Layla Abubshait, MD
Einstein Untold: Unsung Heroes and Unknown Stories

Saudi Woman Battled Cultural Roles to Become Emergency Doctor

By on 12/20/2021
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One in an ongoing series

Layla Abubshait’s journey to becoming a physician was fraught with uncommon struggles. That’s because she grew up in Saudi Arabia, where the patriarchal culture severely restricts the rights of women.

“Middle Eastern women struggle to have their voices heard in a community ruled and run by men,” says Dr. Abubshait, an emergency medicine physician at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery. “When a woman chooses to study and work, she is met with many hardships, as the culture and society believes that she is inadequate to be anywhere but her home.”

Even the daily drive to medical school was a problem.   

“The college was far away from home, 45 minutes, and women weren’t allowed to drive then,” she says, explaining that she had to be transported by a male driver. “It was a lot of hardship, trying to figure out ways to make it to school.”

So why become a doctor in the first place? What drove her to defy the cultural norms and invite her society’s disdain?

Dr. Abubshait says she became interested in medicine during the three years of her childhood that her father was in and out of the hospital with bladder cancer; he died when she was 10.

Supportive Parents

Her father had been a successful businessman who was exposed to Western influences during his career – he violated cultural norms himself by marrying a woman from Vietnam – and did not wholly endorse Saudi Arabia’s repressive agenda for women. (He would not agree, for instance, to force her into a traditional arranged marriage.)

Nor did Dr. Abubshait’s mother subscribe to the regime’s restrictions on women.

“My mother was my No. 1 supporter,” she says. “She survived the Vietnam era; she was from the South, where the war was lost. She always wanted to be a lawyer.” But her school records were lost when she left Vietnam and she couldn’t complete law school. She transferred her dreams to her daughter.

“She taught me that no matter what happens around you, focus on your dream and what you want to be,” Dr. Abubshait says. “She’d always push me to study hard and work.”

Outside her home, Dr. Abubshait sought women mentors in her Arabic tribe who already were in health care, including the first female orthopedist in Saudi Arabia.

But even when Dr. Abubshait graduated from medical school in 2008, her options were limited. Women physicians were largely restricted to specialties that didn’t involve physical contact with men. She could be a pediatrician, an obstetrician-gynecologist or a dermatologist.

Calm Amid the Unexpected

But she wanted to be an emergency doctor – partially out of sheer defiance, but also because she was truly drawn to the field.

“What I like about emergency medicine is, people are usually scared when they come to the ER,” she says. “They’re worried, anxious, panicked. So I like to be that first person to come in and talk to them. I was told I have a calm voice, so I like to use that skill.”

And, like all emergency docs, Dr. Abubshait likes the unpredictability of the day-to-day. ”You never know what’s going to hit the door next,” she says.

Dr. Abubshait came to the United States in 2008 to do a residency in emergency medicine with the intention of returning to Saudi Arabia afterwards, to advocate for women’s rights.

She discovered, however, that she liked it here. She met her husband – who’s also now a physician at Einstein Montgomery – and decided to stay. After her residency, she completed a fellowship at Harvard University, worked in Dubai for two years, and came to Einstein Montgomery two and a half years ago.

But she’s not given up her commitment to gender equity. Dr. Abubshait contributes to a digital platform called FEMinEM, for women in emergency medicine. And, as associate director of the emergency medicine residency program at Einstein Montgomery, she’s helped institute policies to insure diversity.

This year, for instance, when selecting eight residents from 600 applicants, the committee did not look at the photos that accompany the applications, to avoid being unconsciously swayed by the applicants’ gender, ethnicity or race.

Dr. Abubshait credits Merle Carter, MD, Associate Chair of Emergency Medicine, and Elizabeth Datner, MD, Chair of Emergency Medicine, for the department’s commitment to diversity.

Considering her journey to becoming a physician in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Abubshait revels in the opportunity to work for, and with, women in a position to effect change.

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