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Jewish Journal

Israel’s first female Arab surgeon’s burden and joy

by Meredith Price Levitt

April 20, 2011 | 5:11 pm

Dr. Rania El Hativ, 29, is Israel’s first female Arab plastic surgeon. Photo by Pioter Fliter

Dr. Rania El Hativ, 29, is Israel’s first female Arab plastic surgeon. Photo by Pioter Fliter

For 29-year-old Dr. Rania El Hativ, the distinction of being Israel’s first female Arab plastic surgeon has its downsides. “I feel a lot of responsibility. Many people have expectations of you — other doctors, patients and people in my community.”

On the surface, that may sound dramatic coming from a plastic surgeon. But El Hativ is quick to point out that despite the stereotypical aesthetic operations typically associated with her field — breast augmentations, nose jobs, tummy tucks and the like — plastic surgery goes far beyond the cosmetic.

“It’s extremely challenging work, because it includes treating people with traumas, war injuries, burns, tumors, facial reconstructions, birth defects like cleft palates and many other problems,” explained El Hativ in a phone interview. “There are so many important things that can be remedied each and every day that the work is actually very inspiring.”

Working out of the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, El Hativ sees patients from all over the country with a vast array of problems. Unlike many other medical branches in which doctors align their treatments with textbook rules, plastic surgery requires creativity. For El Hativ, who is also an avid artist, this was one of the main attractions of her specialty.

And though she never envisioned being anything other than a doctor, she had never considered plastic surgery until she started her internship. “When I started out, I had no idea what it means to be a doctor. There are no doctors in my family, and very little is known about plastic surgery in our community,” she said. “I am slowly beginning to understand what it really means.”

As an Arab female, El Hativ is taking the initiative to bring about more education among fellow Israeli Arabs, who she says do not understand much about plastic surgery and often reject aesthetic operations on cultural or religious grounds. Although in some wealthy Arab countries plastic surgery is in vogue, that is not the case in Israel, and many Israeli Arabs either know nothing about it or consider it aberrant.

“There’s a lack of education about this field among the Arabs,” El Hativ said. “They think it’s all about aesthetics and changing lips or breasts, which is not something they find acceptable or are willing to discuss even if they do decide to do it. They don’t know that there are so many other things we can do to help change people’s lives.”

Through El Hativ, many people in her community have become more familiar with plastic surgery and its benefits. Aside from being a role model to other young Arab women, she is also a figure who legitimizes the field of plastic surgery in the eyes of fellow Arabs. For many conservative Arabs, the willingness to even consider plastic surgery is a huge step forward.

“Once people begin to see how easy surgery can be and how much it can benefit their lives, more people will be willing to do it and it will become more acceptable. It starts with education, which is something I’m striving to promote.”

To illustrate her point, El Hativ recounts a recent story. Several months ago she operated on a 3-month-old baby girl who was born with a cleft palate. When the child returned at 6 months for a checkup, El Hativ could not even discern the problem until she looked at the file. “We rarely have the opportunity to follow up with patients, so it was amazing to see this child again. I suddenly understood what I had done for her and how her life was transformed by this surgery. No one will ever even know she had a cleft palate.”

On the flip side, El Hativ is forthright about the downsides of her career choice. Although her family is extremely supportive and her parents have not pushed her to get married and start a family, others in the community are not so open-minded, and social pressure does exist. If a woman in her community has a career, then marriage can be delayed, but she will be expected to marry eventually.

Finding the time to travel, go out with friends and date in the midst of grueling days that often begin at 7 a.m. and end in the middle of the night is nearly impossible right now. “Family is very important, and I think I will be a much more successful person if I marry one day and have children of my own, but it is not a priority right now. My relatives understand that.”

Beyond the long, arduous hours, the work is also poorly remunerated within Israel. Unlike her American counterparts, it will take many years for El Hativ to open a private clinic and actually earn a good living.

“It is economically easier today than it was for my grandparents’ generation and for my parents’ generation,” she said. “I hope that with each generation it will get easier.”

There are black periods for El Hativ, when the burden of her responsibility as the first Arab female plastic surgeon in Israel seems like too much to bear, but most of the time she remains optimistic and is fulfilled by treating people of all ages and from all walks of life.

“Sometimes it seems like the work is endless, and I can’t see how I will ever have any time for myself. On the other hand, I know that what I am doing is helping people, and there is no better feeling.”

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