Amir Ali was putting the finishing touches on a medical degree last month when the rising threat of the COVID-19 pandemic put school, final exams and graduation on hold.

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Amir Ali was putting the finishing touches on a medical degree last month when the rising threat of the COVID-19 pandemic put school, final exams and graduation on hold.

Medical students across the country, including the 26-year-old Winnipegger, were recalled from hospitals.

And, although they were able to complete assignments and volunteer at sites such as the Access Fort Garry COVID-19 clinic, as Ali has done, the postponement has added uncertainty to the mix.

That's unlikely to last for long.

Ali, who entered the University of Manitoba medical school in 2016 after a five-year career on the Bisons men's basketball team, is scheduled to begin a five-year residency in emergency medicine on July 1 at the University of Toronto — an assignment that will place him on the front lines of the pandemic in Canada's largest metropolitan centre.

"It's interesting because we don't start until July 1 and the predictions from the health-care community is that it's going to continue well into that time period," Ali said Monday. "It's so hard from the medical side to give your opinion, because everybody's been so wrong so many times. (When) the NBA shut down and all the leagues shut down, a week before people were still leaving on vacation, right?

"It's so hard to give a long-term prediction, but based on where we are right now, nothing's going to change by the time the new graduates start work. It is definitely an interesting time. I have nursing colleagues and friends that have graduated and are starting work during this time period and I know it's very stressful to them."

U of M head coach Kirby Schepp isn’t surprised by Ali’s path. He has first-hand experience with Ali’s dedication to self-improvement and drive to succeed.

Almost a decade ago, Schepp took on Ali on the insistence of Jeff Laping, his coach at St. Paul's High School. The young guard morphed from a seldom-used first- and second-year player into a team captain and valuable contributer on the court, combining that with outstanding academic achievement and an amazing record of charitable work with organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg.

Ali overcame a major knee injury prior to his final season and deferred medical school to return to the court.

Amir Ali, who entered the University of Manitoba medical school in 2016 after playing on the Bisons men's basketball team, is scheduled to begin a five-year residency in emergency medicine on July 1 at the University of Toronto. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Amir Ali, who entered the University of Manitoba medical school in 2016 after playing on the Bisons men's basketball team, is scheduled to begin a five-year residency in emergency medicine on July 1 at the University of Toronto. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I can't think of anyone who's more equipped to handle pressure and adversity than him," said Schepp. "I just can't think of anyone I know who just thrives in those situations. He's just so strong and tough mentally and works incredibly hard. Yeah, he's a superstar, no doubt about it."

That strength of character, Schepp said, originates from some core family values. Ali's mother Merdia Imame and father Nibras Ali, who emigrated from Ethiopia in 1987, set a high standard for hard work and achievement.

In 2018, Ali sharpened his skills by doing a volunteer stint in emergency medicine in Ethiopia. Prior to the pandemic, he was planning to return this spring.

That experience in his parents' homeland confirmed what he loved about emergency medicine: the fast pace, high energy and the diverse skill set required.

That said, he believes it's unlikely graduating Canadian medical students will be rushed into the fray ahead of schedule.

"With a situation like Winnipeg, which I can speak on, the burden of the disease is not at a point where it's all hands on deck, we need every student possible to be in the building," said Ali. "Students are going in and volunteering.

"Everyone can always do better but Winnipeg's done a decent job at social distancing and flattening the curve, to some degree. So our hospitals are not necessarily overburdened at the moment. The goal would be to continue to do what we're doing to help keep it that way. But as you know, the cases in Manitoba have been increasing and the cases across the country have been increasing, so you do the best you can."

Working in the country's largest city would be extra challenging for any new doctor. Ali isn't fearful.

"Based on where we are today Toronto has a lot more cases than Winnipeg is seeing and it's an international flight hub, there's a lot more people in close proximity so the potential for it to grow at an exponential rate is much higher," said Ali. "On top of that, being in the emergency department where you're at the front line and you're unsure about what's going to come through the front door...

"There's a lot of uncertainty in that respect in that kind of environment. I have close friends in the emergency departments in Winnipeg and talked to them quite a bit about what they've been seeing and how they've been dealing with it. They've definitely given me some advice and idea of what I can expect."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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