Love and The Living Legacy

Interview with Professor Solmaz Israfil-Bayli

By Dr. Fatima Ahmed

It was a rainy Sunday afternoon when I sat sipping black tea out of delicate vintage china. Keeping my feet warm lay a sleeping Pomeranian pup, who earlier on, had paradoxically greeted me with bared teeth, growls and snarls. I’d spent that morning pinching myself, not quite believing my luck. Sat opposite me, holding herself in at once a regal and humble fashion was someone I never imagined meeting, let alone share afternoon tea with. 

The more wisdom you have, the quieter you become

At the ripe age of 90 she stood tall at 5 foot. Her quiet and pensive demeanour commanded the kind of attention and respect few others ever achieve. She quite literally had me hanging on to every word she spoke. I was transfixed. I should probably add that she spoke only in Russian. ‘I don’t speak English’ she told me, in perfect English. 

Although she said very little, her eyes spoke volumes. I was struck by her humility and was reminded of something my father once said ‘those with the greatest amount knowledge are often the most humble’. She certainly personified that. Her story is both remarkable and breathtaking, and somehow, inexplicably, I have the privilege to tell it.

Professor Solmaz Israfil-Bayli was born on the 13th of March 1928 in Azerbaijan. You could say practicing medicine was in her blood. Her mother was a dentist and her father a physician. In 1921 her paternal uncle was appointed the first minister of health by the newly formed Soviet government. Determined to do something for his people he established several medical institutes in Azerbaijan, including the development of medical services for women and children. During his brief appointment he made major healthcare reforms for his country. Accused of having nationalistic ideologies he was later assassinated following Stalin’s rise to power, whilst his wife, also a doctor, was exiled to Siberia for many years. Tragically, upon her return she was diagnosed with breast cancer and died shortly thereafter. Thus, young Solmaz was brought up with her cousins, who her parents took in and raised as their own. Indeed, during our conversation she refers to them as her siblings.

Our interview was translated by my friend, fellow gynaecologist, and the professor’s granddaughter, Ms Fidan Bayli. She is the person behind our fortuitous meeting, and to whom I’m grateful. 

What made you pursue a medical career?

‘I was surrounded by doctors, constantly talking about medicine. My maternal uncle had a big influence on me. He was a professor of medicine, the first at the time. He helped us a lot following my uncle’s assassination, and helped save the family, protecting us. He played a major part in my decision to become a doctor.’

Professor Solmaz would have been around 11 years of age during this time.

I asked if she remembered much of that period.

I do. It was a very difficult time for us. When something like this happens [regarding her uncle’s assassination] it not only ruins that person’s life, but the lives of everyone connected to them. We were referred to as “the people’s enemy”’. Despite her maternal uncle’s efforts they were eventually forced out of Baku to a remote village, where she attended a very ‘primitive’ school until what is equivalent to year 9 or 10.

‘And then the second world war happened’

We’d moved back to the capital between 1941 and ’42. As children we’d have night shifts on the roof, taking it in turn to catch German photoflash bombs and put them in water so they wouldn’t explode. The shops were all closed so we were living on rations of 400g of bread per person, per day. Because we were starving, mum took us to the village, where our chance of survival would be better. It was in the village that I finished high school. We returned to the capital just before the end of the war, where my sister [read cousin] and I were admitted to medical school. Entrance to the university was very difficult, because of our association with my uncle, everyone knew who we were, and tried to distance themselves’.

 

‘We graduated university in 1949, and I planned to practice as a physician. Because of who we were, we were sent to practice outside the capital. My first job was in a military camp, looking after soldiers. After a few weeks I was sacked. The boys, I was told, were finding any excuse to come see me with all sorts of complaints. My arrival had caused quite a lot of excitement for the young men and disruption in the camp and so I was promptly asked to leave. Once more, we found ourselves sent to a remote village, this time high in the mountains of Azerbaijan. When we arrived we were told “we only need a Paediatrician and Gynaecologist, decide between you who wants to do what”.’

She chose Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 

‘I knew nothing about Obstetrics.’ 

She was sent to work at the village’s maternity hospital, which was basically a large house with each room in the house serving a particular purpose. One room was the antenatal unit, another the labour ward etc. 

