They're getting arrested, attacked and thrown off hospital medical staffs. Since the cataclysm of Sept. 11, America's large and widespread population of doctors born in the Middle East has become a prime target for harassment and, in a few cases, suspicion.
More than 150 separate incidents of harassment and violence against individuals of Middle Eastern descent have been reported in the past two weeks by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a Washington-based grass-roots organization. A representative said the incidents involving doctors are typical of the larger problem nationwide.
"It's very troubling. There's been a rash of hate crimes," said Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the group, which is dedicated to ending stereotyping and discrimination. "Obviously, there's a backlash. I'm appalled. But the incidents are sporadic, they're isolated."
In 1999, about 191,500 of the 797,600 doctors in the U.S. were graduates of international medical schools, although many of those are American citizens who received their medical degrees abroad, according to the American Medical Association.
A hypersensitive medical community reacted swiftly last week against two foreign-born physicians who allegedly made inappropriate gestures or comments in the wake of the attacks. One doctor in central Florida allegedly said Americans "got what they deserved." Both cases-one an outright dismissal, the other a suspension-raised questions and concerns about the due-process protections of medical-staff bylaws governing physicians' behavior and discipline.
The sanctions against the two doctors came in the wake of wild rumors that several foreign-born physicians celebrating the deadly attacks at the Cleveland Clinic were removed by federal agents and turned over to immigration officials for deportation. The resident fired for an "inappropriate gesture" was employed at the Cleveland Clinic.
"All false. Garbage," Mark Cohen, the clinic's spokesman, said of reports that "multiple" physicians had publicly celebrated the attacks.
The Middle Eastern resident was suspended immediately after several nurses reported the gesture on the day of the attacks, and was dismissed Sept. 17 after a "thorough investigation and administrative review," Cohen said, adding that the process complied with medical staff bylaws. He declined to provide any additional information about the incident or the doctor.
Meanwhile, a second doctor remains suspended by a central Florida hospital after allegedly declaring that Americans "got what they deserved" from the terrorists.
The physician, Durgarao Parimi, an Indian, reportedly made the comment in the doctors' lounge at 204-bed Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville, Fla., north of Tampa Bay, while watching live television coverage of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Parimi, an internist who practices in Spring Hill, a nearby suburb, reportedly made the inflammatory remark in front of a half-dozen other doctors. He was asked to leave the lounge after what were described as angry "verbal exchanges."
Parimi was unavailable for comment after leaving the area with his family last week. An employee said the comments were taken out of context, explaining that Parimi was referring to the porous security procedures at U.S. airports that allowed terrorists to hijack four commercial jetliners almost simultaneously.
Hospital Chief Executive Officer Jaime Wesolowski suspended the physician two days later after meeting with Oak Hill's board of trustees and medical executive committee.
"During this suspension we will continue our in-depth investigation," Wesolowski said in a written statement.
In Arizona, meanwhile, a drunken man being treated at Tempe (Ariz.) St. Luke's Medical Center attacked a doctor of Pakistani descent, blaming the physician for the terrorist attacks. The doctor, who did not want his name released, examined the patient even as he was being choked and verbally assaulted by the 39-year-old man. The physician later told police he did not want to press criminal charges against the patient.
Yet Riaz Chaudhry, M.D., president of the Chicago-based Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America, said he has not encountered such ethnic harassment or heard of any firsthand accounts from colleagues in the 6,000-member association.
"Sporadically, I know there have been some incidents of bigotry (against Arabs or Muslims)," said Chaudhry, a U.S. citizen for 20 years who lives in a small Louisiana town about 200 miles north of New Orleans. "I'm not aware of any on a personal basis. In fact, people have come up to me, hugged me. They've been very supportive."
Finally, federal officials have arrested one physician among the four individuals taken into custody as material witnesses in the terrorist attacks. Al-bader M.H. Al-Hazmi, M.D., a 34-year-old Saudi national who was trained in his native country, is a resident in radiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Al-Hazmi, who did not show up for work on the day of the attack, was being held in New York City.
In a statement, Francisco Cigarroa, M.D., the hospital's president, said Al-Hazmi was last seen at a radiology conference at 5 p.m. on the day before the attacks. He did not show up for a regular radiology rotation on Sept. 11.
"We are cooperating with the FBI and all law enforcement officials," Cigarroa said.