Born with a spinal defect, Dr Noraishah Mydin Abdul Aziz has proven that her handicap has not in any way stopped her from living life to the fullest.
IF you hear her speak over the phone, you would never picture that the feisty personality behind the voice uses a wheelchair or crutches to move around.
Dr Noraishah Mydin Abdul Aziz, an expert in Developmental Neurobiology from Universiti Malaya (UM), may have spina bifida, a type of neural tube defect (NTD), but that has not hindered her from charging her way through life and more importantly the local education system.
When she was of preschool age, her parents had to endure the humility of having doors slammed in their faces every time they tried enrolling her in a kindergarten.
“My parents never gave up. They kept knocking on doors until one kindergarten finally let me in.”
Dr Noraishah credits her late father Mydin Abdul Aziz, a retired Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia head librarian and especially her mother Satinam Mohd Rijal, the former National Archives of Malaysia deputy director-general for being her tower of strength.
“I cannot imagine coping with life if it had not been for my mum who has proven that nothing was impossible through her sheer strength, courage and tenacity,” added Dr Noraishah.
Considering the numerous times she was wheeled into hospital to treat the symptoms and illnesses associated with spina bifida, it was her mother’s dogged determination to see her rise above the tide that gave her the will to excel academically.
Perhaps the rejection she faced at such a young age and the fact that the Malaysian education system was also not supportive towards the disabled, made Dr Noraishah strive harder.
While the system itself was not as supportive, her years in school were easier as she was surrounded by many kind-hearted people, some of whom have stood by her through the years.
“I had the privilege of being in SK Assunta and SMK Assunta, both mission schools.
“I remember on my first day, (Datin Paduka) Sister Enda Ryan (the school’s former principal) gave me a big hug,” she reminisced.
At the age of 11, Dr Noraishah surprised even her parents by already reading and understanding medical texts.
It was one disturbing fact in a book that upset her tremendously — doctors were terminating pregnancies on foetuses with NTD — that prompted the young girl to stay focused and prove that those with the condition deserved equal opportunities like everyone else.
She was determined not just to fight for herself but to offer her unstinting support to others with NTD.
“I wanted NTD survivors to be entitled to the same privileges as able-bodied people,” she said, adding that she made it her mission to educate the public on NTD which was why she organised the Neural Tube Defects Day held at UM’s Faculty of Medicine recently.
Dr Noraishah said she wanted the public to know that these unborn babies deserve to live and that they could lead a normal life even if they had NTD.
“The talk was intended to educate parents on how to bring the most out of their child.
“I hope that when they see someone like me — a lecturer in the medical faculty of Malaysia’s premier university — they will feel that their child might have the same sort of potential.”
Dr Noraishah said she faced many hurdles while she was pursuing her first degree.
Although she fulfilled the entry requirements, thanks to her good grades, the varsity was not convinced she was cut out for her science course because of her disability. They tried to convince her to pursue another course.
“There was an occasion when the department head came to see me at the campus clinic where I had gone to seek treatment.
“I thought he was coming to see me because I was sick, but instead he was proposing that I change my course,” she said.
She said she threw a fit and hurled her crutches at him when he made the suggestion.
“I get upset when people are unreasonable or doubt my abilities, then I get angry ... sometimes I hurl my crutches at them,” she shared without a tinge of regret in her voice.
Her persistence in taking the course of her choice paid off as she graduated with a science degree from a local public university in 1998.
Now armed with a Masters in Genetics and a PhD in Developmental Neurobiology, Dr Noraishah is a lecturer at the Department of Parasitology at UM’s Faculty of Medicine, and also heads a research team of 11 members. Her current research focuses on two main areas — malaria and NTD formation.
Naturally, the one closer to her heart is her work on NTDs.
“Due to funding constraints, I am using a minimalistic approach and have identified the minimum number of genes to study their effects on NTD formation.
“Mice are used as their genetic structure is 90% similar to humans,” she said.
One of her students, Siti Waheeda Mohd Zin, described Dr Noraishah “as always emotional when she meets up with patients with NTD as she understands their struggles and challenges they face on a personal level.
“They come to her and she advises them on how to live with spina bifida as their doctors and physicians may not always provide them with all the information.
“Most doctors do not want to go above and beyond what they are supposed to do as they lack the time and resources,” Siti Waheeda said.
She was quick to point out that the whole research team looked up to and respected Dr Noraishah as her dedication to her work was truly admirable.
“Although there are times when she is unwell, she will still come to the laboratory or conduct her lectures with her usual gusto.
“She even hikes into the jungle with her crutches to collect insect samples,” added Siti Waheeda.
Dr Noraishah said she had to be strong to fulfil what she called “her destiny” even if it was inconvenient to travel between two universities to carry out her research.
“I drive to the other university which is an hour away, then shower and get into sterile garments before entering the facility where I sit on a stool which is far too low for me and place the microscope on my lap ... then I carry out my work for hours.”
However, Dr Noraishah isn’t complaining, she takes it all in her stride.