Dr Maryam Abdool-Richards is a renaissance woman. She’s lately one of the country’s medical superstars. As the Ministry of Health’s acting principal medical officer in charge of institutions, she’s made appearances at the covid19 media briefings, supporting Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh and Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram. She also collates information and presents reports for their reference.
She’s an active member of the National Muslim Women’s Organisation, giving her time to mentor and support causes close to her heart, including women’s empowerment, gender equality and human rights. She’s beautiful, intelligent and articulate. She’s a fashionista, an art collector, painter and a cook. She still manages to make time to run, swim, and do spin classes and yoga. Oh, and she has an executive MBA, training in diplomacy and international relations, and is fluent in Spanish.
“My core value revolves around excellence in all aspects of my life – my career, my relationships, my home, my hobbies, my skills. It’s something I attempt to live by daily, and want it to be reflected in my behaviour at a personal and professional level,” she told WMN.
“You have to have a level of mental resilience. I try to be agile and adaptable to situations – I’ve learnt to respond, not react. But I believe in honesty and fairness.”
She’s a busy woman – especially now, when the country’s health and safety amidst the covid19 pandemic is dependent on efficient management by the Ministry of Health. She’s second-in-command after the CMO (and has acted in the role several times), but she made time to talk to WMN (via phone because of physical distancing).
Richards specialises in family care and public health. Her uncle Dr Wahid Ali, a former president of the senate, was also a family care physician, and he inspired her to follow in his footsteps (professionally, not politically.) She won a national scholarship for natural sciences and earned her medical degree at UWI St Augustine Medical School, where she won the overall prize for obstetrics and gynaecology. She followed it up with a master’s degree in family medicine, also at UWI.
"As an intern in the clinic, I would see so many gaps in policy about how to manage patients effectively and efficiently," she said.
Her advisers suggested she follow up with another specialisation in public health, because that would be the best way for her to intervene in making meaningful change to patient care.
She was awarded another national scholarship for another master's degree, this time in public health in developing countries, with a specialisation in health economics and policy at the London School of Tropical Medicine. With that degree, she was was now positioned to help formulate and implement policy.
On joining the Ministry of Health on her return, she recognised another gap – not many (if any) physicians actually understood the nuances of financing and resource allocation in the health sector.
"Health is a public good: it generally involved mostly expenditure, not revenue. So if I wanted to work in policy development, I would have to identify revenue streams and (the impact) on society as a whole."
Now tasked with undertaking the business of health, and seeing even more gaps in managing the public health system, she decided to study for another master's degree: this time, the MBA at the Arthur Lok Jack Global School of Business.
Before becoming PMO, Abdool-Richards was the technical director of the ministry's Health Services Support Programme, funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). It was because of her work with this and other multi-lateral agencies that she decided to add another level of expertise: international relations and diplomacy.
"It's really a tool for accessing resources. This additional training really complements my degree, because I can talk to people at a different level. Working with the IDB, for example, I recognised that geographically, for TT to compete, the country had to be able to relate to Latin America, and that's why I learnt Spanish."
Public health is an interesting field, she said, because it’s a mix of clinical science and a lot of softer, social-sciences elements.
"You have to interact with a lot of people because we’re really looking after the health of society as a whole.”
In this role, she’s had to meet with stakeholders from all aspects of society, including other ministries, civil society, international bodies and the private sector, often to come to a consensus on the best way to serve the public.
“It’s really allowed me to understand and appreciate the different views of everyone and gain a broad perspective.”
But life is more than just work, and Abdool-Richards believes in striking a balance. Mental health is very important to her, and she also advocates for ways to reduce stress, especially among the people of TT. So she tries to practise what she preaches.
In addition to her active hobbies, and passion for visual and culinary arts, her faith is very important.
“My faith gives me the ability to be resilient persevere, and also gives me a good foundation in terms of ethics and core values.”
She describes the National Muslim Women’s Organisation as a diverse group that seeks to encourage other women through mentorship and support. She’s also part of the Inter-club of TT, another women’s empowerment organisation that, among other things, advocates against domestic violence, human and sex trafficking and for gender equality.
“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had excellent support and mentoring throughout my life, since my days at St Augustine Girls’ High School,” she said.
So she sees it as part of her duty to give back.
“We were always taught to look at opportunities within our abilities. And as I got older, I’ve learnt to be more resilient and enhance my coping skills. Life is more than just technical skills. It’s also about emotional intelligence.”
In terms of women’s empowerment, she believes women have a duty to remember their role as leaders and mentors in society.
“As women, we have to support each other and I have a strong sense of self-worth (and a belief) that we can contribute to society. I believe in mentoring and sharing whatever resources we can – offering expertise to a project, giving time. It’s a way to be more resilient and one of the ways I’ve learnt to cope.”