‘…much more needs to be done to help others, especially women.’

Twenty-six years ago, Zeba Azizali Mohammed Rasmussen '76 was already clear about two defining influences that would lead to her life's work as an internationally known public health physician and medical researcher in Gilgit, Pakistan. Interviewed as a freshman for the Fall 1972 issue of the Alumnae Bulletin, she said that her long-held ambition to study medicine grew out of concern for her younger sister who has Down's Syndrome, as well as her work in Karachi during high school with refugees during the war between India and Pakistan.

After receiving her A.B. in biology summa cum laude, Zeba earned an M.D. from Harvard and a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins with the help of Bryn Mawr’s Anna Howard Shaw Scholarship in Medicine and Public Health from 1976-1981. Throughout her medical training, she maintained her commitment to influencing social change through practicing medicine in the Third World, making special academic arrangements to attend elective programs related to public health, which helped her gain valuable experience. One of her electives, in 1980, was with the U.S. Indian Health Service in the Navajo area at the Gallup Indian Medical Center, NM, which allowed her “to see how underprivileged populations in the United States receive health care.” In 1984, after completing residency training in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, she was awarded a nine-month traveling fellowship by the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust, which supported her work at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, the World Health Organization in Geneva, the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre in Karachi, and the Aga Khan Central Health Board for Pakistan, where she developed a plan for a community-based malaria control program.

In 1987, Zeba married Stephen Rasmussen, an American who had grown up in Pakistan. They had first met at Johns Hopkins, where he took a master’s in health services administration, and in 1988 they settled in Gilgit. This area, strategically located on Pakistan's northern border adjacent to China, India and Afghanistan, has some of the highest mountains in the world. Although less remote today than a decade ago, even now Gilgit lives under the constant threat of disaster caused by sudden weather shifts, which can lead to snowstorms or landslides, and frequent mini-earthquakes, which result from the area's close proximity to the Indian and Asian subcontinental plates.

In this formidable setting, Steve and Zeba serve their community. Steve is now general manager of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme for economic and agricultural development. Since 1989, Zeba has worked in Gilgit on developing the health system in Pakistan’s Northern Areas. The remote locale has enabled her to conduct world-class research on childhood diarrhea and pneumonia. Her projects involved establishing a microbiology facility in Gilgit, which then made it possible to diagnose cholera during a major epidemic in 1993. She has also used epidemiologic, anthropologic and clinical research methods, and “a key element has been developing local women as research workers in their own communities.”

Zeba teaches on infectious disease as an assistant professor in the departments of medicine and community health sciences at the Aga Khan University in Karachi. Together, Zeba and Steve have overseen the Third World Development projects of four Bryn Mawr and Haverford undergraduates, who have received support from the College's Ariadne Solter Fund.

In May 1995, the Rasmussens welcomed their adopted son Yousuf Aziz, whom Zeba calls “a miracle who has made life much more full, delightful and conflicted.” Yousuf's arrival has compelled Zeba to seek a more flexible work schedule. Her commitment to her family is balanced by her desire to continue her research and clinical practice.

As she returned to Bryn Mawr to address this year's graduating seniors, who included her niece, Melanie Brown ’98, Zeba expressed “enormous satisfaction” with her choice to serve in an underprivileged area of the world. She also identified a third influence on her life's choices, which holds true for all women: “One is constantly aware of the great privileges of education and choice, and how much more still needs to be done to help others, especially women, to become empowered to improve their lives.”

—Patricia Keleman Szuhaj ’88



‘Do you think I'm a wimp or something?’

In an informal interview with the Bulletin, Zeba Rasmussen talked at greater length about the course her life has taken in building a career and a family.

“I don’t really remember what my thoughts were about having a family when I graduated from Bryn Mawr. I do remember an exchange one day with my professor and mentor during the year I took off from medical school to study public health at Johns Hopkins. This man, Dr. Carl Taylor, who was head of the international health department, said something to the effect that, ‘You will probably want to work part time when you have a family.’ I remember replying, ‘I will NEVER work part time.’ Silently, I was thinking, ‘Do you think I’m a wimp or something? I’m not going to stop. I’m going to be doctor. I’m going to be busy.’ It was such a negative reaction to what was a completely reasonable suggestion. I think a lot of young women of my generation had that same sense—we were being educated, we were going to work, and we were going to work full time, but we did not have full, informed consent of what it would mean to have a family.

“I married at about 31, which is very late in Pakistan, and we had trouble having a baby. I had a couple of miscarriages, and we were far away from access to the really aggressive medical intervention that people can get relatively quickly these days. It was only when I came back to Massachusetts to take a board exam that I found out I had endometriosis. After that we went through infertility treatment. We tried again, and I had another miscarriage. By that time I was approaching 38. In the States, people might continue for a number of years but it just wasn’t possible for us with jobs in Gilgit. We decided that that we would try to adopt. Then, we were extremely fortunate. We went to visit a couple of agencies in Karachi one day and I thought, ‘This is going to be very difficult. We’re of two different races, two different religious backgrounds —who’s going to give us a baby?’ I didn’t really think it would be possible. We went home about three days later, and spent half the way—it’s a 12-hour drive from Islamabad to the town we call home—discussing what we should do. We decided just to go ahead, whatever way we could, however long it took. The next afternoon we got a call that our son had been born the day before. It was a miracle. He was two days old when the social worker at the agency took him to my cousin, who had also adopted through them—and it’s a good thing she did. He was probably born at home with an untrained attendant doing the delivery, and he was septic. He needed to be in the hospital and on antibiotics. It took me 24 hours to get down to Karachi; my cousin had already taken him to the hospital once where they had hydrated him, but by the time we arrived the next day he wasn’t eating or crying.

