A Jewish Doctor in Saudi Arabia
By Daniel M. Kimmel
Dr. Paul Davidson is active in his synagogue, his Brotherhood, and the FJMC. He never expected that those activities would lead him to taking on a patient who was a high official in the government of Saudi Arabia. Although he could not name the man, he said he was a highly placed figure who was not a member of the royal family. Davidson’s Saudi adventure began, oddly enough, with the Brotherhood at Temple Israel in Sharon, Massachusetts.
The patient required bariatric surgery, which is indicated when a person is over 100 pounds of their recommended body weight. The official’s problems went beyond obesity to include high cholesterol, diabetes, and the fact that he was a smoker. “He had a gastric band,” Davidson explained, “but they wanted to try something else.”
Davidson’s involvement came because of his specialty as director of behavioral services at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. The patient not only required surgery but would have to undertake lifestyle changes. The surgeon was Dr. Scott Shikora, director of the Center for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery at Brigham and Women's, and who got to select the other members of the team who would accompany him to Riyadh. As it happened, Shikora was also president of the Temple Israel Brotherhood and asked Davidson to be part of the team.
It may be surprising but the fact that four of the ten doctors were Jews – and Jews whose passports indicated they had been to Israel – was not an issue. Said Davidson, “When it comes to their leaders, they love Jewish doctors.” In fact, the team was put up at the Four Seasons hotel and the Saudis were, he said, “incredibly accommodating.” He recalls the 14 hour flight to Saudi Arabia on a jet built to accommodate 110 passengers and which had been retrofitted for the dozen or so people being brought in for the procedure.
Sikora, Davidson and the rest of the team met with the patient, family members, and their Saudi medical counterparts. The surgery was successful, with Davidson working with the patient and his family in how to adapt to a healthier lifestyle. During their week there, there was downtime for the team and that presented a different set of challenges.
“We were invited guests of the Saudi government,” Davidson recalled, “We tried to be sensitive.” They had the opportunity to explore the country
beyond the hotel and the military hospital where the operation took place, but security was tight. “Every time we traveled we were in a caravan. We were under guard at all times.”
One might suspect it was to make sure these Americans did not poke into things the Saudis preferred they not see, but Davidson saw that after their first day there, all their drivers were replaced. “I thought nothing of it,” he said, but later learned that their initial Pakistani drivers had been compromised. On their first trip on the ground, he recalled, “there was a traffic jam.
That wasn’t accidental. We were a high value target.”
Davidson got to know the people tasked with protecting the doctors. “I spent about all my time talking to the security detail. These people were willing to lay down their lives for us.” Indeed, he learned that, at the time they were protecting the doctors, the head of their security detail led a nighttime anti-terrorist raid. He recalled a subsequent conversation he had with the man.
“It seems to me that the Saudis and Israelis have lot more in common than differences,” he said.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes,” was the reply.
Davidson and the other doctors have followed up with their patient after the operation, which took place in 2016, with the official even coming to the United States. Davidson recalls that the man has successfully lost weight and quit smoking. What Davidson remembers, though, was the hospitality and support the doctors were provided, and how differences that might have seemed impossible barriers vanished in pursuit of a common cause.
“When you get past all the nonsense,” said Davidson, “People are people.”
Daniel M. Kimmel is a movie critic and author who was editor of The Jewish Advocate in Boston and served ten years as Emcee for the New England Region of FJMC. His latest book is the comic novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein.