Why a Chicago-area doctor feels called to serve people in their most critical moments

Dr. Kaleem Malik has been on the front lines his entire career.

He has worked in emergency rooms throughout the Chicago area, treating patients who suffered severe trauma. He has traveled the globe providing relief in the aftermath of disasters. He has completed missions in impoverished countries, offering access to health care for those in need.

And now he's on the front lines again, this time of the coronavirus pandemic.

For 25 years, the Burr Ridge man has built a career around serving people in their most critical moments. He couldn't imagine doing anything else. But his role as an emergency medicine and trauma specialist extends beyond physical health.

It's about compassion and humanity, he says, about caring for someone as you would your own family member. And most importantly, it's about providing hope.

“If you've every been in an ER with a loved one, if you've ever been at someone's hour of need, you know what the value of hope is,” Malik said. “It's everything. It gives you a reason to live.”

Malik was in his second year of medical school when he realized his passion for emergency medicine. He went on to train as a Flight for Life surgeon, where he administered crucial care to patients in the “golden hour” immediately after a trauma.

Malik since has held several health care leadership positions and is a practicing physician and former emergency medicine chairman with the DuPage Medical Group.

Last week, the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois named him its 2020 disaster services hero.

For the past 17 years, Malik has volunteered with Humanity First USA, a nonprofit that provides disaster relief and development assistance worldwide. He has responded in various capacities to disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and most recently, Hurricane Dorian last year.

As the group's director of medical disaster response, Malik and his team of 10 were among the first to arrive on Great Abaco Island after the Category 5 storm pummeled the Bahamas. Summoned by the United Nations Pan American Health Organization at the request of the Bahamian government, they packed four tons of medical equipment, food, generators and other tools, and set out on their mission to restore a damaged clinic in Abaco.

When they arrived after a 13-hour boat ride, Malik said, all they could see was “utter destruction.”

“I'm standing in the midst of the rubble thinking that a bomb went off here, but this was 180-mph sustained winds that leveled everything,” he said. “It happened in the blink of an eye.”

While treating patients and helping them start to rebuild their lives, Malik noticed many were overwhelmed and shellshocked. Based on his observations, he said, the World Health Organization has since developed a proposal for adding mental health professionals to disaster response teams.

Malik also serves as a course director for disaster training, but his relief efforts aren't limited to when catastrophe strikes. He regularly goes on medical missions to provide health care and other basic needs to people living in Guatemala and elsewhere.

It's amazing how many patients are suffering from chronic illnesses that can be treated with medication, he says, but who have never seen a doctor before.

“You learn about human nature and the resiliency of the human spirit that they can carry on with their pain,” he said. “For me, that's a real reality check to know the little things we take for granted.”

Such compassion fuels him. And it's why he doesn't allow himself to become numb to the raw emotion he witnesses every time a mom carries her injured baby into a hospital, or a community is torn apart by a natural disaster, or a new virus threatens the life of anyone in its path.

Malik said he initially was involved in the development of coronavirus triage protocols. Humanity First is now leading the research in a trial for helmet ventilation, a noninvasive tactic that has shown early success in preventing some COVID-19 patients from requiring intubation.

Health care workers are used to seeing people in distress, Malik says, but the pandemic is unique in that those in the trenches are putting themselves in harm's way. He believes everyone should be doing their part to help.

“Empathy is sympathy in motion. Empathy is to feel it like it's your own,” Malik said. “This (issue) has come with the advantages for us to come to know each other and help each other. It really is a time where we must reflect on our humanity.”

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