This is why I’m here

Photo by Andy Mahr. Courtesy of the Shepherd Center.

May 23, 2009.

It was a rainy day in Augusta, Georgia, and Hammad Aslam and his family were headed home to Snellville after looking at apartments.

The 2008 graduate of the University of Georgia had been accepted to the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University and was scheduled to begin classes in just a few short months.

Aslam had settled in the front seat of the family’s SUV to take a nap.

And then it happened.

In the inclement weather, the Aslams’ car hydroplaned off I-20 and hit a tree. The tree crushed the corner of the vehicle where Aslam was peacefully sleeping and landed on him.

Aslam was life-flighted to Augusta University Health with life-threatening injuries– punctured lungs, broken ribs, and injuries to his brain and spinal cord.


I can overcome this

Aslam was in a coma for two weeks and woke up to find himself in the traumatic brain injury unit of Atlanta’s Shepherd Center. He does not remember the day of the accident, so he was confused to wake up in a strange place with no idea how he got there.

“I had no idea where I was or what happened. Someone, maybe it was a staff member, told me I had been in an accident,” said Aslam.

Even though the doctors had saved his life, the prognosis of returning to that life as he knew it was slim—Aslam was paralyzed below the chest and had a 1% chance of ever walking again.

“My first thoughts when I was told that I had a 1% chance of walking again was, ‘Okay, that’s what you think. But I can overcome this. I will be that 1%’. I figured that I was motivated, I was different, and that I was going to be a special case,” said Aslam. “I thought that I would need to work hard for maybe a few months, but that everything was going to be okay. I thought something life-changing like this could never happen to me. I did not have time for something like this because I was young and had my future set out for me. I was confident that I would be able to start medical school on time two months later in August 2009.”

Aslam was at the Shepherd Center for over two months and learned how to live his new life.

“I learned how to be independent. I am completely paralyzed from below my armpits, but I still have full use of my hands and arms. And I still had my mind,” said Aslam. “I learned how to transfer on and off my wheelchair, how to drive, and how to take care of myself from the moment I wake up to the time I fall asleep.”

The Shepherd Center also showed Aslam that no matter the hand he had been dealt, everything would work out just fine.

“My favorite experiences were connecting with people who had been in wheelchairs for years or decades. Although the whole time I was there, I was still 100% confident that I would be completely healed again,” said Aslam. “The things I heard and learned there assured me that everything was going to be okay.”

When Aslam was younger and pictured his life as a doctor, he saw himself as a pediatrician, but after his unique experience with his inspiring doctors at the Shepherd Center, the vision for his future slowly changed—he then saw himself as a physiatrist, a doctor who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

“One of the biggest things that kept me motivated the years after my injury was a sense of purpose. I figured that if I was put in this situation, then I would use it to my advantage,” said Aslam. “By becoming a physiatrist and caring for others after life-changing injuries or illnesses, I would be able to connect with them on a deeper level so they, too, could understand that life goes on, and we can still use whatever we have left to make our lives and the lives of those around us better in some way.”


I knew I could be good at this

The Class of 2014. Photo by Andy Tucker.

Aslam did not begin medical school in 2009 as he anticipated, but he only deferred his admission for one year. By the time he was ready to come back to the Medical College of Georgia, the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership campus in Athens was preparing to open in the fall of 2010.

When Aslam heard of the new campus opening in the town of his alma mater, he switched his campus preference to Athens to become part of the inaugural class of the Medical Partnership.

“I immediately knew it was going to be a great choice,” said Aslam. “I would get to be in Athens for another four years, and I would be a part of something new and exciting.”

Even though he was on an exciting path, Aslam quickly found out how difficult that path would be once classes began.

“I thought the first few months after my accident were the hardest of my life, and then I went through medical school,” said Aslam. “I was completely unprepared for how fast things were, and I was still trying to adapt to my new physical impairments and my new life.”

He also said it was difficult mentally to cope with his new way of life while being around new people.

“Looking back, I now know that I was very insecure because I had had a traumatic brain injury and a spinal cord injury. I felt inferior to my peers,” he said.

