Pushing the Boundaries

By Lynn McCain | April 9

Rouba Ali-Fehmi white coat sq 500.jpgBorn and raised in Syria, Dr. Rouba Ali-Fehmi attended medical school at the Damascus University, where only the top 1% of high school students in Syria are accepted. Being her high school valedictorian, Ali-Fehmi faced no hurdles getting admitted. Upon completion of her medical education, she did a one-year surgical internship in a military hospital, then moved to Germany for three additional years of training, including a Pediatric internship. Her desire, however, was to come to the United States. “It is the country of opportunity, and all my classmates who had moved to the States were so happy here. I passed my USMLE exam and applied for residency in both pathology and pediatrics. I interviewed in several pediatric programs and only one pathology program at Case Western in Cleveland, where I landed for residency.” Ali-Fehmi chose the pathology residency program in anatomic pathology, followed by three years of fellowship in gynecologic pathology and cytopathology at Wayne State University.

“I met a wonderful man who I married, and for three years, we had a long-distance marriage. I was in Cleveland at Case Western, and he was at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. I moved to Detroit for my fellowship to be with my family. I love serving the community here in Michigan. The Arab American community is large, and I am so proud of my heritage.” Ali-Fehmi stayed at Wayne State for 25 years, the last 10 of which she served as the Vice Chair of Pathology.

Pride in her heritage led Ali-Fehmi to become the president for the National Arab American Medical Association (NAAMA) and to establish the NAAMA’s NextGen program to mentor pre-med students interested in research and public health. NextGen started with just two chapters in 2018 and today there are 30 chapters in major universities across the nation with over 800 engaged.

This work complements her efforts in global health. Recently, Ali-Fehmi was awarded one of just three seed grants from the University of Michigan’s Center for Global Health Equity (CGHE) to assess the sexual, reproductive, and mental health educational needs among refugee women in Lebanon. In addition, she is a very active member of Pathology’s Global Health Initiatives along with Drs. Ulysses Balis, Lee Schroeder, Rich Lieberman, Kamran Mirza, and Mustafa Yousif, who are also members of CGHE. Together, with the support of the Department of Pathology’s chair, Dr. Charles Parkos, they are working toward creating a Center of Global Pathology and Diagnostic Equity in the department. “The main purpose is to reach out to lower and middle-income countries to assist them using digital pathology. “It will be a model for other countries,” explained Ali-Fehmi.

Dr. Rouba Ali-Fehmi signs out breast pathology casesAli-Fehmi is expanding the borders of pathology within the health system as well. As a breast pathologist, she recently received approval from the Rogel Cancer Center to host breast pathology clinics within the Cancer Center. “We will meet with the patients face-to-face to review their pathology report and diagnosis with them. Using digital pathology, we can show them what their tumor looks like. We can go through all the terminology in the pathology report and explain what it means in language patients can better understand and answer any of their questions.” Ali-Fehmi explained that this will help patients adhere to their treatment and enhance their knowledge about their disease. “This will be part of a multidisciplinary breast clinic. First, the surgeon will see the patient, then the pathologist, and then the oncologist. The patient will get a better understanding and be relieved of some of their stress. It is rewarding for us and better for the patient.”

Over the next few years, Ali-Fehmi aims to increase the breast pathology section’s reputation nationally and internationally. “It is strong already, but my goal is to make it even stronger, to grow our consultation service and become a national hub for breast pathology consultation. This is my number one goal. My second goal is to take the department’s global health initiatives and expand into a global pathology center serving in the Middle East, Africa, India, and other lower-income countries, ensuring patients in less-resourced areas have access to equitable diagnostic care.”

Ali-Fehmi finds great joy in her work and celebrates when she is awarded grants or is notified of a manuscript being accepted for publication. She also rejoices when she sees the fruit of her labors, such as the approval of the Breast Pathology Clinic. “It took five months after we submitted the proposal to get notified. It felt like nothing was going to happen, and then last week, when I got the news that it was approved, I was so excited!” Another recent success was publishing her new book on Gynecologic Pathology which was three years in the making. She is also quite proud of her twin boys, who are both pre-med students at Michigan. We are sure they are just as proud of their mom, who is making such a difference in the lives of patients around the world.