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SocietyJune 6, 2017

Breaking plates and fixing hearts: Ali Ikram on newly honoured ONZM, Dr Hamid Ikram, aka Dad


In yesterday’s honours list Professor Hamid Ikram was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit, for services to cardiology and education. His son, Ali Ikram, cheers on an extraordinary Pakistani Cantabrian.

Families are stories. The one my father is most fond of telling concerns a visit to his grandfather’s house when he was a small child in pre-partition India. During the course of playing the young Hamid broke a plate. The commotion caused by this accident attracted the patriarch to the kitchen. When he arrived the boy feared the upbraiding would continue and punishment meted out. But instead quite unexpectedly the elder instructed his grandson to break another plate. A dish was selected, picked up and hurled to the floor shattering into many pieces.

Why does he like it so much? I must have heard the story more than a hundred times. The message moving beneath it is that being careful is not of any intrinsic value when compared to the impulse to be free and if we remember this there will be a second chance.

Omar, Hamid, son Ali, brother Khalid and wife Rosemary Ikram

Falls in the crap, comes up smelling of roses is the interpretation my mother puts on dad’s sheer jamminess which combined with a good deal of hard work and a great care for the health of complete strangers has seen Professor Hamid Ikram, newly appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Born in Rawalpindi, the son of Zebunnisa, a Rajput who according to family lore once killed a cobra with the single blow of a broom and SM Ikram whose Muslim Civilization in India was still required reading at the University of Canterbury when I studied there in the early 1990s, much was expected of him academically. When the time came he waited for his exam results at a hill station so boring every day the young man prayed for nightfall and the relative excitement of going to sleep. When the letter was delayed as others got their marks it was assumed he had failed everything.

“Washed away, boy you are washed away” was the verdict on his future prospects given by one helpful bystander at a gathering that evening. However, when the envelope finally arrived it emerged Hamid had in fact not only passed – but done well enough to receive a scholarship. The plate breaks but providence always has time for one more.

“Your father is a great doctor. I often have people in the cab who see him. One lady just raved about him. He has saved a lot of people,” I remember a taxi driver telling me on the way home from a night out in Christchurch. Nothing can compare to the sort of adoration physicians enjoy among their patients. I’ve worked in TV and interviewed celebrities, but the look on people’s faces and the gratitude they feel is different. It’s deeper, almost solemn. One day a stooped man came down the drive in a van. I watched as he wordlessly took bag after bag of potatoes out of the back and laid them on the porch until it was full. That was the best way he knew how to say thank you.

Like many immigrants who end up here, moving to New Zealand was not part of a grand plan. Dad had met a roadblock in his career and was unable to secure a job as a consultant in Britain. A job came up in Christchurch – he applied and got it without an interview. My parents told themselves it would only be for a couple of years and then they would go back. Hamid worked at Princess Margaret Hospital, a facility named after the least healthy member of the royal family. It didn’t immediately look like any previous idea of success.

Perhaps more importantly though the move was an adventure. Those early days are fondly remembered young family stuff. Dad would come home for lunch. He traded his E Type Jaguar in for an Austin Maxi that was used for trips to Orana Park and The Groynes. One day my brother Omar and I were driven to see a large decomposing shark on a beach north of the city.

At the time Christchurch was behind the other main centres for cardiology and didn’t have a unit for cardiothoracic surgery. In the write up about his honour dad is credited with helping to establish a heart unit there. That’s true. But at times like these it’s necessary to also acknowledge the tireless efforts of others in that struggle several of whom are no longer with us. These include Sir David Hay and patient advocate Neil Columbus. It is also fitting to remember his great friend the late Ross Bailey, a Cantabrian, who he met through cricket in London and whose enthusiasm for his hometown first made the  idea of crossing the world to live there attractive.

Ali Ikram with Professor Hamid Ikram watching Pakistan play New Zealand at Eden Park last year.

I don’t have the necessary medical knowledge to judge what made him such a good clinician and head of department. But at his retirement function, a picture of a master delegator emerged. A younger member of the team would approach Hamid with news of a discovery in a particular area of the specialty. He would put that person in charge of reading everything on the subject and preparing regular reports to keep Christchurch up with the play. Peri Drysdale who went on to found Snowy Peak and Untouched World once worked in his team. She was quoted many years later as saying this approach of empowering staff was a formative experience.

To many questions as to how all of this happened – Canterbury is the answer. It is the place where he set out on his second chapter and the making of us as a family. It wasn’t always an easy place, but it is a good place.

So after the day every plate in the house broke there was talk of Hamid leaving, but it never happened and I understand why, completely.

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