Even though medical school put him to the test, Aslam said everyone at the Medical Partnership made everything accessible and possible for him.

“They did so much,” said Aslam. “They made sure the building was fully accessible, and they even made sure the anatomy lab was wheelchair accessible. Some attendings would take extra time to show me how to do certain things. For example, on a physical exam, some things were not possible to conduct from a wheelchair. They showed me how to modify it a little bit and how to streamline a physical exam to make it a lot easier for me.”

Aslam said being the first class at the Medical Partnership was both an exciting and a difficult milestone to be part of.

“We did not have the benefit of having any upperclassmen to give us tips like how to study or what to look out for on the exams. We didn’t have any of that, so we learned everything by trial by fire,” said Aslam. “It was tough. It was interesting being a part of the first class to graduate from there.”

Aslam graduated from the Medical Partnership in 2014 and matched into internal medicine at Augusta University Health. He was on a spinal cord unit rotation during his intern year when he knew he had made the right career move.

Aslam with his classmates. Photo by Andy Tucker.

“I was definitely able to connect with patients who were going through a lot of life-changing events,” said Aslam. “I actually wasn’t sure I wanted to even go into the specialty when I started medical school. I knew I could be good at this, but I also didn’t know if it would affect me personally. I didn’t know if I would see a patient and then go home and not be able to sleep at night because of how it affected me personally. But once I actually started working with these types of patients, seeing them on my rotations, I felt the exact opposite. I felt like I could connect with them better, and that’s why I was here. That’s where I could use my talent for best.”

Aslam then finished his residency doing three years of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. After residency, he completed a spinal cord injury fellowship at Stanford University.


That’s why I’m here

In 2019, Aslam found his way back to Georgia where he took a position at Northside Gwinnett as the medical director at Glancy Inpatient Rehabilitation Center Duluth.

“I did interview for jobs with larger spinal cord injury centers around the US, but there’s nothing that competes with being here, being close to home, and serving my community and getting that feeling of actually helping my community,” said Aslam.

He sees patients who have spinal cord injuries and brain injuries, and patients who are stroke survivors. His typical day consists of educating his patients about the prognosis of moving forward.

“Patients undergo three hours of therapy per day—physical therapy, occupational therapy, and sometimes speech therapy if they had a stroke or brain injury or other neurologic injury. I always ask how their therapy is going, and I manage any issues that are interfering with therapies,” said Aslam. “Individuals with spinal cord injuries have a whole host of issues that most people are not aware of. One of my patients has really bad temperature dysregulation, and I was able to reassure him and say, ‘Hey, I know you’re cold. I’m always cold, too. That’s part of part of the spinal cord injury.’”

Aslam and his wife, Zainab.

Aslam, now 37, is married to Zainab Alwan, whom he met during his third year of medical school, and he wakes up every day happy to go to work.

“I can honestly say I love my job,” said Aslam. “As the medical director here, I still see a whole lot of different diagnoses and most commonly strokes and fractures, but we still see a lot of spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, and other diagnoses. And it’s just awesome being able to connect with these patients who are also going through something incredibly tough.

One patient who I saw recently has a very high spinal cord injury and is much more physically impaired than I am. But he thanks me every time I go in there even though he speaks a different language than me. We have to talk through a translator, and I didn’t even know how well I was connecting with him because of that, but he’s told me that it brings him comfort when I talk to him.”

Aslam sees himself staying at Glancy for the foreseeable future (and hopefully becoming a community faculty member at the future University of Georgia School of Medicine) as he continues to give hope to his beloved patients.

“As doctors, our ultimate goal is improving function and quality of life,” said Aslam, “and that’s my goal with each of my patients. If I can make a small impact with each of my patients every day, that’s why I’m here.”

And of course, to bring comfort to patients who are going through the same trial he went through himself.

“I like to show patients that they’re able to get past whatever is going on right now. They may feel like their life is over, but it’s just beginning,” said Aslam. “Everything will be different, but we can figure out ways to make the best out of what we’re given in this life.”

For more information about attending the Medical College of Georgia at the Medical Partnership campus

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