Dr Halim Grace:
A hospital, a history, a life
Challenge of the cure
If feisty had a face it would be very like that of Dr Halim Grace. Small, slightly hunched, he walks with a shuffle. His speech is sometimes less than clear. But Dr Grace possesses a booming personality.
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"He has involved me very much in his work. He would sometimes ask me to cook patient's meals."
His wife is the first to volunteer it, and he appears to nod in silent agreement. It is the sheer velocity with which he approaches life, after all, that has made him what he is.
"He has quarrelled with everyone along the way," his wife, Maijane Behman, says, and her face breaks into a smile. "What he thinks is to be done must be done," she explains in her very British, very refined accent. "He says what he thinks regardless of who is in front of him. That is why he is so well respected."
Dr Grace is chairman of the board of the Anglo-American Hospital -- known as the Anglo -- a landmark on the residential island of Zamalek. He is also, colleagues say, a world class surgeon; one of the fathers, so-to-speak, of surgery in Egypt.
It is a ten minute wait before the interview begins. He refuses to start until things are in place.
"The table," he calls to one of several home helpers in Arabic. "And my pen, and the medals."
A small table is whisked from somewhere inside and placed in front of him. His favoured pen, two velvet-covered boxes (royal blue), and two official looking certificates are placed before him.
"And the envelopes please."
He signs, and seals, and places all in a perfectly sized gift bag.
"These are for you," he says. "We turn one hundred in March."
He is referring to the hospital. His history, and that of the Anglo, are almost contemporaneous and intricately entwined.
"I was born in 1910," he starts. "On October 21st. The hospital was built in 1903, by the British."
For Dr Grace the hospital is of more immediate interest.
"The British wanted a hospital for their people," he says, "So Lord Cromer asked the government for a piece of land on the grounds of the Gezira Club," he begins. "It was called the Khedivial Sporting Club at the time; a social ground for British officers and four selected Egyptian dignitaries. Honorary members," he explains. "It was in 1901, and they were given 8,000 metres." The cost of the land, it is said, was LE1,600.
The meeting to raise funds was long -- an event, Dr Grace tells, that took place at the Shepheard Hotel.
"It was built and opened in 1903," he announces. "The 3rd of March. This March is our 100th anniversary."
His story started seven years later, in the Upper Egyptian countryside, where he was born to a family of farmers. "I was the failure," he laughs to himself.
Maijane nods and smiles.
"It's true," he says. "I'm the only one that didn't make it as a falaah (farmer). I didn't make it in agriculture, so I became a surgeon."
"The only Grace that didn't make it," Maijane repeats.
Becoming a surgeon, though, was much more in tune with his personality.
"I chose it because it's spectacular," he says. "In surgery it's kill or cure."
He repeats this several times.
"He is a very positive sort of person," Maijane pitches in. "No hesitation about him. "He always wanted to be a doctor."
"He used to go around chopping chickens heads off when he was in the countryside," she adds, in after thought.
Dr Grace interrupts, wanting to talk more about the hospital and when it was built. And he wants "the gown".
"I have a very demanding husband," Maijane says. She turns quickly to her husband. "Halim," she says sternly, "let's get down to the facts. She's a journalist, there are things she wants to hear."
Dr Grace is at home, recovering from pneumonia.
"Halim" ignores her.
"Get the gown," he says to Lucy, one of those assisting in the running of the house. "Please, get the gown."
He is referring to the gown he received when he was given an honorary fellowship from London's Royal College of Surgeons.
"I keep a record of every single surgery I make," he explains. "And I make detailed comments on the failures."
"By 1974 the number of operations reached 34,000. And so I wrote to the RCS and they gave me this honorary fellowship of achievement."
He began counting at least 35 years before. Dr Grace graduated from Qasr Al-Aini's Medical school in 1942, working his way through all the departments, and even taking charge of his own of 120 beds for a while. His lifetime connection with the Anglo began at the same time.
"They wanted an Egyptian consultant," he says of the two British practitioners there at the time, Walter Hamilton and Charles King. "So they got me in for surgery and Naguib Pasha Mahfouz as the consulting obstetrician. He was very famous," he says, and then repeats it, to make sure I have registered the fact.
"He was obstetrician to the queen." Maijane underlines the point. "He is the one that brought King Farouk into the world."
So in 1940 he joined the hospital, acting as emergency back- up when there was need.
"I was called in several times in the middle of the night," he says -- once saving the life of a haemorrhaging woman. The four-month old fetus still remains bottled in his office today.
"Then there was the time Lord Klein's daughter Charlotte had her appendix removed," he says of the British ambassador's daughter. "He was abroad, and when he returned he came to thank me and ask if I was a member of the Club," he says, referring to the Khedivial Sporting Club.
The next day, after meeting with the club's legendary "Captain Billy", he became the fifth Egyptian member -- alongside the likes of Adli Pasha and Hussein Sirri Pasha.
"After the Suez War the hospital was sequestrated," he recalls. "Like the banks. Nobody was working there. The British left, the French left, and Egyptian Air Froce Medics took over for five days."
He pauses and gathers his thoughts.
"Until I was called in," he says, explaining that he accepted the offer to take over the hospital without second thought.
