Feature by SLO Life Magazine
In this installment of our “Meet Your Neighbor” series, SLO LIFE Magazine sits down for a conversation with Ahmad Nooristani. He was born and raised in Afghanistan, smuggled into Pakistan to escape the war, and immigrated to the United States at 14-years-old where he worked full-time since the third day he arrived. Today, he is a physician employed by area hospitals, and has spent his spare time over the past two-and-half years working to start a free medical clinic, which recently opened in San Luis Obispo. Here is his story…
Okay, Dr. Nooristani, let’s start from the beginning. Where you are from?
I was born in Afghanistan and came here in 1991. I was 14 at that time. I have two brothers and a sister. My dad passed away when I was four. He was in the military and my mom was a teacher. We left because of the war. We lived in Kabul, the capital city. It was a little safer because that’s where the majority of the Russian Army was based. But, living conditions got to the point where it was just really hard to live. My uncles were here, six or seven years before we got here. So we came to California and lived in Simi Valley. It’s kind of quiet there.
What was life like in Afghanistan?
You know what is so surprising, when you don’t have anything to compare to, you don’t know what’s good, until you have bad. You have to have some comparison. So, when I was there, life… it is what it is. You make the best of it, but you don’t know any better. So, when you come to some other place and you look back, and you look at your life, you are in awe and you think, “Really? Is that how I lived? I mean, that was normal?” I thought it was okay to live that way. So, especially as a kid you don’t realize what you don’t have. So, it was okay living there. I carried my day the way I do here. It was not a big deal. Okay, it was a war zone, people died, there were explosions left and right but that’s something that you grow up to know and to accept. That kind of thing is part of your life because there is nothing to compare with. So, now it’s a big shocker when I look back.
How exactly did you get out of Afghanistan in the middle of a war?
We had to find a smuggler who we paid to take us to Pakistan. It was actually a network of people, but we were hidden in trucks that drove through some very treacherous and remote mountain roads. The conditions were horrific. Looking back now, I’m amazed that we all survived. It was me and my mom, my brother, my sister, and my grandma. There were a lot of crazy stories from that time. Maybe we can talk about it some other day?
Sure, let’s switch gears. Tell us about becoming a doctor. Did you always want to get into medicine?
No, actually I always wanted to fly. That was always my passion. My uncle was a fighter pilot in the military back in Afghanistan. He flew a Russian MiG jet, I forget which model; it was similar to an F-14. When I came here I wanted to become a pilot for the U.S. Air Force. My family did not want me to get involved with the military. They were very unhappy about it and persuaded me not to join.
So, how do you go from airplanes to medicine?
Coming from a country whose health care system literally doesn’t exist and seeing people suffering there, the idea was to become a physician so I could help people and give something back. It’s one of those professions that it doesn’t matter where you go. You have something that everyone needs. But, once I decided I wasn’t going to be flying jets, I became very focused on my path to become a physician. Go study, get your degree. I went straight through school and my residency without a break. I didn’t want to say, “I’m going to try this, I’m going to try that.” I was very focused. I worked in hospitals in L.A., and Miami, and New York.
What was that experience like?
I was in New York City for two years, I lived in Queens. I rotated through different hospitals there. I wanted to broaden my horizons and experience different things and see how medicine was practiced in different places and in different hospitals. It was crazy to see the differences. I did my residency in Atlantic City at the Regional Hospital for Internal Medicine. I was there for three years. Then I finished up, and here I am in my first job here in SLO.
Whoa, let’s back up… it seems like you skipped over some stuff. How’d you end up in SLO?
I wanted to come back to California for sure. I have family and friends here. So, I had set up interviews up-and-down the state, from San Francisco to Orange County. A recruiter called me and asked if I wanted to interview in San Luis Obispo. I said, “Sure, it’s on my way from one interview to another.” I was just about to accept a position in Vacaville. But, I came here and fell in love with my group – now my partners – I really liked the way things were set up. I liked the town, but felt it was too small for me. I had been in New York, and Miami, and now here, and I said, “Darn, it’s too small, it’s just not going to work out.” But, I just loved the system of how they practiced medicine here. So, finally I decided, “I’ll give it a shot, I have nothing to lose.” So, now, three years down the line and here we are. So, slowly I’ve realized what beauty this place has and anything you can think of, you can have it. Beautiful, amazing weather. Outdoors are unbelievable. I mean you can do anything you want here.
But, you did give up some things by not being in a larger city, right?
Hey, I’m from Afghanistan! So I can’t complain, right? [laughter]
Fair point. Alright, let’s talk about the Noor Foundation clinic. Why did you start it?
I’ve always wanted to do something, to give back. I’m a big believer in giving back.
And, why is that? Is there something about your upbringing or religious background that led you down this path of service?
Part of it is religious. There is a strong tradition of giving back in the Muslim faith. It’s a huge part of it. But part of it is just being human. When I was growing up I really wasn’t in a position to give back, but now that I have graduated, I’m a doctor, I have a great job and I can do it. My initial thought was to create clinics internationally. I was looking at doing something in Afghanistan and Kenya. My focus had been to do something there. But, after living here and getting to know the area and seeing what was going on in the county I realized that there was this tremendous need locally. We have over 30% of our people uninsured, over 4,000 uninsured come to the hospital annually. There are a lot of uninsured people using the ER as their only source of health care. In many cases we’re talking about serious diseases, many of which could have been avoided with proper care.
But, isn’t it true that so many of these ER visits are avoidable?
