The boxing medic who is engaging with global health

Fawz Kazzazi’s parents moved to the UK when he was just a baby. He was brought up with a strong work ethic. Now a medic, he’s contributing to an initiative that encourages students to address world health issues. Always sporty, he’s surprised himself by taking up boxing.

Fawz Kazzazi (Nick Saffell)

My family left Iraq when I was just a few months old. My dad’s a surgeon and my mum was a dentist. For lots of reasons, they had to get out of Baghdad. Doctors were under strict surveillance so it was difficult for my parents to leave with two small children. My dad had done some of his training in the UK but my mum had only been here on holiday. They had to start afresh.

What my parents did for the family is always at the back of my mind. They were so brave. My dad is a major inspiration. He’s spent his whole life as a doctor in various specialisms and today he works all over the UK as a breast cancer consultant. He and my mum brought us up to be competitive risk-takers and to respect everyone you meet on your journey.

There was no huge family pressure to study medicine and I could have done something different. Because of my dad, I’d seen the realities of a medical career, but I still wanted to do it. My younger brother seems to be on the same track. We were always encouraged to make the most of opportunities. At Cambridge I’ve discovered boxing — something I never thought I’d get involved in.

I went to a comprehensive in Doncaster in South Yorkshire. Our dad’s view was that if you were going to be working with the public, you needed to go to a school where the kids came from all walks of life. I think he was right, it certainly helped me to get on with people, and I loved school.

In the sixth form, we took a group of elderly people on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Some of the people we accompanied were seriously unwell. But it was so different to what you might expect. It was a celebration of life; there was so much smiling and laughter. The trip made me realise how powerful communities could be and how people support each other in times of need.

Oxbridge was a concept rather than a reality until I came to a medical open day at Cambridge to have a look around. I had a strong Yorkshire accent and I felt a bit out of place. But I loved what I saw and I applied. My admissions interviews didn’t entirely go to plan but, after being turned down by my initial choice of college, I was offered a place at Corpus Christi.

I’ve always played lots of sport. As a medical student the learning goes on and on. It can feel overwhelming. Sport is a great outlet: I play football and racket sports, and now I’ve got involved in boxing. I play squash with another medic — he’s one of my best friends. His maxim is: there’s no point in getting stressed, unless there’s a really good reason to get stressed.

We’re encouraged to look beyond the taught material, read around the subject, and keep up with the scientific literature. We also do our own research. I’ve spent the last year looking at patient reported outcomes following surgery for established or suspected breast cancer, using an in-depth questionnaire to compare patients. What emerged strongly is the psychosocial impact of surgery.

I’m naturally sociable and thrive on interaction. Communication skills are vital for practitioners. At the medical school a lot of emphasis is placed on building good relationships with patients. We have regular sessions with ‘simulated patients’, actors who play the part of patients and family members. We practise the skills you need to deal with patients, such as breaking bad news or coping with anger.

At the end of my second year I did two internships at the same time. One was at Southampton General Hospital where I looked at neural stem cells in mice and the other at National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in London where I was looking at social inequity — how marginalised groups miss out on services. Working in an office and a ward concurrently made me realise how much I loved working in a hospital. I’ll probably go into surgery and then possibly move into policy later on.

Two years ago I joined a think tank called Polygeia, an initiative engaging students in global health issues. It was started by two Cambridge medics and now spans four countries and has hundreds of members. Sixty per cent of members are non-medics. I’m the Director of Policy, which means that I organise research projects — with NGOs, MPs and charities — looking at worldwide health issues such as Ebola and female genital mutilation. It focuses on getting students out into the real world to make a difference.

Given half a chance, medics talk exclusively about medicine. One of the best things about Cambridge’s college system is the close friendships you make with people studying other subjects. I’m grateful to have friends studying classics, theology, linguistics and history, just to name a few subjects.

Fawz Kazzazi is a medical student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.