Pursuing Her Dream

Pursuing Her Dream

FROM HEART TO MIND Saima Hirani recently began teaching at UBC's school of nursing after a nursing career that began in Karachi, Pakistan.

Saima Hirani's love of nursing and teaching has taken her around the world

Saima Hirani remembers the celebratory sweets – bite-sized geometric pieces of creamy decadence, flavoured with saffron and cardamom and covered in a layer of edible silver – that her mother handed out to her cousins and aunts, elders and neighbours on the day she had come home and announced her grade 10 examination scores. "I had passed with flying colours, Hirani recalled, "and I knew then that my dream of going to university was one step closer.

"I grew up in a middle-class family in one of the oldest commercial areas of Karachi, Pakistan," says Hirani. "Most of my extended family used to live in the same area, so we all had a strong connection with each other – and my brother and I were considered the favourite kids of our family." 

As a young child Hirani found herself drawn to her studies – eager for knowledge and an understanding of her place in the world. "One of my favourite childhood memories is when I was in grade 5 and I started participating in debate and speech competitions, representing my school at several city-wide events." It's a recollection that arrives with a hint of wistfulness for the delights of grade school and the expanded horizons it offered her.

For most Pakistani children who score well on their grade 10 exams – and whose families have the financial means to support them – the academic path is toward medicine or engineering. Initially, Hirani thought that she might pursue medicine. But one day, at a family event, she met a relative who was a nurse. "I didn't know what nursing was, the scope of the profession, anything," she remembers.

That conversation sparked her curiosity.

"I ended up going to an open-house event at the Aga Khan University's Faculty of Nursing and liked what I saw, not only in terms of the practice of nursing but also what was possible academically – that I could, if I wanted to, reach for the highest levels in the profession," she says. As it turned out, the university entrance exam for medicine and nursing was scheduled for the same date and time. "I spoke with my father and he said it was up to me to decide, and so I chose nursing."

"I could, if I wanted to, reach for the highest levels in the profession."

- Saima Harani

Hirani graduated from the university's three-year nursing program in 1999 and took a job at the adjacent Aga Khan hospital where she worked in ICU and Cardiac ICU. In 2002 she began the university's BSN program. It was there, while doing a mental health rotation and working with women – some of whom were incarcerated, or who were survivors of domestic or sexual violence – that Hirani realized she wanted to continue doing this kind of work. "A switch from heart to mind," as she succinctly puts it. 

In 2009, Hirani completed a master's degree in nursing, her thesis focusing on mental health promotion for women living in an impoverished neighbourhood in Karachi. "I felt like I had found my calling," she says.

Hirani then taught mental health nursing and nursing research at the university and was also asked to coordinate the BSN program. "I loved it, loved the teaching and mentoring, but I knew that I wasn't done with school and that much more needed to be accomplished."

In 2012, Hirani applied to the University of Alberta to do a PhD in nursing and travelled to Edmonton with her husband and son in tow. She completed her doctorate in 2017.

Although the family had decided to stay permanently in Canada, Hirani felt an obligation to return to the Aga Khan University for a period of time. "And anyway I had signed a memorandum of understanding that I would go back to do some work there," she notes.  "But also, anyone who has studied and worked at the university feels a pull – a desire to go back because of the place and what it means to be a part of it."

In the summer of 2019 Hirani returned to Canada and completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of British Columbia. In July 2020 she joined UBC's school of nursing as an assistant professor. Her research continues to focus on mental health and mental health promotion, particularly for priority and high-risk populations while also teaching about research methods and evidence-based practice.

It's been a remarkable journey – one that began through a chance conversation with a family member in a pleasant middle-class neighbourhood in Karachi.

As Hirani reflects on her accomplishments, she notes with some irony that, "even though I have spent my entire adult life immersed in the practice and theories of nursing I am not able to call myself a nurse." Indeed, despite Hirani's extensive education and career as a bedside nurse, nursing instructor and nursing researcher, she is not yet able to use that title after her name because she does not have a licence to practise nursing in BC.

"I began the process in 2018, applying to the National Nursing Assessment Service, and received my report in May 2020," she says, "but now the process is on-hold." The hold is due to the fact that the BC College of Nurses and Midwives would not grant Hirani a waiver for the English language exam requirement, despite the fact that her entire nursing education was taught in English. As Hirani puts it, "I just haven't been able to find the time to prepare for the language exam. I will do it, of course, because I have to – I am a nurse and I would like to be able to call myself a nurse, so I will do it."

And you know she will. •

UPDATE (Spring 2021)

UPDATED: November 23, 2022


Saima Hirani, like many nurse researchers, has turned her attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and is working to ensure that policy makers have the information needed to fully understand the lasting impacts of the public health crisis. These are two of Hirani’s recently published articles:

A portrait of the early and differential mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada: Findings from the first wave of a nationally representative cross-sectional survey

This monitoring study highlights the differential mental health impacts of the pandemic for those who experience health, social, and structural inequities. These data are critical to informing responsive, equity-oriented public health, and policy responses in real-time to protect and promote the mental health of those most at risk during the pandemic and beyond.

Preventive Medicine
Volume 145, April 2021

Examining the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on family mental health in Canada: findings from a national cross-sectional study

This study identifies that families with children 18 years or younger at home have experienced deteriorated mental health due to the pandemic. Population-level responses are required to adequately respond to families’ diverse needs and mitigate the potential for widening health and social inequities for parents and children.

BMJ Open
2021, Volume 11 Issue 1

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