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The Pandemicist at Home: How Dr. Wajid Ahmed stays sane in the time of Covid-19

As Medical Officer of Health for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, Dr. Wajid Ahmed is our local authority under the Health Protection and Promotion Act for communicable disease control and managing outbreaks of public health significance. Lately, the champion athlete, vintage video game enthusiast, marathon Zoomer, and devoted family man has also become Southwestern Ontario’s unlikeliest celebrity. The Drive checked in with Dr. Ahmed to see how he’s holding up at the end of the world’s—and his—strangest summer on record.
Author: Jesse Ziter
Photographer: Syx Langemann
4 years ago
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Every morning, thousands of Windsor-Essex residents look hopefully to an increasingly distant-seeming future in which they never again have to look at Dr. Wajid Ahmed’s face.

This past spring and summer, in these uncertain/unprecedented/challenging times (choose your own euphemism), the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) has laid foundations on prime real estate at the forefront of our region’s public consciousness. Rarely in living memory have healthcare workers been this visible, and no local healthcare worker is more visible than Ahmed.

If you’ve watched Ahmed speak, you’ve likely seen him do so against a flat grey backdrop in what looks like a dimly lit room, a local-news-style column counting grisly case and death totals filling the right of the screen.

While most of the WECHU’s approximately 240 full-time-equivalent staff are now safely working from home, Ahmed records a live YouTube briefing every morning from the WECHU’s Windsor headquarters. These missives have become an essential part of collective timekeeping across the county.

On screen, in that sea of negative space, Ahmed cuts a lonely figure: A solitary captain steering a modest vessel more or less steadily, bracing half-blind against wave after wave after wave of invisible chaos.

“I’m generally a private person,” Ahmed explains. “I like to keep things to myself. But the community needed that face and needed that message and it basically just forced me to be that person. It’s not something that I enjoy.”

I’ve stolen a bit of Ahmed’s valuable time for a quick Zoom conversation. Today, he’s backdropped by an illustrated “wild west” town centre, the sort with flat, vertical facades that look like stage decorations propped up from behind by perpendicular two-by-fours. An early Model T preens in front of more than one building that might be a saloon.

The Wild West backdrop is arbitrary, Ahmed says, but almost too on-the-nose. “I wouldn’t say the work has slowed now, but where there were a lot of uncertainties in the beginning of this pandemic, there is now a lot more structure,” says Ahmed, who notes that many levels of government have centralized decision-making responsibilities, and who was heartened to see many of the WECHU’s early interventions become broader public policy—de facto or de jure.

In person—well, “in person”—Ahmed emits measured, reluctant confidence and very little of the bravado you’d normally expect of a person experiencing the rising action of sudden local celebrity. If anything, he’s excessively humble, quick throughout our conversation to defer credit to a series of mentors from his public health education. While I am in no position to assess his performance, I never doubt his intentions.

Ahmed’s “new normal” involves spending most of his days in Zoom meetings and on phone calls with various stakeholders, including his staff. Otherwise, he’s buried in reading. Typically, the communications begin first thing in the morning and carry on until ten or eleven in the evening. “It’s basically become my day, my weekends, and my night,” he admits.

Theresa Marentette, the WECHU’s chief executive officer and chief nursing officer, has worked with Ahmed for several years. In the Before Times, Marentette’s role was quite different from Ahmed’s, but the two of them “have worked closely together on all aspects of the pandemic with the primary goal of protecting our community,” she says.

“I have definitely seen Dr. Ahmed grow as a person both professionally and personally,” she tells The Drive. “Dr. Ahmed has had to provide leadership and make decisions that impact people at individual and community levels during this global pandemic. I have learned he handles stress very well, always sees the best in people, and always listens to others.”

“Feeling the burden of responsibility to make decisions—to make choices—for people with very limited information available has not been easy,” admits Ahmed. “Being the centre of every discussion, every news item, and every debate took a personal toll on me. My family, my children, everyone else could see that in my face.”

Ahmed lives in LaSalle with his wife, Sana; their three sons, Adi (13 years old), Ariz (10), Aazil (2.5); and his mother, Asiya. “I love my family and I think that’s my most precious treasure,” he says. “Everything I do is with my family.”

Earlier in the pandemic, Ariz made a habit of popping into this room to offer a hug for ostensibly no reason. “I just feel like it; you need that,” the younger Ahmed would say.

Adi, the eldest, was less forthcoming. “It reached the point where he didn’t want to come talk to me,” says Ahmed. “He said, ‘Okay, you’re already stressed, I don’t want to come and talk to you about my problems.’ Hearing that helped me think maybe I’m not realizing how the situation is impacting my personal life. I said, ‘I’m your dad. It’s my job to listen to your problems!’”

Ahmed was born, grew up, and attended medical school in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city and one of the largest and most densely populated urban centres anywhere in the world. As a young doctor, after a few years of practice, Ahmed grew disillusioned with the country’s inequitable private healthcare system. “Without knowing a lot about public health, I recognized some of the challenges in the healthcare system,” he says, “which gave me the perspective we could do more.”

After a gentle push from his brother, then a PhD student at the University of Waterloo, Ahmed moved to Canada in 2004 to begin work on a master’s degree of his own at the same institution.

After graduation, he completed a fellowship at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto before winning a place in the ultra-competitive five-year Public Health and Preventative Medicine postgraduate residency program at the University of Ottawa. (Family physicians, as a point of comparison, complete two years of residency.)

Ahmed moved to Essex County in August 2014, shortly after completing the program. His relocation brought him closer to a number of extended family members living elsewhere in Southern Ontario.

When he’s not helping coordinate the regional COVID-19 response, Ahmed spends some stolen-away evening and weekend hours working with a team to rally a sizeable army against a terrifying existential threat—in a computer game.  

During the pandemic, Ahmed and his sons have built a local-area-network across three household computers to play Command & Conquer: Red Alert, a wildly popular 1996 real-time-strategy game in which players contest an alternate-history World War II.

“My sons obviously they need my time as well,” he explains. “We have a few games we are playing as a team, which they really enjoy. Right now, they’re playing my game, a game from my time.”

The trio also spends a fair bit of quality time with the family PlayStation.

While this is a fittingly nerdy pastime for an epidemiology policy wonk, when time allows, Ahmed maintains a degree of equilibrium by also playing competitive sports. (“Whatever I can get,” in his words.) You may be surprised to learn Ahmed played high-level cricket in Pakistan, occasionally brushing shoulders with regional stars and national-team-calibre athletes. As a medical student, he won his college’s badminton championship. 

He’s continued to play both sports in Canada. “I still like to play with better players,” he says, smiling, “but now I’m getting old! I’m not as fast as I would expect myself to be on the court, but I’ve made my name amongst the people who know my play.”

At press time, Ahmed is dealing with another ritual of middle age: getting ready to send his oldest two sons off to school for the fall. “It is definitely a nervous time for all parents,” admits Ahmed, who remains optimistic that the region’s collective progress will keep area children safe. “I can totally understand.”

It will mark the end of a strange, stressful season for the Ahmed family—as it has for all of ours.

“Dr. Ahmed has sacrificed a great deal of time with his wife and boys these past six months,” says Marentette. “I know they all must be very proud of him.”

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