Via Basel: How I Met “Chicago”
By now dear readers you surely have noticed my affinity for memories, story telling, and anniversaries. I ask your indulgence again.
In my May column I did mention an upcoming anniversary around this time commemorating 50 years since I first came to Chicago, to interview for an Orthopedic Residency at Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center. Shortly after, I came back to start my orthopedic training, settling in the city or its environs for five decades. In the three years prior, I was a listless traveler, living in nine cities, in five countries and three continents, spanning two large bodies of water, the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Chicago was the cure for my wandering. I mentioned “destiny” in my post. Allow me to elaborate.
A background: Because of my work in orthopedics in the United Kingdom, I became interested in pursuing it further after my internship year in the United States. Little did I know about the difficulty in getting accepted into an orthopedic residency. It was one of the most desired specialties and still is, the openings were few, and being a foreign medical graduate (FMG) made it even harder to get in. After many rejections I settled for a General Surgical Residency in Rochester, N.Y. I considered myself fortunate to get in but it was a pyramidal system, which meant there were less spots the second year and some first year residents would be let go. I started July 1st, 1973, and soon found out it was brutal. Between sleepless emergency room calls every other night and assisting all day in surgery it was exhausting; yet I persevered and determined to do my best.
An unexpected call: Six weeks into the hard times, a longtime friend from Baghdad, Fuad came to my rescue. While working as resident in Anesthesiology in a Chicago Hospital he informed me of a sudden vacancy in the Ortho program at his hospital because one of the first year residents abruptly quit. I was on the next plane to Chicago for an interview and my competitors were only other FMG’s. I got the job.
Nabeel (family friend), Basel (in the middle), and Fuad (hospital pal) in Chicago circa 1973-1974
A tense meeting: Explaining my intense desire for Orthopedics, I politely requested from the General Surgery Residency Director in Rochester to release me from my contract or at least promise me continuity in his program if I performed well. He was arrogant, imperial, and refused my requests categorically.
Decision time: A similar opportunity was not going to came again soon, if at all. I was however a lowly young resident and recent immigrant, unilaterally breaking a contract and clashing with a senior well-connected surgeon with potential influence to complicate my board certification and license to practice in the future.
The next day I personally delivered my letter of resignation to his office, packed up my few belongings in the car, and headed for the windy city. It was a risky move, and I was not comfortable or proud to renege on a contract but was also ready for the consequences. It turned out fine with no repercussions later, but I did not know that then.
Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain, Summer 2023
What I am thrilled about is that I met “Chicago” and got along well with “her,” and to this day we both have honored our unwritten contract to stay together. I plan to abide by it for the rest of my life.
Basel Al-Aswad, father of EIL founder Christopher Al-Aswad, is a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body. His loves in life include reading, writing, hiking, enjoying nature, meditation, and spending time with his large Iraqi family; now, semi-retired, he is exploring new avenues in medicine, education, public speaking, teaching, and social engagement.