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Jamil was struggling after his daughter had a stroke. Then a doctor pulled up a chair

Jamil Zaki and his daughter Alma in 2021.
Jamil Zaki
Jamil Zaki and his daughter Alma in 2021.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.


In 2015, Jamil Zaki's daughter, Alma, was born. She suffered a stroke during her birth, and was sent to the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. A rotating team of nurses and doctors cared for her around the clock.

Early one morning, at about 1am, a doctor came by to share some difficult news about her treatment plan.

"And instead of just delivering the news compassionately and leaving, he just pulled up a chair," Zaki told Hidden Brain in 2021. The two men talked for about 90 minutes — a wide-ranging conversation in which the doctor told him about his own struggles as a new father, and shared his thoughts about parenthood.

"It was as though he hit the pause button on this torrent of pain and anguish that we were feeling," Zaki recalled.

Sharing his story inspired Zaki to find that doctor – Mark Petersen, of the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in San Francisco. Recently, they connected over Zoom, and Zaki began by reflecting on what was going through his mind that day, years before, in the hospital.

Dr. Mark Petersen.
/ Mark Petersen
/
Mark Petersen
Dr. Mark Petersen.

"I just felt like I couldn't control anything," Zaki told Petersen. "I was feeling this loss of autonomy, of agency. And then I just remember you not leaving."

Petersen's honest conversation about the ups and downs of fatherhood reminded Zaki that he wasn't doing this alone.

"Afterwards I stopped thinking about the suffering that we were going through and started thinking about, OK, well, what do we do for Alma next?" Zaki said.

Petersen told Zaki that their conversation in the hospital meant something to him, too. It allowed him to feel he was making a difference during one of the most vulnerable moments of someone's life.

"It's an amazing feeling to be able to be part of that and help guide families through that," Petersen said.

At that moment, Zaki said he felt that they weren't just a doctor and a distraught patient – they were fathers.

"You stepped out from behind the white coat," Zaki told Petersen. "You were there for us. You were there for me. And I don't think that I could ever adequately thank you for that."

Petersen was touched by Zaki's gratitude.

"We want to be there," Petersen told him. "That magic of being able to be there at the moment when someone's family starts is a very special thing."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Kwerel