Interview with Bassem Ghali

A Conversation with Bassem Ghali, Assistant Clinical Professor

Where were you born and raised? Describe your family, please.

Bassem GhaliMy parents are both Egyptian and I was born in Cairo, Egypt, but never actually lived there. I think I was supposed to be born here [in the United States] but I arrived early and I have one younger sister. We lived in Dubai for a couple of years, moved to Saudi Arabia for 4 to 5 years, then returned to Dubai where I grew up, and the rest of my youth was in Dubai. My dad worked for GE as a manager for its appliances division for the Middle East and Africa, so he traveled but was based in Dubai. My mother hated living in Saudi Arabia and was so much happier in Dubai. English is my first language and Arabic is my second language, I can read and write in the vernacular, but not the classical language. I studied French, too.

Who constitutes the family you were born into and those out in the world, which you are still creating?

My definition of family has different nuances. We are born into a close-knit biological family, and in our culture we stay very close with our extended family. I have seven uncles and aunts on my mother's side, two on my father's side, and sixteen cousins in total. As a physician with HEAL, I found that the global health teams live, eat, and work together, and we become like family. They invited me into their homes, we celebrated occasions together, and thanks to technology, we stay close. When some of my HEAL co-fellows from India recently visited, that bond remained.

Bassem's immediate family
Bassem's immediate family


Bassem's extended family
Bassem's extended family


Are you musically inclined?

I am not a good musician and I learned the recorder in the fifth grade, though I am not sure why it was taught. It was fun although I was probably more noisy than musical—I was always the odd note!

Why did you transition from Mechanical Engineering to Medicine?

I was initially interested in biomedical engineering and materials for hip and knee implants, biomaterials, etc. I hadn't taken any of the requisite courses for Medicine, like biology, and thought I might go into Orthopedics. I worked for a couple of years at a research lab but realized that I missed working closely with people, in the way that we do in Hospital Medicine. I like the culture of Medicine, where continued learning is valued; I prefer the arguing, debating, and the more intellectual aspect as opposed to the mechanical aspect.

Are you good with boundaries? Do you have a system for establishing boundaries for yourself or others?

Boundaries are something I am still working on. In the past couple of years of fellowship, we were encouraged to establish our own goals and envision what we saw ourselves doing in a few years and to think about the broad roles that we occupy. I try to assign a certain amount of time for everything: health, personal maintenance, staying in touch with family, learning to be a good teacher, and keeping up with medical knowledge and clinical responsibilities. The challenges of clinical responsibilities are hugely important and sometimes seep into other areas. Learning to be more efficient is a constant learning experience and I am getting better at it, I think. It's hard to say no and you don't want to disappoint anyone if you cannot follow through.

When did you last handwrite a real letter?

Do thank you and wedding cards work? My handwriting is not very good and don't typically write letters. I am reliant on electronic communication for the most part.

How do you perceive the passage of time? What to you constitutes “old school” or “back in the day?”

Old school is when whatever is being done now is different than how I learned it! For example, Facebook, which I started only after college, Instagram, WeChat, Snapchat and Twitter, are all relatively new school to me. Some of my college friends have these things, so maybe I am just a slow adapter to social media. It seems now that there is a lot of sharing of very personal information on a very public forum, and I don't remember that being something people did at one point.

Describe the particular beauty of a very special place that place touched you and remains special. Where else is on your bucket list?

Bassem and volcano

At the end of residency, one of my co-residents and I traveled to Rwanda. We trekked to a volcano in neighboring Congo and the hike turned out to be a lot longer, higher, and colder than we thought it would be. But, when we looked down into the volcano, the hot lava was this amazing hue of orange-red and its heat emanated upwards. That was my first time seeing a volcano and lava, and it was indescribable. In India and Nepal, Africa, Tanzania—everywhere I've traveled—there is always natural beauty. I have a bucket list that includes Brazil and Burma and, in the US, the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies in Colorado. I love the beach and just returned from vacation in Mexico with my family, who live in Virginia. We were in Playa del Carmen, a luxurious resort on the coast, and I ate entirely too much. In California, Big Sur, Muir Woods—there is so much to see and do.

Do you cook?

I do and lately I've been trying Middle Eastern dishes. One is Majadra, rice with lentils, from a cookbook that a patient gave me, by Yotam Assaf Ottolenghi. I've tried a couple of curry dishes using the spice mixes that you can get at Asian stores, and it is a thick broth that you simmer down, and it is delicious and hearty. Food is such a big part of sharing with people. My sister gave me a Blue Apron subscription; it is super convenient and you use ingredients that I never would have used otherwise, like fennel.

Can you recommend a favorite brewpub or café in San Francisco?

Snowbird in the Sunset, across from Arizmendi, has good coffee. Barebottle Brewery in Bernal Heights is very cool, with all kinds of weird beers. I tend to like a dark and heavy brew, like stout and porter.

What was the last non-medical class you took just for fun? What kind of course would you like to take if you had the time?

I am currently studying for my MPH. Before that, I took a programming course. In Peru, I took a day-long cooking course and learned how to make ceviche and lomo saltado. Next time, maybe I'll try a beer-making class.

Have you ever done something that you’d never before considered?

I wasn't much of an athlete as a kid, but I did climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. I wondered if I could finish a marathon so I trained and finished during my third year of med school. I was pretty good at video games and played tennis occasionally, but running was something I'd never considered. As with most things, I found that, once you put your mind to it, it just happens somehow.

Thank you, Bassem.

by Oralia Schatzman

View Bassem's professional bio | See previous faculty interviews