"The private guard had robbed the hospital, and I took over the place with a debt of LE15,000," he says. More than the LE6,363 that it cost to build.
Dr Grace brought with him a team that included Dr Salah Eissa and Dr Samir Massoud. The hospital grew fast.
"Today we have 110 beds," he says. "At first there were six."
The hospital now includes the full complement of departments and specialties, a CAT Scan centre and modern lab. These facts too he repeats several times.
"The hospital isn't his second home," his wife says. "It is his home." The stress on "is" is noticeable.
Perhaps the difference between Dr Halim Grace and other doctors is that he put not just all of his time, and all of his energy, into his work, medicine is, after all, a demanding profession, but that he has invested his heart in it too.
"I remember he had a patient once for 54 days," Maijane recalls. "He would check on this man every single night."
"He has involved me very much in his work," she continues. "He would sometimes ask me to cook patient's meals."
If anyone should know about her husband's professional manners it is Maijane; their first meeting was as doctor and patient.
"She came to me after a car accident," Halim recalls. "I could stick my finger right through here, he says, putting his finger just below the nose in the dip of the upper lip. "Right through to her teeth."
"He's very proud of that," she says.
He is proud of many things, including his roots.
"I'm from the countryside," he reminds me several times during the course of the interviews. "This land is strange to me. Foreign. My roots are in Upper Egypt."
He is also proud of his three children, Karim, Nader (also a surgeon at the Anglo), and Farida; of his wife; of her mother the artist, and father, the psychiatrist and founder of Behman Psychiatric Hospital. And he is proud of his profession and the stringent ways and beliefs and perspectives that he has brought to it.
"I was very active in the Medical Syndicate," he says. "We raised the prestige of the profession through the Committee for Discipline. You find that committee in other syndicates, but in the medical it's very needed and very noticeable. It is much more significant because you can't make a mistake in medicine in the way you can in other professions. A doctor that is not honest is prevented from practicing."
In medicine, Maijane adds, her trademark smile adorned this time with solemnity, "you can't remove the right kidney instead of the left by mistake "
They both nod.
They are alike in many ways, unalike in others.
"Of course being a surgeon might be very scary," Maijane says.
Dr Grace again emphasises the thrill of cure or kill.
"I like the challenge," he says. "And so I go where there is the challenge."
He is slightly tired, and so it is left to his wife, with occasional cues, to extricate his philosophies on life.
"He loves his work for the sake of the work," she says. "When we were newly married he would go to bed, and the last thing he would say was that he hoped to be called."
That, to him, was a good night.
"The challenges of life," he says quietly.
Those, Maijane offers, are what he likes to face.
"I was the first in my family to leave the countryside, and leave agriculture, and I graduated top of my class.
"My wife is half Belgium," he says of Maijane, whose name is a compromise between an Egyptian father who wanted to call her Mai and a European mother who wanted to call her Jane.
"Come on Halim, tell her what else you have done in life except marry me."
He chooses to ignore his wife, talking about Dickson White -- the British surgeon who acted as his mentor and who was the reason the two met.
"Her father had called him to Egypt to operate on some of his patients," Dr Grace says. "And that's how I first met him. He introduced me to lots of little secrets."
One of them being Maijane.
"He used to joke that he was the reason behind this terrible marriage," she laughs. "He was very dear to us. We became his family."
"I've operated on every member of my family," he says. "Once on two children in the same day. When they ask if I'm sure I want to perform the surgery, I always ask them if they can think of anyone else. Anyone who can do it better."
The answer is always no.
"He is sure of himself, and sure of his work and never feels any stress," his wife says. "I am sure of my husband's work, but let us say that I am a worrier. I worry if the car is being fixed."
She chooses to continue, and he smiles.
"As a doctor you hear and see the results, and you get lots of satisfaction from people telling you how much better they are feeling. And this reflects on me. His special cases have become my special cases too."
One of three or four very special cases is that of Sylvia Graucab, the Danish-English daughter of a well-known fire- extinguisher manufacturing family.
"She was a tourist here, staying at the Hilton. She ran into a glass pane and it cut through her face down her body," he says, drawing the line from the centre of the forehead, down his torso, and down his leg. "I was woken at dawn and she told me to do whatever I needed."
It was 1963, and the gathering of Danish and British relatives and embassy officials awaiting her on her return home were expecting the worst.
"They didn't know what to expect from an Egyptian surgeon at the time," he says.
They were not just surprised, but awe-struck.
"She was told that no-one could have done a better job than this, and she has never had to have surgery since."
She remains, they both say, beautiful. And she is now, as a consequence, a close family friend.
"She sends flowers and presents at least a few times a year," Maijane says. "When a woman's face is torn apart and she recovers and retains her beauty she is forever grateful."
"He has a vile temper," Maijane offers, seemingly out of the blue. "But those who can put up with it are clever because they learn a lot." About giving, and life, and commitment and passion. And about, of course, the challenge.
"I couldn't decide on this man," Maijane says with a half smile. "This apartment," she continues, looking at the Nile view, and at the paintings and objects scattered around. "He liked the apartment, and liked me, and so gave me the key of the apartment and the contract."
They both laugh.
"And so I went to my mother," she says.
And the rest -- like the hospital, and the British, and the countryside -- is history.