Last month the largest gathering of Pakistanis outside Pakistan took place in Atlantic City in the US. It was the annual summer convention of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent in North America (APPNA). The meeting attracted, as it does each year, couple thousand Pakistani doctors and their families for a week of food, fun and fellowship. Behind the glitzy halla gulla, however, there is a tremendous amount of work that APPNA and its affiliate Alumni Associations of Pakistani Medical Colleges and various other affiliated organisations do to help their mother country as well as the country of their adoption.
It was in 1977 that Zaheer Ahmad, a visionary Pakistani doctor from Detroit Michigan, had the idea to organise Pakistani doctors in the US and Canada under the umbrella of an ethnic organisation. I thought it was a dumb idea. My reasoning was that Pakistani doctors in the US and Canada already belong to their respective specialty societies and the only thing missing was the fellowship and food that in my then myopic view was not a good enough reason to form an organisation. Somehow, Dr. Zaheer convinced me, and I came on board.
In 1977, a group of us met in a hotel in Detroit to decide on the contours of the proposed organisation. After a few plenary sessions, the organisation was launched in 1978. At the time all six alumni association of the then existing Pakistani medical colleges joined in the effort. These included King Edward Medical College, Dow Medical College, Nishtar Medical College, Fatima Jinnah Medical College, Liaqat Medical College and Khyber Medical College. It was a unique concept where affiliated alumni remained independent regarding their own programs but under the umbrella of APPNA.
The trajectory of APPNA over the past 45 years have been nothing short of amazing, but it also had a sprinkling of setbacks and disappointments.
Since its inception the Association has gone through many changes, but the guiding principle of the yearly democratic elections has remained its cornerstone. While in the initial ten years, the presidents were elected by mutual agreement between alumni groups, things changed with increasing membership rolls. In the late 1980s, the innocence of the earlier years was swept aside, and Pakistani-style politics entered the organisation. Candidates started politicking, cutting corners and treading in areas that were ethically out of bounds. The clincher was when presidential candidates started advertising on ethnic Pakistani TV channels. By some estimates, candidates in those days spent upwards of USD 100,000 to 150,000 on advertisement, fancy brochures and long-distance phone calls. Mercifully that trend has reversed in recent years.
APPNA’s constitution stipulates that the officers are to be elected for one year only, and at the expiry of the president’s term, the president-elect automatically becomes president. The wisdom of this arrangement was pointed out to me by General Ejaz Azim, ambassador of Pakistan to the US.
President General Zia-ul-Haq during his state visit to the US in 1982 invited me as APPNA President to meet with him in Houston. I decided to take my cabinet with me. When we arrived at the hotel, the president was offering sunset prayers in his suite whereas his official entourage was waiting in the spacious drawing room. I introduced members of my party including President Elect Dr. Aman Ullah Khan. Upon hearing the words “president-elect,” the ambassador whispered to me that we were doing the right thing. “It prevents a president form staying beyond his term,” he said. The irony of the statement was not lost on me because General Zia’s promise of holding elections in three months was set aside and he was by then in the fourth year of his ten-year rule.
Although APPNA elections have always been fair and honest, some losing candidates have, in the past, challenged the results in the courts. Whether the court agreed with the challenge or not, it drained the coffers of APPNA in the process of defending the case. A few times, APPNA was left insolvent due to such lawsuits.
Then the religious card was introduced in APPNA politics. APPNA is a secular organisation and boasts Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs among its members. In the 1990s, the leadership openly started calling APPNA a Muslim organization. It was duly pointed out to those zealots that an Islamic Medical Association already exists in the US and Canada for them, and there was no need to ‘Islamise’ APPNA that, from its very inception, has been an ethnic secular organisation. Sanity prevailed and overt religious overtures were scaled down.
Despite the litany of failures and high handedness of some elected leaders in the past, APPNA remains a vibrant and healthy organisation. Among many ethnic medical associations in the US and Canada, APPNA is considered a model of success.
On numerous occasions, APPNA leaders facilitated contacts between the Pakistan government and US Congressional leaders. Many key senators and congressmen spoke at APPNA summer meetings and some joined APPNA at its winter meetings in Pakistan. Through its many programmes, APPNA provides help to young Pakistani physicians, children of practicing Pakistani doctors and arranges sightseeing trips to Pakistan and other countries.
Through its liaison with the US State Department APPNA has also been instrumental in facilitating visas for young Pakistani doctors coming to the US for training.
