My Wellness Wins: Dr Javid Abdelmoneim

The A&E doctor and president for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) UK on smelling the roses (literally), replenishing his ‘empathy bank’ and the power of a meaningful smile

My morning ritual is… very set. It’s my quiet time to wake up. I make a strong coffee, then take time in my garden touching the plants, smelling the flowers, listening to the birds and feeling the air on my face. From March to October, I eat breakfast – homemade muesli with oat milk – in the garden of the flat I share with my terrier cross, Rocky.

My bedtime routine is… washing my face and moisturising, then I put in earplugs and pull on bed socks and the tubular, brushed-cotton sleeping hat I’ve had since I was 13. That combination reminds my brain that it’s bedtime.

I always tell my loved ones to… look on the bright side. There’s always a bright side, even with coronavirus. My loved ones have homes, the means to socially distance and running water to wash hands, which plenty of others don’t. Yes, lockdown might be a chore, but the alternative is getting a disease for which there’s no cure and survival is pot luck.

I love to cook… Iranian food. I was born in the UK, lived in Sudan until I was six, and was always beside my Iranian mother, as she cooked both Sudanese and Iranian food. Iranian cuisine uses a lot of fresh herbs in interesting combinations and features sour, sharp flavours. It’s delicious. I love eating, so I need to know how to make good food.

My favourite way of relaxing is… a long canal walk with Rocky. After two miles I reach a garden centre, where I daydream about what I’ll plant next (I’m a keen gardener), then I walk back. Medics are exposed to people in pain and fear, with anxiety, disease and depression, and who are dying – those experiences drain my mental reserve, so to top up what I call my ’empathy bank’, I actively search out relaxation time.

Exercise to me involves… running 4.5km every morning. I then lift weights and stretch in the gym, where I’m not thinking about email, my patients or what I’m doing next. I really miss the gym during lockdown!

My biggest turn on is… kindness. In restaurants, I’ve called out friends before for not treating waiters kindly. Kindness is rooted in acknowledging the presence of the human in front of you. Be kind to them and you’ll get kindness back.

The bad habit I’m glad I’ve kicked is… drinking at home. A decade ago, I was in Haiti following the earthquake. We weren’t allowed out in the evenings because of kidnappings and gang warfare, so for six months, I worked six days a week and afterwards drank at home. It was an unhealthy coping mechanism. When I returned to the UK, I carried that habit over and went through a period when, every time I went out, I drank a lot. It became unhealthy because it would put me in a bad mood a few days later. Nowadays, alcohol doesn’t rule me, and every year I do Dry January and Stoptober. But during lockdown, I’m loving a glass of wine in my garden at the end of the day and believe that, right now, we should enjoy simple pleasures, guilt-free.

I inject positivity into my life by… smiling. I smile and say ‘good morning’ to passers-by, and you wouldn’t believe how many of my colleagues and patients comment on me being happy. It’s a positive feedback loop.

No.1 on my gratitude list is… my work at Médecins Sans Frontières [an international humanitarian medical organisation]. I’ve been part of MSF for 10 years and love making such a difference to people’s lives. I know how bad it can be – for example, I’ve seen what it was like to live in Raqqa, Syria, under Isis. Such experiences give me a perspective that spills into other aspects of my life. So if I miss that bus and have to wait two minutes for the next, it really doesn’t matter!

Follow Javid on Instagram @drjavidabdel and Twitter @DrJavidA