“So I met this tiny, scrawny little thing, we went straight back to the hospital, and the next thing I knew he was up in the neonatal intensive care unit. Luckily he did very well. He was malnourished, and for the next two or three months he ate every two or three hours because he was so hungry.

“Yousuf came into our lives so quickly that I still had a lot of professional obligations. We were in the middle of finishing a book and a number of ongoing research projects. I said to my husband right then and there, ‘I’m stopping working now.’ He said, ‘Wait a minute. You’ve been working a long time, and perhaps this is too precipitous a decision.’ I wonder now whether I should have just stopped then, but I went ahead and worked full time the first year after a few months of maternity leave. Yousuf was getting excellent care. We had a good baby sitter in the morning, and he spent every afternoon with my sister-in-law who lived across the street with five older children who loved him—and he loved going to them. What was clear was that I was the one who was missing out. You don’t want to hear from somebody else, ‘He climbed the stairs today for the first time.’ You want to witness that yourself. I cut down to 2/3 time for almost a year and still that wasn’t enough. So then I cut down to half time, which seemed much more reasonable in terms of being able to finish up important work that I’d started years before and to have some time with Yousuf.

“I found, however, that the transition from being a really busy professional to being at home wasn’t so easy. Here you are thinking, ‘I’m spending all my time changing diapers and so forth. I should be doing other things at work.’ As much you love a child and love watching how he or she grows, there’s a learning process involved in being just able to relax and not feel that you have to be ‘productive’ all the time.

“I think I’ve gotten over that now, but I’ve managed to keep traveling, keep going to the meetings that are important, keep doing the kind of work that I love to do and taking Yosuf with me pretty much everywhere. The easiest way to get home from Islamabad for us is a two-hour helicopter ride; that boy made 17 rides by the time he was one year old. He probably covered 30,000 miles in his first year, and I haven’t even added up how much he’s done since then. (His passport itself is a pretty interesting children’s book—we’ve also had all the airline pilots sign his flight log for him to keep.) “When he was younger, it was harder on me, traveling around with an 18-month-old, but now, at the age of three, he needs the stability of an environment that’s the same, every day.

“I’d love to have another child. I have good sibling relationships, as does my husband, and I feel as though if we’re ever going to do it, this is the time. I know the opportunities that I have now in terms of work are not going to be the same a few years from now. But that will probably be just fine because I’ll have hopefully another active child like Yousuf—and I’ll be building a person instead of consultancies and papers, contributing in a major way that only a mom can do.

“I’ve lost a lot of friends who died in their 30s from breast cancer or suddenly from infection, in their 40s and early 50s from melanoma.... When we’re 22 or 32 or 42, it’s hard to think that life is short, because most women in this country live until their late 70s—but you may not fit that statistic. If you’re going to live long enough, you’ll probably be able to work again after raising a family, but if life is short for you—I’d much rather spend that time with my family.

“Society and institutions have been great about giving us the chance to be workaholics, but they haven’t been as creative about finding solutions that allow us to enjoy our children and also be able to do some work—or to say, ‘Fine, don’t work for a while and then we’ll help you see what’s available at that point to get back into something.’

“My own institution,The Aga Khan University, has been supportive and flexible in my situation, but I’m pushing their limits because they are still in the process of developing personnel policy for women who are in the academic track and wish to cut down on work while their children are young. Some of my projects only need supervision, and I could easily do what I need to do working less than half time. I have a lot of data analysis and writing to do, but the pace of that can be slowed down.”

‘I can try anything: There's nothing that's forbidden me!’

photo of Melanie Brown '98Zeba’s niece, Melanie Brown ’98, spent the last three years of high school in Pakistan while her father was pastor of a church in Islamabad. Bryn Mawr was not among the colleges she had originally visited before leaving the United States, but at her aunt’s suggestion, she added it to her list.

As Melanie got to see more of Zeba in Pakistan as well as Julia Huebner ’96, a Solter intern who spent time with the Brown family on her way to and from Gilgit, she “really liked what I saw of them. And the more time I’ve spent at Bryn Mawr, the more I’ve come to understand what it was about Zeba and Julia that I liked. They have an attitude of ‘I can try anything. Maybe I can’t do it, but there’s no reason I can’t try. There’s nothing that’s forbidden to me.’ That’s most unusual to see in a culture and place like Pakistan. It really stood out, for a woman to be so confident.”

A math major, Melanie began to work for the College’s Computing Services in June. “As I put it to some of my friends,” she said, “ ‘You can make me graduate, but you can’t make me leave!’ ”

cover icon Return to Fall 1998 highlights

MHK