*Dr Syed Zia Hussain (Photo: Supplied)
“Medicare? No. Private health insurance? No. Money for a doctor? No.” These all-too-common responses are why Dr Syed Zia Hussain is offering free medical care to the struggling temporary visa holders that Prime Minister Scott Morrison told: it’s “time to make your way home”.
“The next patient you’re going to see has a fever and a cough,” the receptionist at a medical centre in Sydney’s west says to Dr Zia. Usually this would be nothing more than a comment in passing – now it’s practice protocol.
Dr Zia exchanges his unassuming office clothes for a mask, face shield, gloves and gown – like a hero donning his super suit. He then walks past his office, out the back door of the practice, and into the parking lot, where the patient has been confined to their car. Dr Zia ushers him in through the back door and straight into his office, careful to avoid the main waiting room.
“I’m not the kind of person who worries a lot because I’ve seen much worse in my country,” he says, rattling off a laundry list of some of the deadliest diseases known to man (the likes of which are scarcely mentioned in Australian medical centres).
In Pakistan, where Dr Zia spent the first chapter of his life, endemic disease is no stranger. He even contracted tuberculosis himself at just 16.
It was also in Pakistan that he would start offering free medical care to his most disadvantaged patients. It was a career-defining move that is quickly becoming as necessary in Australia, as it was back in Pakistan.
“My grandfather was living below the line of poverty, and then my father educated himself and somehow rose up from the slums.”
Descriptions of either poverty or war uncomfortably shadow Dr Zia’s family history. He attributes his father’s “success” to joining the country’s “battle-hardened army”, as if Pakistan had said to him “your choice is poverty or war” – and he had chosen war.
But the army didn’t give him the life he wanted. “My father always wanted to become a doctor,” Dr Zia says, but “because it was very expensive… he couldn’t make it.” Ever since Grade One, Dr Zia knew “I have to become a doctor.” And he did. He calls it his “fate”.
Dr Zia would practice medicine in Pakistan for 13 years and, unlike his grandfather and his father, who “was earning just a decent amount of money – just for us to get through the month,” he earned enough as a doctor to “live like a prince”. “So,” he says without taking a breath, “I didn’t need that.”
In Pakistan, Dr Zia estimates he saw half of his patients for free. Sometimes even more. “If a person is earning $10 a day, and if I take $10 from him, that [is]… probably his livelihood,” he says, “probably, it would feed him… and his whole family.”
“You want it free of cost or you want to pay?” Wisal, whose surname has been withheld, recalls Dr Zia asking him.
Payment is normally collected upfront, but Dr Zia said to his receptionist, “if the patient doesn’t want to pay; don’t make them.” These patients, who are quite often in tears, would then be allowed to personally explain their circumstances during their appointment.
“I [don’t have] money on my credit card,” Wisal told Dr Zia who said in response, “It’s okay. It’s totally fine. I would love to help you.”
“I charge only $40 per visit,” Dr Zia adds, “so probably almost everyone could afford it.” But “almost” is the key word, as “every day, one or two patients at least come in (like Wisal) who can’t afford an appointment.”
Since COVID-19 reached Australian shores, demand for Dr Zia’s free appointments has spiked from one particular group – temporary visa holders.
“The condition is that I can live in Australia,” bridging visa holder Muhammad explains, “but otherwise I don’t have other rights.”
These “other rights” include access to Medicare and social welfare; programs Australian citizens take for granted. If, like Muhammad, you don’t have private health insurance, you’re left to foot the bill yourself.
Muhammad’s father has been sending him money for food and rent but getting his MRI results checked by a doctor was a luxury he couldn’t afford. He resigned himself to the mysterious pain in his wrist, when he saw a post on Facebook listing “free” doctors.
FRIENDS IN NEED in collaboration with Australian Pakistan Medical Association provide free medical assistance to those…
One of these doctors was Dr Zia, who would later tell Muhammad his hand was fractured and that he’d need to see a specialist to have a cast made. “But I can’t… go there because I can’t afford it,” Muhammad says.
Dr Zia’s five-bedroom home in Sydney, where he lives with his wife and three children, is a far cry from the slums in North Pakistan. He describes a typical suburban life, with a teenaged daughter who “is always in her room”.
He marvels at the technology his children have access to that he didn’t. “I tell my kids whatever you want to become [it’s] your choice.”
“I was doing pretty good in my country, I was earning [a] good amount of money,” he adds, before pausing uncomfortably, as if quietly debating whether or not to finish. “But there was an incident that happened.”
He then explains why, after working for 13 years as a doctor and having started a family in Pakistan, he uprooted and left everything behind for Australia.
“Somebody hit me,” he says pointing to his nose, “and it was so hard I fell unconscious.”
When he woke up, “all in blood,” he knew he had to “move to any other part of the world,” and as “a firm believer in fate and destiny”, he knew he “was destined to come to Australia.”
— Travis Radford @trav_is_radford