When Antioch internal medicine physician Fatima Syed, M.D., logged her 13th straight day of work in April, she had no intention of slowing down. She led the SEBMF’s COVID-19 response planning to establish protocols for dozens of clinics across the East Bay. In three short weeks, the team erected tents to house respiratory clinics outside each facility, allowing them to screen and care for community members safely.
“I haven’t worked this many days in a row since residency,” Dr. Syed says. “But this is our calling: to show up and do everything possible to serve our community, especially the vulnerable and underserved of eastern Contra Costa County.”
Dr. Syed’s dedication to the community where she lives and works has been clear throughout her 12-year career at Sutter Health. After completing medical school in India and residency in New Jersey, she hoped to return to California to practice. When she immigrated to the U.S. years earlier, it was to accompany her first husband, who had secured a job in Silicon Valley. The marriage didn’t last, but her preference for the West Coast did, prompting her to join SEBMF in 2008.
“I felt like a Californian and wanted to raise my son, Zain, now 14, in the Bay Area,” Dr. Syed says. “I thought this would be a stepping stone to a job in Silicon Valley, but I serve an amazing group of patients here, so now I have absolutely no intention of moving—I will retire in this community.”
Serving the fast-growing bedroom communities of Antioch, Brentwood, Discovery Bay, Oakley, Pittsburgh and Rio Vista, Dr. Syed cares for a diverse population of patients who have shown fierce loyalty to her. One patient of Pacific Islander descent posted in a review that Dr. Syed “brings patience and empathy for cultural difficulties around balancing health.” She noted that even a move to Daly City wouldn’t stop her from driving to Antioch to see Dr. Syed.
“Many patients have shown tremendous concern for me, a Muslim, when the social and political climate has been difficult,” Dr. Syed says. “They want to protect me, and because many are older, it feels like an embrace from family.”
Like many SEBMF physicians, Dr. Syed sees generations of patients from the same family. And when her patients’ children turn 18, they often ask her to become their internal medicine doctor. This makes her even prouder to live and work in the area—and it’s what drives her while dealing with COVID-19.
“We’ve been absolutely prepared to handle patients during this pandemic, and we’ve all pitched in,” Dr. Syed says. “Outpatient doctors have become an extension to our urgent care teams, volunteering to take urgent care shifts and remaining available for overflow patients during weekdays through our respiratory clinics.”
Through a partnership with philanthropy, SEBMF physicians are receiving iPads to conduct virtual visits. “We are so thankful that donor and Sutter Health support allows us to offer video visits to all of our patients,” Dr. Syed says. “Without philanthropy, we couldn’t have achieved in two years what we established in just two weeks during the pandemic.”
Along with contributing financially, community members have showered East Bay healthcare workers with cards, coffee and words of encouragement as they drive by. Some of Dr. Syed’s patients donate food regularly. One man brought chips, salsa, guacamole and drinks, and when Dr. Syed found a beer among the blue cans, he smiled and said, “I figured you might want a break from corona, so I tossed in a Bud Light.”
These gestures are incredibly meaningful to the care teams and reinforce the community’s ties to SEBMF and Sutter Delta. As more physicians are hired to work in the area, and once the buildout of the Antioch facilities is complete, Dr. Syed hopes that her commitment to patients will keep the community thriving though the pandemic and beyond.