Alumni of Distinction: Reem Sheikh
by Matt Jardin |
Dr. Reem Sheikh, B.S. Biological Sciences '07, will receive the 2020 Alumni Emerging Leader award at the virtual Homecoming Breakfast on Oct. 9.
For some, it can feel like ages have passed within the span of this summer alone, such that recalling the first months of the year can be a blur. But UAA biology alumna Dr. Reem Sheikh remembers those early days well. As a podiatric surgeon at multiple New York City hospitals and surgery faculty at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, Dr. Sheikh experienced firsthand how the shortages of life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE) impacted medical professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“This situation is a blessing because we have the opportunity to do something,” recalled Dr. Sheikh of the difficulties faced during the height of the pandemic. “But it’s also challenging because it’s difficult physically, emotionally and mentally. Protecting ourselves and our loved ones is not easy by any means. We’re used to chaos, but we’re used to controlled chaos. This is unknown territory.”
During those initial weeks, Dr. Sheikh witnessed the number of COVID-19 cases rapidly increase from the teens to the hundreds of thousands. As she watched her residents and colleagues keep pace with the growing pandemic, even through PPE shortages, Dr. Sheikh put out a call for help on social media.
“I reached out to my mommy group on Facebook and I posted a plea for myself and my residents,” she said. “Within hours, a local school donated 40 pairs of goggles, snacks and another volunteer sent 400 masks. Then I posted a thank you video and it sort of went viral.”
CBS News saw Dr. Sheikh’s message and conducted an interview, which caught the attention of even more people who wanted to contribute. To manage the increase of goodwill, she partnered with four members from her Facebook group who continued fundraising, vetting PPE vendors and managing public relations. Since her initial request, Dr. Sheikh received over $18,000 to order PPE for her surgical residents, colleagues and staff in various hospital departments.
“People are homebound, but they want to help those fighting on the front lines,” said Dr. Sheikh. “I’m so humbled by the response we received. I started by saying, ‘Is there a pair of goggles for me and my people?’ And it galvanized the community and brought an avenue to help. It really has been a tremendous effort and would not have been possible without the support of my mom volunteers. Moms get things done.”
Dr. Sheikh didn’t always know she wanted to pursue a career in surgery and podiatry. Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, she moved to St. Mary’s, Alaska at the age of 13. Health care disparities she noticed in rural Alaska led to her initial discovery of podiatry in high school. After graduating high school at the age of 15, she proceeded to UAA where she continued to be heavily involved in student government, the honors program, undergraduate research and activism. Eventually, her journey led her to pursue her medical education at Des Moines University in Iowa.
“Being in a rural environment, the opportunities were endless,” said Dr. Sheikh. “I was able to complete high school in two years and received numerous scholarships and had opportunities to get involved at the student level, statewide and nationwide.”
Despite PPE shortages among health care workers having been resolved and the number of COVID-19 cases in NYC leveling out in the following months, Dr. Sheikh continues to coordinate the outpouring of thousands of PPE donations — no longer just to NYC medical facilities, but to schools, religious facilities and minority communities across the country and home in Alaska.
“If an opportunity comes your way, don’t hesitate to step up, and speak up because we are all in this together,” said Dr. Sheikh. “At the end of the day, all credit goes to my son who is two and a half. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be on these mommy groups and this campaign would not have been this grand. Because what do moms do? They talk to each other to figure stuff out.”
Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement