late it is.
You have to give people permission to help you. I think it’s become easier for me over the years. For a long time – perhaps because of being a female physician and trying to always feel like you can do it all – I just never really thought that I could ask for help. But now I’m trying to ask more. I can’t say I’m always successful, but if people offer help, I will accept it.
I’ve always had a ‘can do’ attitude but as my husband often says, ‘you can’t volunteer your time when you don’t have any’.
The stupidest argument to have with somebody is who does more housework.
I don’t like it when people say, “I deserve this or that”.
The best way to get things moving is to start moving.
I am motivated by those around me who believe in me.
If I’ve learned any truths in life, it’s this: people – adults – do not fundamentally change.
In high school I was very good at academic subjects and PE and terrible at drama.
When I was 8 or 9 years old, I was part of a dance studio and asked to do a fashion show for kids clothing. The theme was African safari and I was supposed to be a lion trainer or something because was dressed in stirrup pants, boots and had to carry a long whip which I was supposed to crack as I walked down the runway. I remember being terrified that I would accidentally whip someone’s head in the audience!
The most imaginative thing I’ve done as an adult is learn to ski. If you witnessed my many epic falls you would understand.
The 1990s fashion trend that I miss the most is coloured tights.
I’d eat potato chips all the time if it wasn’t for my health. There I’ve said it – shocking revelation for an Endocrinologist. I have my emergency bag of chips ready for really stressful days – Ruffles All Dressed.
My greatest guilty pleasure TV show is Game of Thrones. It’s so violent but I love it anyway because it shows the extremes of human character.
Travelling to experience a new culture is life’s greatest luxury and if I could only pack 3 things to travel to an unknown destination, they would be comfortable shoes, a credit card and an empty suitcase. I’ve actually done that. People are shocked with how little I pack when I travel. My intention is to fill the suitcase while I’m away. I enjoy buying interesting things: clothing, or a nice piece of jewellery, a fun hat – memories to take home. I recently bought an old fashioned, but very effective juicer from Agadir, Morocco. I was inspired by the fresh squeezed OJ every morning at the seaside cafe and the pomegranate juice carts in the local markets where vendors had arms of steel from making glass after glass! We used it constantly when we got home.
Cadiz, Spain is my favourite city. It’s out of the way, beautiful and full of history. It’s also got great food and amazing views.
My favourite activity outside of the hospital is relaxing at the cottage.
My greatest extravagance is kids; they’re expensive.
The silliest thing I own is a cat AND a bird.
The technical advance I most anticipate is a true artificial pancreas.
I picked the work that I’m doing now based on what I liked, not based on limitations. People often say, ‘how come your sister’s a surgeon and you’re not?’ In medical school they asked us to decide whether we were a thinker or a doer. As a doer you try to fix something right away and then that’s it. And a thinker is someone who tries to figure out the problem, put the puzzle pieces together and then rethink again when things are not exactly right. I’m a thinker. I’m very gratified by the work that I do and like the type of patients that I follow. I see them from age 18 to over a hundred. I could potentially be following them for that entire time. With endocrinology I get to really know my patients as individuals and share their experiences through the entire journey. That really appeals to me as a thinking person.
This field right now is changing, particularly in diabetes and with respect to the traditional doctor patient relationship. Patients are going to have access to tools that will help them live their lives and self-manage better. We have to learn to accept that our role may be more of a coach. I’m embracing it.
The closest I’ve ever come to death was almost drowning as a child. It was at night. I was sitting on a chair and tipped over into the deep end of a pool. I remember seeing the surface getting further and further away from me. And then my dad jumped in and saved me. I still remember thinking ‘why is dad jumping in with his shoes?’ Now I have a cottage and I love to swim.
I feel I’m on the threshold of self-contentment. I mean there are always things that you wish were different, but I feel very lucky. I’ve gotten everything that I’ve ever really wanted in life.
If I had to write my autobiography using only 6 words, it would be “I am who I am – so there!”. ‘Never trying to be something that you’re not,’ is important and something that I role model to my children. Perhaps I struggled with self-esteem issues when I was a teenager. Part of my path towards self-contentment is really accepting who I am and knowing that at this stage of my life I’m probably not going to change.
I speak English, Chinese, Taiwanese, Arabic and, I can probably get away with French, but that would be very limited.
My unknown talent is horseback riding – racing and show jumping. I started at a young age but haven’t done it in years. Owning a horse has never really been a feasible thing for me living in Canada. But I will own a horse again one day because completing the 100 km equestrian trail race is on my bucket list.
My primary goal and passion has always been patient care but through the process of my clinical work I have had many opportunities to either teach, supervise or be involved in education. I never said no to any of it and sometimes it was at the expense of my personal or clinical time. But I love to teach. When my friend Dr. Janine Malcolm stepped down from being Program Director it was a natural progression for me to take on that role.
I love the part of the job where I get to know the residents, especially finding out the types of careers they want so I can support them by building a program to get them to their specific goal.
When the Faculty of Medicine first started to recruit for their Distinguished Teachers Program, they reached out to teachers who were ranked in the top 10% of medical student evaluations. I was one of them. Unfortunately, that first year I just couldn’t enroll. At that time, I was a full-time clinician and carving out 160 hours would have been quite difficult. So, I planned for it and enrolled in the second cohort. It was a great experience being able to teach things I’d never taught before and sharing ideas with likeminded people who also loved to teach.
During that time, I was the content expert for endocrinology and wanted to revamp the curriculum. I started thinking about ways I could teach diabetes differently. And not just for medical students, for our residents as well. So, I developed a bootcamp where our learners get to live the life of an individual with diabetes and wear the technologies, we actually give our patients. We asked them to record, document and test the same way that we ask our patients. After a week we have a round table discussion to talk about the experience. This type of experiential learning is something I’m very interested in. While I was aware that there were other ways to teach, without the experience of the Distinguished Teachers program, I’m not sure it would have thought to go there.