It’s not that they don’t take their medication or they don’t care, it’s that they can’t see a physician for care because they can’t afford it. Some of them don’t see physicians for years. Some had health insurance but they lost their job and stop taking their medication. I remember a gentleman coming into the ER, he was about 45-years-old with three kids. He had lost his job. And when his health insurance ran out, he stopped going to the doctor, stopped taking his medication, and he ended up having a stroke. Not only is he unable to care for his children now, but the cost of the initial care for his stroke is somewhere between $90,000 and $100,000. Over his lifetime, including rehabilitation, it can go into the millions. Who pays for that? We all do. So, seeing that, I knew it was preventable. I’m a big believer in taking care of your neighbors first – that’s a big part of the teachings of Islam, as well: “Care for your family; care for your neighbors; care for your town, and then care, care and keep expanding outward.” I grew up with that instilled in me, so I needed to help my neighbors.
How did you plan to do that?
So, my idea was just to open a small place to see people when I wasn’t working. Even if it was a church basement somewhere, I didn’t care. I just planned to donate my free time to seeing patients locally. That was my goal initially. But, then when I started talking to other physicians and nursing staff about my plan, there was just a huge desire to be involved. People would say to me, “I want to do this too, I want to be a part of this. Tell me what you need me to do.” The number of people who wanted to help became so big that I thought there is no way we can be in a church basement, we need an actual medical clinic, a place to practice medicine.
The idea kept evolving…
I said, “Let me create something that will not only be sustainable for the community in the long-run, but be something that the community and this county really need.” So that was the idea, and after that, it had this snowball effect with others volunteering to help. Everyone was so excited about it, they wanted to do things to help. That was two years ago, about a year after I moved here, that I came up with the idea. I looked around for guidance or someone’s footsteps I could follow, but I couldn’t find anything. I really had to start from scratch.
How long did it take?
There are so many things to have to deal with. Just making sure it’s a non-profit, for example, is a big process. Doing that alone took about 7 or 8 months to establish the status with the IRS. Just opening a place is easy. But to do it as a non-profit, a free medical clinic, there were so many hoops to jump through. I spent about 20 to 25 hours a week for nearly two-and-a-half years just to get all of the paperwork completed and all of the equipment and lease improvements we needed to be able to open. We had rented the space during that time – about two years in all – because you have to have a physical location as you are going through all of the various applications for various licenses.
I also interviewed over 600 people, volunteers, during that time. And so many people from all different areas of the community have helped get it started. I still haven’t come across anybody that has said, “No.” That’s fuel for me. Name a person in the community and chances are they have done something to support this project. The question they ask is, “What can I do to help?” And, that has just been the most amazing experience for me. This community has just blown my mind, the amount of people that care so much is incredible. The sense of pride and joy they have in being a San Luis Obispan – is that a correct word? [laughter] – it’s just amazing. We all really pride ourselves in being a part of this community, so it doesn’t matter what we do, we’re going to give back. And, that makes this a very special place. You know, this town, San Luis Obispo, has the most non-profits of anywhere in the world. There are so many, like hundreds of them. Everywhere you look there’s a not-for-profit, so that shows that people do care, they want to be involved. They want to make this place better and give back.
So, tell us about the clinic.
Everything that we generate goes back to patient care. We have a very small amount of overhead, but all donations go directly to patient care. I don’t get paid. Nobody gets paid. The only person who is paid is our clinic manager because there are a lot of logistics involved, and we just hired him this month. He volunteered for a long time before we hired him.
What was it like the first day you opened the doors?
At 10 o’ clock in the morning I received a call from one of the volunteers that said, “There’s a patient here waiting for you.” We weren’t even supposed to open until 1. So, I came in right away to see him and I was checking on everything and making sure it was in order. Everybody was kind of nervous because we didn’t know how it was going to run. We’ve never done this. It was all new. And, so I walked out into the waiting room and said, “Come on in!” I told him, “You will be my very first patient here, you are, what do you call it?… uh… my guinea pig,” and we laughed about it.
How did it go?
I saw him and he had some issues that we were able to deal with there that day. It turned out that he was a priest. Really nice guy. When we were done, he sat down with his bible and said, “I want to bless the clinic.” So, we sat down together. He read some verses. And he blessed the clinic. It was touching. It was really touching. You know, I just sat back and thought to myself that everything I did for two years to get this place going was worth it. And it goes on and on because everybody that comes in here has a beautiful story. There’s not a day that goes by that somebody doesn’t cry and break down. And you see the beauty of what we do, and the sadness for what is missing out there. So, would I do it all over again? Absolutely. Absolutely, without a doubt.
Can you describe a typical patient?
98% of the people we see at the clinic are middle class or working class. The vast majority of our patients have a job, they are working, or have businesses. We’ve seen maybe one homeless person so far. The people who are very poor will qualify for government assistance, but for everyone else that pays for their own insurance it is very expensive. That is if they can qualify for it at all. The top and the bottom get whatever they need. It’s this huge group of people in the middle that we see here.
And what about the volunteers?
I have never seen the physicians or the nurses more happy than they are when they are working at the clinic. They come here to have fun, to just practice medicine. It’s not your regular office. The patient sees that joy and happiness, and they’re doing it for free and I think that changes things. So it’s just a different environment, a very happy environment. They come here to remember why they got into medicine in the first place.
And, the name of the clinic, “Noor Foundation”… what exactly does that mean?
Noor is the first part of my last name and it translates to “hope” or “light.” My last name, Nooristani literally translates to “land of hope” or “land of light.” I really wanted to call it something that signifies what we do.
Dr. Nooristani, we know you have a busy day ahead of you and need to be getting back to work, but we’d like to close by saying thank you very much for the work you are doing for our community.
Thank you – I love what I do and wouldn’t have it any other way.