Photo of Dr. Yasmeen in the Women's Clinic
Shagufta Yasmeen gets an early start to her obstetrics clinic day.

Shagufta Yasmeen saw a lot of suffering when she was growing up in Kashmir, a beautiful land in the shadow of the Himalayas of far northwestern India.

It wasn't due to the terrorism that plagues the region today. It was simply the result of a problem common in many rural parts of the world: poor access to medical care.

"People lived in far-flung places and sometimes there was no transportation. By the time they got to the hospital there were usually lots of complications," recalled Yasmeen, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and internal medicine at UC Davis Health System.

A complication of a different kind arose if the sick person was female. For cultural reasons, Kashmiri women preferred to be examined by another woman. But virtually all the doctors were men.

It was in that environment that Yasmeen, then a little girl, began to show signs of a doctor in the making.

"I always wanted to help out," she said. "All the neighbors had me as their daughters, especially people without children or widows."

Putting research into practice

Yasmeen, now 47, is still helping out. One way is through her research, which has focused on delivery of primary care services to women, cancer screening and disparities in health outcomes among women, particularly women with breast cancer.

Another way is by providing volunteer service to her community. As director of the Shifa Clinic, one of five, free, student-run clinics of UC Davis Health System, she works with UC Davis medical students and faculty and community physician volunteers, to provide much-needed health-care services to uninsured patients in Sacramento. The clinic specializes in serving Middle Eastern and East Indian communities, and provides interpretation in Punjabi, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi — the last two of which Yasmeen speaks, along with Kashmiri and English.

Photo of Dr. Yasmeen receiving her award
Yasmeen was honored with the American Medical Association Foundation Leadership Award.

For her efforts at the clinic, Yasmeen was honored with the American Medical Association Foundation Leadership Award for 2007.

Yasmeen came to UC Davis via a long and winding road that began at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar, Kashmir, where she earned a medical degree in 1989; continued in London in the early 1990s where she attained membership — not easy for a foreigner — in the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists; moved across the Atlantic to Philadelphia in 1994, when she had an internship at Thomas Jefferson Medical University; and then leapt across the country to UC Davis, where she did her residency in the late 1990s.

Many of these moves were the result of career choices made by her husband, Rafiq Sheikh, whom she married in Kashmir in 1986 and who is today a gastroenterologist in Sacramento. Nonetheless, Yasmeen managed to avoid sacrificing her own ambitions, forging instead her own path — and in distinctive fashion, at that.

"She's unique in that she's trained in both internal medicine and gynecology," said John A. Robbins, a professor of general medicine at UC Davis and nationally recognized expert in women's health, osteoporosis, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Robbins, the university's principal investigator for a $10.5 million, 15-year Women's Health Initiative research effort, recruited her to be a gynecologist for that trial. It didn't take long for her to make her mark.

In 2003, she was the lead author of a study that found wide variability in the way radiologists from around the country were reading mammograms.

"Her work tossed the ball back to radiologists to better identify which women need follow up," said Patrick Romano, a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at UC Davis.

A clinic is born

In the midst of her research at the university, Yasmeen continued her work at the Shifa Clinic, which started out in 1994 as a highly unstructured operation located in an apartment next to a Sacramento mosque. Yasmeen came onto the scene a few years later and was initially just another volunteer physician from the community. But, frustrated by the lack of organization, she soon started pushing for change.

"You could write something on a piece of paper and never find it again," she said.

The change she had in mind was to make it a student-run clinic affiliated with the School of Medicine. Yasmeen was already a regular volunteer at one of them, Clinica Tepati, which had served the city's downtown Hispanic population since 1974.

But just because she didn't have to invent the template didn't mean that getting an affiliation agreement between the Shifa Clinic and UC Davis would be easy. There was resistance from some mosque members, resistance that became clear during a series of unproductive meetings that culminated with the normally soft-spoken Yasmeen standing up and saying that she would rather be serving patients.

Photo of clinic student volunteers and Dr. Yasmeen
Shagufta Yasmeen, obstetrics and gynecology associate professor, gives student volunteers directions for the morning clinic at Shifa.

This was, perhaps, an example of what another of her UC Davis mentors, Faith Fitzgerald, described as a "gentleness of spirit" combined with a "core of steel."

"She's a very strong person, but not in a defiant way," Fitzgerald said. "She's just absolutely determined to make things better for everybody."

Yasmeen's determination in terms of the clinic eventually carried the day. By June 2001 the Shifa Clinic — the name means "to heal" in Arabic — was officially affiliated with the university.

Ever since, the clinic, which is open every Sunday, has provided training experiences for medical students and UC Davis undergraduate volunteers interested in careers in medicine. Yasmeen continues to provide one-on-one care to the clinic's patients — she's usually there one or two Sundays a month — as do other local physicians. (There are typically two doctors on hand each Sunday, along with four to six medical students.)

And what does Yasmeen, who after all is unpaid like everyone else, get out of the experience? To hear her tell it, pure bliss.

"At the end of the day seeing patients, it gives me a lot of joy," she said. "It has made me a different person. I just thank God I was able to help people."