Canadian Cardiovascular Society

As we celebrate Asian Heritage Month, the Canadian Cardiovascular Society (CCS) is proud to recognize and honor the valuable contributions of our members of Asian heritage. This month serves as an opportunity to celebrate the rich cultural diversity within the Asian community, across our country, and throughout cardiovascular science and medicine.

The CCS is home to many members of Asian heritage, including those from across the continent – representing East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and West Asia.

Dr. Annie Chou moved to Canada from Taiwan with her parents when she was very young. “I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood and spent my childhood trying to pretend I was white like my friends, and that I didn’t speak a different language at home. I did not want to feel different,” she said. “Over the years … I started to appreciate my heritage. I was able to embrace my culture with deeper understanding and was able to use my language skills to develop professionally. I was able to empathize with patients who did not understand the language or the culture, knowing firsthand through my parents’ experience just how difficult it was to start life in a brand-new country.”

Born in China, Dr. Yuan Qiu also moved to Canada when she was young. She calls her parents her biggest role models. “I saw my parents go from being aerospace engineers back in China to working multiple minimum wage jobs while doing graduate schooling to make ends meet and provide a better opportunity for my brother and me,” she said. “They were always extremely supportive of my dreams and passions, and these early experiences of seeing how hard my parents worked and their resilience and passion instilled discipline and a hard-working mindset in my life that I have carried with me as I pursue my career in cardiac surgery.”

Dr. Samir Hazra was born in Ottawa as a first generation Canadian. His father immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s, thanks to the help of his older cousins – as is common in many south Asian families. “My sister and I, born in Canada, lived with my parents, paternal grandparents, and my father’s younger brother in a single-family home in which my parents still live today”, Dr. Hazra said. “Sadly, as is common in the south Asian community, coronary artery disease and cardiac disease in general played a large role in our family, with my father having lost three brothers to coronary disease between the ages of 35 and 50. My grandmother, who had a large role in raising me and with whom I shared a bedroom until I turned 13, suffered from both multivessel CAD and severe AS, which eventually took her life.”

Dr. Iqbal Jaffer’s ancestry is Indian, via East Africa. “My grandfather had bypass surgery before I was born and again when I was nine years old. My father had bypass surgery in his 40s. Heart disease has been all around me and at each instance, I had a personal connection to it”, he said. “I think that the biggest thing that I have gained through both being an immigrant myself and growing up in a diverse community is that I have an interest in learning about people. I feel comfortable around all sorts of people and I work on understanding people’s contexts. This helps me both personally and professionally.”

Dr. Qiu went on to say that her Asian heritage and experiences growing up in Canada’s cultural mosaic have complemented her ability to be a compassionate and empathetic physician. “Equity, diversity, and inclusion are a cornerstone to providing culturally competent care, and I ensure to always listen with an open mind to be able to provide the most comfortable care for my patients,” she says. “It is a privilege to be able to comfort patients in their first language and fulfilling to be able to improve their experience during their hospital stay. I have seen first-hand the value of providing culturally competent care and how it improves the patient experience.”

Dr. Jaffer said “the biggest thing that I have gained through both being an immigrant myself and growing up in a diverse community is that I have an interest in learning about people. I feel comfortable around all sorts of people and I work on understanding people’s contexts. This helps me both personally and professionally.”

When speaking about the south Asian community, Dr. Hazra said “patients feel much more comfortable being cared for by someone they know, and with whom they share a language. We often used to joke that in Canada, it was common practice to recuse oneself from treating family members but that in south Asian families, patients did not feel truly treated until they were treated by a relative. Luckily, the term relative is very broad in the south Asian context as the wider community helps members from various different families immigrate to and assimilate into Canadian society. Thus, over the years, I have collected a large number of south Asian patients, some have followed me from city to city across Canada and many travel long distances to continue to see me at Queen’s.”

One challenge faced by Dr. Qiu has been microaggressions from patients – those who do not necessarily welcome her Asian heritage or are not used to as much diversity depending on their upbringing. “I approach these challenges with an understanding that if someone has not grown up with Asian heritage influence it may just be a lack of familiarity, and I am sure to not let it affect the care I provide. Additionally, my colleagues and mentors have been incredible allies throughout these experiences, as they advocate and support me in these scenarios. Having supportive allies and advocates in my life has been crucial to building my confidence and being able to overcome personal and professional challenges.”

From his perspective, Dr. Jaffer shared that he has received comments about the color of his skin throughout his career in cardiovascular medicine. “I am mostly numb to these comments and I don’t think that they have impacted my relationships with people for the most part. I think that the key to dealing with these comments is through patience”, he said.

Dr. Hazra shared that he was “once rounding at the Ottawa Heart Institute as a resident on a weekend and was told by a patient that they would prefer to see a Canadian doctor. I have had a patient I was yet to see call my office in Kingston and ask to see a physician who is able to speak English. I was stopped by security while leaving the Hotel Dieu Hospital parking lot because someone called in saying they were concerned I was trying to steal my own car.”

All of the doctors profiled shared words of wisdom for other Asian professionals aspiring to a career in cardiology.

“It is not about the colour of your skin or the language you speak at home; it’s not even about the adversity you have faced in the past,” said Dr. Chou. “Rather, it is about your passion going forward and about pursuing what you love and helping others along the way. If your passion is in medicine and you are willing to work hard, you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. Cardiology is a very fulfilling field.”

“My message is to never stop learning, pursuing your dreams, and advocating for yourself and others by standing up for what is right,” said Dr. Qiu. “I am eternally grateful for all of those who have paved the way before me in terms of advocating for diversity in the field of cardiovascular medicine, and I encourage everyone to continue the momentum.”

“The language of medicine is universal,” said Dr. Hazra. “To be able to heal breaks down the other man-made barriers. Work hard and be unshaken in your commitment to patients and their families and you will be successful.”

“Just like raising a child, it takes a village. Any success I have is through the support and kindness of numerous individuals who both look and don’t look like me. The key is to finding your allies and chasing your dreams. Also know that there are lots of people that want you to succeed, so just keep pushing forward,” said Dr. Jaffer.

When asked how the CCS can better support diversity and inclusion, as well as member of minority groups in the field of cardiovascular health, Dr. Hazra said “representation is key. We need to have members of all minority groups represented across the spectrum of the CCS committees”. Dr. Jaffer said “the need to reach minority communities is huge. Many immigrant people don’t know the system and how to access it when they need it. The CCS should focus more on outreach to these communities and help them understand what their risks are for developing CV disease and how best to access help when they need”.

Dr. Qiu shared that she believes the CCS has been successful in supporting diversity in the field of cardiovascular health, with the establishment of the CCS Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee and consistently seeking feedback on how to make society a more diverse and inclusive space. “To continue this progress, including more diverse members in leadership positions will empower the next generation and current trainees to see role models within themselves in these positions”.

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