Dr. Danyal Khan will take his last sips of water around 5 a.m. Thursday. He won’t eat or drink again until roughly 15 hours later.
Khan is observing Ramadan, the Islamic holy month during which Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk. Beginning Thursday and for the next 30 days, Muslims will focus on prayer, charity, self-discipline, self-improvement and reconnecting spiritually.
This ritual is one of the Five Pillars of the faith.
“If I’m busy, then the day flies,” said Khan, 44, a pediatric cardiologist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami-Dade.
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He may not miss eating or drinking water, but his afternoon cafécito – that’s another story.
“I have to cut back on my café con leche intake,” he said, laughing, while walking through the hospital hallways. “They make really good café con leche here, that’s the problem – it’s too good.”
Besides forsaking afternoon coffee, Khan and other Muslim medical professionals have to contend with more serious issues, balancing rigorous schedules and medical emergencies with prayers and fasting. Patient care always comes first, they say, so religious responsibilities are fit around patients’ schedules.
“As a Muslim it is of extreme importance for us to uphold our core principles of faith,” said Dr. Mohammed Faraz Khan, 33, chief resident of neurological surgery at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center via text. “In the month of Ramadan we are expected to fast and dedicate significant time toward worship. Unfortunately as a neurosurgeon I am placed in frequent emergency situations that demand a lot of my time, making it extremely difficult to fulfill these religious obligations on time.”
He often finds himself performing brain and spinal surgeries that can last from eight to 12 hours, followed by another similar surgery. He abstains from caffeine and energy drinks before surgeries to avoid negative side effects that could impact him during surgery — like shaky hands.
He’ll catch up on prayers in between cases or seeing clinic patients, either praying in an empty hospital room or praying in the operating room. Khan has remained fasting for hours after the time to break fast because he was performing surgery.
“With the right intention and effort there is no reason that the demands of both work and religion can’t be met,” he said.
During Ramadan, Muslims will typically wake up before dawn for Suhur, a morning meal, then pray the morning prayer called Fajr, the first of five prayers that take place throughout the day. By sunset, the fast is broken with a meal called Iftar. There is also a nighttime prayer called Tarawih that takes place only during the holy month. The prayer is not mandatory.
Dr. Aisha Subhani, 39, who works in the emergency room at Broward Health Medical Center, has to be flexible in the fast-paced emergency room.
“In the ER everything is unpredictable,” said Subhani, who often prays in the doctors’ lounge. “When it’s busy in the emergency room, things move pretty quickly for me.”
Subhani said that finding time for her religious responsibilities is usually not a problem. She says her co-workers are aware of the fast and are respectful.
“People are usually pretty supportive. They know it’s Ramadan and that I am fasting,” Subhani said.
Khan, the pediatric cardiologist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, views Ramadan as an important part of his faith. During work he will pray in his office or in the hospital chapel. When he’s off duty, he goes to the mosque with his family.
“This is the time of year I go to the mosque the most,” Khan said. “I think for my kids it’s good because they get exposed to religion.”
Back at work, Khan tends to stay busy through lunch during Ramadan, although he will sometimes sit with his colleagues as they eat to keep connected with friends.
Dr. Doured Daghistani, 58, medical director of pediatric oncology at Baptist Children’s Hospital, says food is often a part of work meetings but he doesn’t mind.
“They know why I’m not eating,” said Daghistani, who works up to 60 to 70 hours a week.
During Ramadan, Daghistani typically gets up around 4:30 a.m. and heads to work following his morning prayer. After work he likes to go to the mosque.
“By the third week I will look like a bag of potatoes,” Daghistani jokes, before switching to a more serious tone. “It’s discipline. God creates us in a way that we can do these things if we want to.”
Time management is critical, many say.
Dr. Hajera Fatima, 30, a resident at Westchester General Hospital, will make her meals the night before to save time.
“Since I live alone I have to make sure I get up early and have everything ready,” said Fatima. “I get up, eat my meal, pray and get ready for the day.”
When she comes home she prays and catches up on any prayers she may have missed during the day. She then cooks dinner and prays until it’s time to break her fast.
“The funny thing is you think, ‘I am going to eat and get energy, I am going to get everything done,’ but once you eat you crash,” she says.
After resting, she begins her food prep for the following day.
“Eventually toward the end of Ramadan you get so used to it that you want follow that schedule,” she says.
Dr. Azhar Dalal, 35, an internal medicine physician who works at several hospitals throughout South Florida, tries to start his workday a bit earlier than usual, around 6:30 a.m.
“What that does, essentially, is allow me to finish a little earlier than I usually would on a normal day, or not in Ramadan,” he said. “This way I get home a little earlier and I have a little time to rest and to do some extra worship, whether it’s reading some Quran or doing some remembrance of God, and spending a little time with the family prior to the time to open the fast.”
Some of the physicians, like Dalal, volunteer at UHI Community Care Clinic in Miami Gardens, which provides free medical care for the uninsured population throughout the year.
The clinic is largely supported by South Florida’s Muslim community and the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations, known as COSMOS.
“The meaning of Ramadan is also charity. It is an opportunity to gain by volunteering, to prosper by going without and to grow stronger by enduring weakness, which is the true spirit of Ramadan,” said Shabbir Motorwala, a board member and an administrator of the UHI clinic.
And, says Khan, the neurosurgeon at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center, fasting can give one greater mental acuity.
“I think the gravity of the complex brain/spine surgeries and the potential looming disaster with one incorrect move causes adrenaline surges, which augment stamina to get me through the long surgeries,” he said. “This may sound cheesy but many times I think it is my faith in God that gives me the strength. I believe God wouldn’t place me in a challenge if he didn’t think I was capable of handling it.”
Subhani, the emergency room physician, agrees.
“All major religions have a fasting component,” she said. “The purpose of fasting isn’t to starve yourself, it’s meant as a way to discipline yourself and become better. It’s the month when Muslims are the most charitable. People are in a giving spirit – it’s a wonderful month and it goes by fast.”