A grassroots public health program, APPNA Sahat, was launched in a few districts in Pakistan in 1987. Later, Nasim Ashraf, founder of the program, was asked by President General Pervez Musharraf to implement the program across the country. The Pakistan Human Development Commission grew out of APPNA Sehat.
Other notable efforts by APPNA include Social Welfare and Disaster relief and Human Development Foundation to uplift lives in rural areas of Pakistan. For better than two years preceding the COVID pandemic, APPNA specialists, on a rotating basis, went to Peshawar to conduct rounds at Lady Reading Hospital. During COVID-19, APPNA and Khyber alumni specialists conducted virtual rounds on Covid patients at Lady Reading Hospital and helped reduce the mortality from 100% to 50%.
The work of King Edward Medical College Alumni and Dow Medical College Alumni in starting projects at their respective colleges is also worth mentioning.
The recent summer convention was held at Harrah seaside resort in Atlantic City. It was attended by approximately 2,000 Pakistanis and their families and friends.
Over five days, a number of overlapping activities took place. The alumni association of various Pakistani medical colleges met on Friday evening. On Saturday evening, a combined banquet was held that was attended by APPNA members and their families. This year, about 2,500 guests attended the banquet. After the banquet, famous Pakistani violinist Rais Ahmad and other performers entertained the audience. Maestro Rais is unique in the sense that instead of the usual string instruments from the Subcontinent, he has mastered the violin, a totally Western instrument. His violin rendition of popular music from the Subcontinent brought the audience on their feet.
One other highlight of the summer meeting was the social forum in which Dr. Arif Alvi, president of Pakistan, participated by video link. A similar forum with Imran Khan could not be held because of the former prime minister’s unavailability. Other forums included talks by prominent Pakistanis in the diaspora.
Another regular feature of the APPNA convention is an international Urdu mushaira. As in the past, poets from India, Pakistan and Urdu diaspora participated. This year Iftikhar Arif was sadr-e-mushaira and Amjad Islam Amjad along with a score of other poets enthralled the audience with poetry. It was, according to Amjad Islam Amjad, the best APPNA mushaira ever. The mushaira usually starts past 11 pm and continues into the wee hours of the morning.
During the convention, a three-day programme of medical education was also offered, where leading experts in many medical fields brought the latest knowledge and advances to the audience. This subscription-only program has been popular with APPNA members.
The annual bazaar is another highlight of the summer meetings, where hundreds of vendors come from long distances to offer their wares. These include jewelry, clothes, books, art and sellers of insurance, financial services and pharmaceutical companies.
It is interesting that many Pakistani politicians want to be invited to the summer meeting of APPNA. By and large, APPNA has resisted inviting politicians from Pakistan. Occasionally when some politicians are invited privately by some members, they are not received with open arms by the membership. This year, Ahsan Iqbal, a stalwart of the PML-N and a minister in the federal government Pakistan, participated in one forum. He received a rather hostile reception.
At the banquet, three outstanding Pakistani doctors were recognised. Dr. Mansoor Mohiuddin, a graduate of Dow Medical College was recognised for his pivotal role in the recent pig heart transplant; Dr. Qaisara Saeed, a graduate of Khyber Medical College for summiting Mount Everest; and Dr. Omar Atiq, a graduate of Khyber Medical College and a past president of APPNA for his election as president of the American College of Physicians. The college is the largest organisation of physicians in the world. These three outstanding doctors have brought unprecedented glory to the country of their origin.
The current president Dr. Haroon Durrani, a graduate of Nishtar Medical College, and his team, did a great job of organising the convention. Next year Arshad Rehan, a Khyber graduate, will as incoming president organize the convention in Orlando Florida.
During the convention, there was widespread grumbling about the cost of attending APPNA convention. The hotel room cost at least USD 300 per night. The banquet dinner (including entertainment) and alumni dinners cost USD 160 each. Add to that miscellaneous expenses of transportation and particularly the taxi ride from Philadelphia International Airport to the convention venue at USD 250 and it become prohibitive for many members.
APPNA is a success story. To be able to survive and thrive for 54 years speaks for the validity of the concept and the wisdom of its founder Dr. Zaheer Ahmad.
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery and an Emeritus Professor of Humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. He is the author more recently of A Tapestry of Medicine and Life, a book of essays, and Hasde Wasde Log, a book of profiles in Urdu. He may be reached at: email@example.com