This Cambridge Life
The doctor using smartphones to save lives in war zones

Having survived the civil war in Afghanistan, Waheed Arian arrived alone in the UK aged 15. He went on to study medicine at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Today he’s using smartphones and volunteer specialists to provide life-saving medical advice to doctors working in areas of conflict.

My father knew we had only minutes before the bombs reached us. He grabbed me and ran to a nearby village. There he found a house and inside a bread oven in which he hid me. I remember the billowing dust, coming from every direction.

I was five years old and we were escaping the conflict in Afghanistan. The Khyber Pass and Torkham border were closed and so we were taking the Tari Mangal route to Pakistan. We travelled in a caravan of 20 to 25 families, the donkeys and horses tied together, carrying the women and children. We had some oiled bread and a little sugar to eat throughout the whole journey.

For safety we travelled at night, with only the moonlight to see by. As the sun rose, we would find places to hide until we could continue our journey. It took us seven days to reach the refugee camp. Over the course of that week we were attacked three times by air and tanks.

We felt safe at the refugee camp in Peshawar Pakistan, but the conditions were very poor. Our family of ten lived in one room. We had a few cushions and a fan – but still the temperature reached highs of 45 degrees. Within a few days of arriving we contracted malaria and three months later I caught tuberculosis (TB).

I decided I wanted to become a doctor when I was recovering from TB. The doctor who was treating me was always smiling despite the conditions of the camp. I didn’t have any toys so he gave me an old stethoscope to play with. He also gave me a well-thumbed medical text book which I treasured.

We stayed at the camp for three years before returning to Kabul, my home town. The Soviet troops had left but the civil war continued. Each day we hid in the cellars as the rockets, shells and bombs fell. War became normal.

Waheed as a child

Waheed as a child. Credit: Andrew Price/ View Finder Pictures

Waheed as a child. Credit: Andrew Price/ View Finder Pictures

I learnt English by tuning into the BBC World Service, after my father had finished listening to the radio, hoping for some good news. The schools were closed so I taught myself using books brought off the street from people trying to make a little extra money to pay for food. My parents, neither of whom had been to school, knew there was no future for me in Afghanistan, so at 15 years old they sent me to the UK.

I arrived in London, alone, with $100 in my pocket. I felt daunted but also happy and excited. For the first time in my life I was safe, and ahead of me lay so many opportunities. For the first week I stayed with a family friend on Portobello Road; I then moved into a flat with other refugees.

I was told I should stick to labour work – perhaps working in a chicken shop or becoming a taxi driver. These are hardworking jobs, and I admire people doing them, but my dream was to become a doctor. So I took a job on Edgware Road as a salesman, found some GCSE books and studied every spare moment. I even hid my books under the counter so I could read them when the shop was quiet. I persuaded a local college to allow me to take an assessment to see if I could study for A levels. I passed - just.

I wanted to prove a point so I took five AS levels. I completed all five AS subjects achieving A grades. In my second year, I completed three A levels achieving A grades. I needed to continue working while I was studying so I had to enrol at three different colleges, taking classes during the day as well as in the evenings.

I met someone who had just graduated from Cambridge and he suggested I should apply too. I was not convinced, but agreed to visit the city. When I saw that all the students were just normal people, from a variety of backgrounds, I began to seriously think of applying. I later went to a Trinity Hall open day, where I met Dr John Bradley, at the time a Fellow of Medicine. He spoke with humility and had such a welcoming manner that my mind was made up – I would apply.

Tutors told me that nobody from my colleges had attended Cambridge before, and so my teachers were hesitant about me applying. But after I achieved A grades in all my subjects my teachers agreed to write me a supporting statement. I attended an interview at Cambridge and a couple of months later I received a letter offering me a place to study medicine at Trinity Hall, this was one of my happiest days since arriving in the UK.

Cambridge was one of my first experiences of formal education and so I had a lot to catch up on. The first two years were tough and I struggled academically, socially and financially. However, the Senior Tutor Dr Nick Bampos and Dr John Bradley stood by me and said I’d make it through.

They were right – by my third year I’d overcome these challenges and even got a first in my research project. I graduated in 2006 and went on to finish my clinical studies at Imperial College London, winning a scholarship to take an elective at Harvard, USA. I qualified as a doctor in 2010 and worked in various hospitals before settling in Liverpool as a radiology and emergency specialist.

Waheed on graduation day at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Waheed on graduation day at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Waheed on graduation day at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

All the time I was trying to think of ways I could help war-stricken people back home. I would travel to Kabul whenever I could and teach or help the doctors on the wards. My NHS colleagues were also keen to help but working in Kabul was dangerous.

Patient rounds in Kabul hospital

Patient rounds in Kabul hospital

Patient rounds in Kabul hospital

At the time some NGOs were beginning to use telemedicine. This involves using computers, laptops and monitors to transmit images or information and to offer consultations. Initially I tried to establish this in Kabul but the necessary equipment was too expensive and it wasn’t possible to secure a specialist room or someone to coordinate the calls.

I realised that smartphones were the answer. Here was a technology which most people had access to: it was a way of connecting medical professionals across continents. I began to imagine what could be achieved with a network of medics offering specialist advice to doctors in areas of conflict. I went from hospital to hospital recruiting doctors to join me. Arian Teleheal was born.

Today we have over 100 professionals who are giving specialist medical consultations in their free time, from their sitting rooms. We currently support doctors in Afghanistan, Syria, South Africa and shortly, Uganda. It’s very much a two way process with our volunteer medics also learning from our colleagues working in areas of conflict. It’s tremendously rewarding for everyone involved.

Teleheal in action

On any one day we might be having real-time discussions about a head injury, road traffic accident or trauma, following a blast. When a patient first arrives at one of the hospitals we partner with, local medics give an initial assessment and perform any relevant immediate investigations. They will then use their mobile phone to send details of the case to a coordinator at Arian Teleheal who will pass it onto one or more of our volunteer specialists. The specialists then give medical advice by text, video call or phone call.

We’re at the beginning of our journey. Our vision is to give everyone in low-income or war-torn countries access to the best healthcare in the world, in line with the United Nations and World Health Organisation vision.

Waheed Arian shares about growing up in Afghanistan, studying at Cambridge and Arian Teleheal.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series, which opens a window on to the people that make Cambridge University unique. Cooks, gardeners, students, archivists, professors, alumni: all have a story to share.

Waheed is an Afghanistan-born NHS doctor in Liverpool and NHS Innovation Clinical Entrepreneur Fellow Mentor, and an alumnus of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He has been awarded the UNESCO Global Hero Award 2017 and the 2018 Rotary International Peace Award for his healthcare charity Arian Teleheal. He has just launched the Arian Global Academy which aims to help people all over the world develop entrepreneurial, innovation and leadership skills as well as focusing on personal development, wellbeing and communication.