It’s not humanly possible to accomplish all that Karen Hamad squeezes into a day.
Somehow she manages it with spirit and grace. An internist/pediatrician at Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH), Karen’s also a mother, wife, activist, philanthropist, daughter, mentor, executive and self-proclaimed “collector of girls”—in no special order.
I met Karen when she was given an award by Girls, Inc., which encourages girls to be “strong, smart, bold and brave.” Karen’s acceptance knocked me out.
“I was not always brave and bold,” she said. “A special little girl named Molly first taught me that important lesson.” Molly, age 5, was in her final year of treatment at Tulane Hospital in New Orleans. Molly dedicated that year to fundraising for cancer research. Karen, then a jr. resident, befriended her. She convinced Molly’s parents to pierce Molly’s ears during her last surgery. When Molly woke up, Karen gave her a tiny pair of diamond studs.
“When she finally lost her fight, I dug deep, and found my own Brave,” Karen said. She walked into that tiny white church in rural LA, hugged Molly’s sobbing mother and learned that “sweet Molly would go to heaven wearing my tiny diamond stud earrings. Now whenever I need to find my Brave, I remember little Molly, and I can do what I need to do.”
There’ve been many times Karen needed to find her Brave.
She was the first female to join First Physicians Group at Blackburn Point. These “old school” doctors still visit patients in the hospital, unlike today’s common practice of turning hospitalized patients over to “hospitalists.” (She’s been with FPG for 15 years.) She broke 2 legs while running (due to an undiagnosed bone disease) and practiced in an electric wheel chair for 5 months. For 3 years she was Chief of Staff of SMH, an 800 bed facility—the 4th woman in that position in the hospital’s 90+ year history. She oversaw 900+ physicians. Recently, she became Associate Program Director of the new Internal Medicine residency program at SMH, including the IM practice of a new clinic in Newtown, an impoverished area of Sarasota.
And did I mention she rises at 4:30 a.m. to work out for an hour and see off 2 teenage daughters to competitive swim practice?
If that doesn’t take your breath away, there’s this… Karen met Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Harvard-trained Palestinian doctor who lost his 3 daughters to an Israeli bomb in the Gaza War. He authored the book I Shall Not Hate and works for reconciliation. Karen and her mother Renee (another dynamo you’ll meet in a future column) partnered with Abuelaish’s organization Daughters for Life. In support of that effort, they raised enough money (most from Jewish donors) to fund 9 full scholarships to Sarasota’s New College for girls from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
Karen and Renee aim to help young women from the Middle East “find their voice, change their trajectory and be the masters of their future.” They believe education is the key. Karen says, “I’m struck by the inner strength they all show, as they leave their families, their cultures, their ‘normal’ to travel around the world in search of a better future. Many can’t go home until their education is done, for fear of not being able to return safely. And yet, they come, they laugh, they learn, and they grow… and through my relationship with them, so do I.” Karen often takes these other daughters for outings including a recent Arabic dinner for 40 at her mom’s home.
At one point, Karen’s life was derailed. Her father Samuel Hamad, from Palestine, moved to North America and worked his way up to president of pharma giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. In 2008, Samuel was diagnosed with liver cancer. He received a new liver and survived the transplant but then became sick and died. It was determined there’d been a medical error in the screening of the donor liver.
“Losing my father in this manner nearly broke me. I lost my mojo. Medicine had been my rock.” She couldn’t accept that “human error could take something so precious from me.” She turned to prayer, asking God if medicine was what she was meant to do. She began receiving letters, calls and cards from patients thanking her for the help she’d given them. Slowly those affirmations made her realize “being a doctor is what God intended for me.”
Karen’s a practicing Episcopalian whose mother was an Egyptian Jew (long since converted to Catholicism). Some of Karen’s Brave comes from prayer; some from a desire to inspire her daughters.
When named Chief of Staff at SMH, she says, “I was petrified. Disciplining physicians gone rogue, presenting to the Hospital Board, representing the medical staff to the media and public—all seemed terrifying.” But she decided her daughters “might be proud to have a mother who held such a position, who took a risk, who didn’t shy away from civic responsibility or leadership.” The position required sacrifice from the whole family, she says. But she’s confident in her daughters’ futures and knows she was “the best example I could be.”
Karen’s been married for 20 years to Dr. Jon Yenari, an “incredibly supportive” gynecologist she met while both were med students at Tulane. Jon’s of Korean and Japanese descent. Daughter Lauren was recently invited to be a debutante, which in Sarasota is more about a girl’s character than her social status.
Karen regards her daughter’s decision to accept with characteristic good humor. “Who could imagine that a girl who’s ¼ Jewish, ¼ Palestinian, ¼ Korean and ¼ Japanese could be asked to be a debutante?”
(Ed. note: God bless America.)
As we finished lunch, Karen mentioned her daughters’ high school district competition swim meets the next day. Karen was hosting 50 competitive swimmers at their home for dinner that night.
“Go at once,” I commanded. If I’d agreed to such a commitment (which I wouldn’t have), I’d have torn out of there.
Not Karen. She sat calmly until we were both ready to leave.
I went home and took a nap.