Borgess doctor prescribes reasons to love Kalamazoo

More than one person has suggested that Dr. Firas Al-Ali should be mayor of Kalamazoo.

It's not a position the Borgess doctor aspires to. (He knows Mayor Bobby Hopewell, likes him, and thinks he's doing a fine job.)

From a residency standpoint it's not possible. Dr. Al-Ali lives in Richland, outside the Kalamazoo city limits.

It's just that he has so many good things to say about Kalamazoo.

His conversation is full of affection for the Kalamazoo area, and his is a perspective developed from experience in the wider world.

"I was born in Damascus, a city that's 7,000 years old with 4 million people -- the very poor, the very rich. and the predominant middle class," Al-Ali says.

Having graduated from medical school in Syria at the University of Damascus, Al-Ali went on to study and live in some of the most interesting places in the world.

He lived in Paris for more than three years and on the French Riviera for two. He trained in San Francisco and then North Carolina.

In 1998, at age 36, his education nearly complete, he decided to look for the kind of city where he could settle.

His wife likes warm climates. How about Southern California? They quickly found it was not for them. "Too congested, too much concrete" is how Al-Ali describes it. "It takes two hours to get anywhere."

There was a bigger problem. "Everyone there is under pressure. There is pressure from the commute. There is pressure to achieve the salary it takes to afford to live there," he says.

Since Southern California wasn't what he and his wife wanted, Al-Ali decided to obtain further training in the nation's capital. They found that city equally unsatisfying.

"There's no sense of community," he says. "People serve there for two to four years and then they move back home."

The congestion he didn't like in Southern California was equally annoying in Washington, D.C. Besides that, everything was over-priced.

He was recruited on 2001 to lead the neurointerventional program at Borgess, a new position for a new service within the Borgess Brain & Spine Institute. By then Al-Ali had a good idea of the kind of place he wanted to live. It turns out Kalamazoo has the quality of life he had been looking for. 

From a professional standpoint, the Borgess Brain & Spine Institute's work is satisfying for Al-Ali because it's known worldwide and he says the people are excellent to work with.
Overall, he's impressed with the work ethic of the people in the industrial belt. "The people here are hard workers. They do their job, go home and get a good night's sleep. That's a great thing to know the people you are working with are not doing sloppy work because they're tired, because they were out all night."

The doctor's seven-minute commute from his Richland home to the Borgess Brain & Spine Institute is ideal.

He sees deer, fox and snakes regularly in the lush landscape around his home. Together, he and his daughter have enjoyed watching a raccoon's antics on their porch. There are wild turkeys and so many wild birds he's had to get books to find out what they are.

There are plenty of lakes to take in, small ones everywhere, and the big one, Lake Michigan, less than an hour away.

And for the wife of 24 years who once wanted to live in a warm climate?

"Sometimes you don't see blue sky from November to April. That is a drawback," he says. "But what place has no drawbacks? It's great to have four seasons. For the most part, Kalamazoo has the right combination to make a happy, joyful life."

The intellectual environment is stimulating and the international population diverse, thanks to the influence of Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College and companies like Pfizer.

"There are a lot of intellectual people," he says. "For the size of the city, the there's a big pool of people from across the world."

Japanese, Africans and Arabs are just some of the people he has come to know here.

"It's a liberal town," Al-Ali says. "You don't have to fit into a specific mold."

He takes full advantage of the city's cultural amenities. This spring's 10th Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival offered so many opportunities Al-Ali says it was hard to get in all the concerts he wanted to attend. He likes the independent movies regularly shown at the Little Theater on the WMU campus. There's fine dining in some great restaurants in the community.

His children, a 13-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, attend Gagie School where they have gotten a high-quality education, something he attributes to teachers who are not stressed by long commutes and salaries that don't fit expenses.

What he sees in the community is an appreciation for the good things about a small town, what he calls sophistication without skyscrapers.

He relishes the opportunity to do "top notch" work without sacrificing his quality of life.

The Borgess Brain & Spine Institute offers a highly sophisticated lab, he says, and he likes doing cutting-edge work with a great team.

The institute, established 40 years ago, was the first of its kind in West Michigan and its 25 neuro-practice providers see several thousand patients each year. The Institute brings together specialists of Borgess Neurology, Borgess Spine and Neurosurgery of Kalamazoo.

The Borgess Brain & Spine Institute is recognized among the nation¹s top spine treatment programs and was named a "Center of Excellence" following the first comprehensive study of spine care programs. NeuStrategy and the SpineMark Corporation conducted the study of 99 hospitals and spine programs across 35 state and three international locations.

Treatment of aneurysms, stroke and vertebrae fractures is some of the work done there. The Institute has the only Neuro Intensive Care Unit in Southwest Michigan, and features full diagnostic facilities, two neurosurgery suites, full rehabilitation services, continuing care and the ability to monitor nervous system disorders.

As a neurointerventionalist, Al-Ali is specially trained in neurovascular diseases and imaging. Some of the cutting-edge work he points to   is cerebral angioplasty and using stents to open brain arteries and keep them open. Interventional techniques practiced there also allow chemotherapy to be delivered directly to some tumors as part of cancer treatment.

The complete continuum of care in the neurosciences offered by Borgess rivals the level of care patients can get "in the entire world," Al-Ali says.

As Medical Director of the Neurointerventional Laboratory he regularly welcomes physicians from around the world, like two recently visiting from Russia, who come to learn what doctors at Borgess are doing.

He could go on and on. Personal and professional satisfaction keep Al-Ali singing Kalamazoo's praises. Since he can't be mayor, maybe he could be appointed ambassador.

Kathy Jennings is editor and primary writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.

Photos by Erik Holladay

Dr. Firas Al-Ali has worked in many different international locations, but lists many reasons why someone who could work anywhere would choose Kalamazoo to live.

Dr. Firas Al-Ali in the Neurointerventional Lab at Borgess Hospital.
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