‘During my first shift I was called overnight to attend a delivery. I remember that evening quite well. My dad had come to visit us, and we were on our way back home from a small dinner party with the head of the hospital. The village consisted of just one street, which we were travelling through on our way back from the dinner party when our carriage was stopped. My help was needed at the maternity hospital. When I arrived, the whole courtyard was full of people, some of them screaming and shouting [these would have been the family of the woman in labour]. Among them were some elderly midwives. Seeing that I was a young doctor, they doubted that I would be of any use. They told me “this is a very difficult delivery, which we can’t deal with, go and sort it out”. So, I entered the room, and could see a pregnant woman with a swollen abdomen; remember, I was barely an obstetrician. I was told that I have to examine her vaginally. So, I put my hand inside and found something which resembled a foot. It felt like a foot. Without realising, I did a breech extraction and delivered the baby. At that point, the baby was completely flat, white, and didn’t show any signs of life. I did CPR and gave the baby ventilation breaths. To my surprise, it started breathing.’

‘Many, many years later, when I was already quite old, I visited the village with some of my colleagues, for it was renowned for being beautiful. Out of curiosity I decided to pay my old hospital a visit. I asked the people [working there] to take me to the head of the maternity unit, explaining I’d worked there many years earlier when I was very young and wanted to introduce myself. A young woman came out to greet me, I introduced myself as Solmaz and repeated that I’d worked there several years ago, and had wanted to say hello. She replied, “I’m that flat baby you delivered many years ago and I carry your name”. Her parents had named her after me.’

She worked at that hospital for 3 years before deciding to pursue a career in academia, in parallel to her clinical one. ‘I realised my marriage wasn’t working, so I decided to do some scientific research’, she said, rather matter of fact. Her supervisor was a famous gynaecology professor from Russia. ‘I was his last ever student. By this point he was blind and I remember escorting him to give his lectures at the university [in Baku]. Despite his old age and blindness he was still a very good clinician. When I first met him he told me “you’ve got two weeks to come up with a research proposal”. I knew he was against caesarean sections so I chose my topic on the relative indications for caesarean section’. 

The longer I chatted with Professor Solmaz, the more I came to learn of her quiet rebellion. For example, under the Communist Soviet rule it was a requirement for Azeri people to add a Russian suffix to their surname like –ov or –ova. ‘I was the only one in the family who didn’t change their name’. I couldn’t help but admire her quiet and confident defiance.

This was a woman who refused to be told what to do or how to think; a woman not afraid to challenge the status quo. 

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. Not least because she challenged every stereotype projected onto muslim women.

Her career went from strength to strength. She was appointed professor at the institute for medical postgraduate training in Baku ‘I supervised 64 MD students, 3 PhD students and wrote 400 publications including books’. For many years she was the head of the Obstetric and Gynaecology scientific organisation in Azerbaijan and was the country’s chief leading expert for the specialty. In 2000 she was awarded a prestigious medal of honour by the president for her achievements and contributions to science and medicine in Azerbaijan.

I wondered what it would have been like to be a female gynaecologist at that time. To my surprise I was greeted with a puzzled look on the professors face. ‘Perhaps it’s because of the Islamic influence on Azerbaijan, but most gynaecologists were female, in contrast with Georgia, where they were predominantly men’. Determined to hear something about glass ceilings and the difficulties being female in scientific and academic arenas I pressed on. ‘Okay, well what about at the university, surely as a professor you were outnumbered and faced some sort of challenge?’. ‘I can’t say that it was a predominantly male society, it was very mixed, there were a few other female professors around, it wasn’t uncommon, I wasn’t unique [in that regard]’.

What advice would you give someone like me, who’s at the beginning of her career?

‘You can only be an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist if you love the speciality. Especially in Obstetrics, you’re always in charge of two lives, mum and the baby.’ 

‘It’s a tough speciality. You have to love it.’

How did you keep going despite war, despite everything that happened to you?

‘Love. I loved my speciality. Simple.’

I enjoyed my meeting with Solmaz. Her passion for the speciality, for looking after the health of women, was inspiring and humbling. I admired the quiet force of nature that she was and continues to be. Her grit to keep going, thrive and succeed despite facing political exile, death, and war is incomparable and can me summed up by the meaning of her name:

What does your name mean?

‘It means to “never whither or die, unfading and fadeless”’.

I wondered whether her parents knew when they named her that she would live up to its meaning. She continued to work until the age of 82.

Professor Solmaz resides in the Midlands where she lives with her granddaughter and great grandchildren. Not one to remain idle she is currently writing a book about her old Russian professor. 

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