Visiting Surgeon in the Middle East: Part 1

Post by Dr. Yale Podnos, a Surgical Oncologist at Rex Surgical Specialists. Dr. Podnos specializes in surgical oncology focused on liver, colon and solid organ tumors. He is also the director of Surgical Oncology at Rex Cancer Center. Last year, Dr. Podnos visited the Middle East on a surgical teaching mission. Below is the first post of his journey…


It wasn’t until at about 39,000 feet over North Africa that the thought finally came to me. “What on earth am I doing going to Saudi Arabia?” I was invited to be a Visiting Professor in Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia followed by stops in Kuwait and Lebanon. My purpose was to teach surgeons there about advanced laparoscopic techniques for colorectal cases. As a surgeon and compulsive traveller, how could I refuse?

I landed at the airport in Jeddah and found the driver sent by the hotel to pick me up. With my worries of terrorism starting to crescendo, I was relieved to meet my driver, a middle aged man from the Philippines. He uneventfully drove through the ferocious rush hour traffic and dropped me off at the hotel. I called my host and we decided to meet for dinner shortly. He had a restaurant in mind where we would meet up with the Surgeons I would be operating with in the morning.

We met in the lobby and promptly got into a car with 2 other men. After introductions, I realized I just got into a car, heading north out of the city of Jeddah into the desert along the Red Sea, with essentially strangers (pharmacists) from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. At that point, the only thing that could have been worse in my mind was if I was in Pakistan.

After a short time in the car, I quickly realized my fears were unjust and that the men in the car with me were young professionals (like me) with families and small children (like me). They had left their homelands in search of better prospects in Saudi Arabia.

We got out of the car and I could immediately smell the salty sea air. The restaurant, as opposed to Western restaurants, had no large single dining room. Rather, there was an area outside with TV’s and rugs and multiple private rooms. The outside area reminded me of a drive-in movie where people could sit, eat, and watch TV under the stars. All were occupied by men who came in from the desert to dine. They prefer dining outside.

Before going to our private room, we ventured across the parking lot to the store where the fish were kept on ice. Row after row of fish just caught from the Red Sea were waiting to be chosen and cooked. We asked the cook to pick the best, freshest fish and shrimp and bring them to our room. As we waited for the food, our room slowly filled with local surgeons. Most wore the traditional Arab clothes and desert headdress. Water pipes were placed around the room and we all shared. I was concerned we would have little in common and the conversation would be labored. Those fears were quickly extinguished (again) as a very lively discussion about surgical technique started. Just as I was interested about how they practiced our science and art, they wanted to know how we did things in the US. We traded stories and pearls of wisdom learned over long careers, ate a fabulous meal, and finished the evening with Saudi coffee (coffee infused with cardamom). The meal ended with an invitation to go with them to operate in a clinic they are opening in Khartoum, Sudan.

Follow the rest of Dr. Podnos’ journey on his ‘Cancer Perspectives’ blog