Dr. Gohar Salam

Retinal surgeon promotes peace

Dr. Gohar Salam. Photography by Neal Bruns

Dr. Gohar Salam projects an aura of peace. As a retinal surgeon, he operates on delicate eye tissues thinner than a human hair. As one of the most visible Muslims in Fort Wayne, he longs to counter the rhetoric that has inflamed emotions across the country. Find out how he became a surgeon – and about the day he first met his wife – as we play 20 Questions.

1.  What is your background?
I am from Karachi in Pakistan. I went to medical school there, but I knew I needed to study further. I knew the U.S. was the best place so I took the exams. I wanted to be a surgeon, (but) there was a significant need for family physicians. I accepted a position with Michigan State University (doing) family medicine … but I really wanted to do more.

2.  Why did you become a retinal surgeon?
The complexity is very fulfilling. The retina is the wallpaper for the brain. I believe life is challenging. If I’m thinking life is too easy, I’m not living my life to the fullest. You feel good that you were able to do something for someone.

3.  After you came to the United States, you joined the U.S. Army Rangers. Why?
My dad was in the Pakistani Air Force. In high school, I wanted to join that. To see him in his uniform, the discipline of living that life. I believed there is some bigger cause than myself. I joined once all the (medical) training was done, and I could give back. That was one of the proudest moments of my life.

4.  How did you get involved with the Universal Education Foundation Islamic Center?
My faith is a very important part of my life. When you are living in a place where you are a minority, education is even more critical. It’s very critical for all of us.

5.  How did the events of Sept. 11, 2001, affect you?
9/11 was one of the hardest days of my life. I was in a suburb of New York City, and I was on call. When I realized it was done in the name of my faith, that was so hard. But I was surrounded by wonderful people. The true faith is not (one of violence).

6.  Have you experienced any hatred because you are Muslim?
I know a lot of people who that has happened to. There are people  around me who protect me. My patients come and speak out on my behalf. They are a shield. When you live in a free society, things like that can happen. I say a prayer for them.

7.  What should non-Muslims know about Islam?
People (should) know Islam is a peaceful religion. It’s about making a peaceful life for yourself and your community. It’s amazing how many similarities there are between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. God would never ask anyone to harm anyone in his name.

8.  Has Fort Wayne been welcoming to you and your family?
Extremely. It has been to the truest sense welcoming. The people are exceptional.

9. What do you think when you hear people like Donald Trump bash Muslims?
Words have extreme power. When you use them in love, they are wonderful. Similarly, they can be used in a very negative fashion. Behind the hate and anger is fear. We have to look at that fear – it’s a fear of so many things. When leaders start using that language, the future of the nation (is at stake). If an ordinary person is saying that, there’s not so much impact. But leaders have millions of followers.

10. What can we do to counter that rhetoric?
We have the ability to rise above the fear. It’s very sad, and I hope that leaders (will) find love and friendship. I think any time when you hear a statement (like that), at least in your heart, say that is not right. Don’t believe in the stereotypes. Learn a little about Islam from a source who is not biased.

11. Is the glass half empty or half full?
The glass is more than half full. No matter how hard things are, life is an extreme blessing. It’s just one life we have, and we’d better make a difference.

12. Who are your heroes?
Our prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. In my Asian culture, Gandhi. In the United States, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. These are amazing people.

13. How did you meet your wife, Asifa?
I had not seen her until the day of (our) marriage. It was an arranged marriage. It took my mother two years to find her.

14. Really? How has that worked out for you?
It’s not just the two of us (invested in the marriage). My mother and her mother worked hard to put us together. We have all the support of our families, and with all that family support, we’ve been married for 20 years. We have two sons: Sameed, who is in the medical school I attended in Pakistan, and Mazeed, who is a senior at Carroll High School.

15. What do you dream about?
I would like to see peace. Peace for individuals and for society. If it starts with individuals, it (can lead) to peace for society. We need to educate ourselves and have a more spiritual aspect.

16. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
The power to heal, not just the body  but the spirit.

17. What was the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
There are times when you have to make difficult decisions. Letting go of family medicine was difficult. To leave all of that was difficult.

18. Why did you want to go into surgery?
The impact you are making … you see the results immediately. The challenge, too. You have to be at your best.

19. What’s the last book you read?
“I am Malala.”

20. What would you like your legacy to be?
At the end, life is a precious gift. Being a human is such a gift. When life is given, a lot of responsibility is given. You have to make sure that because of you, life for others and the world is made better. I would like to make a difference for a lot of people. I just want others to have a better life.

First appeared in the February 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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