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Long distance friendship is the perfect medicine

Most trainee doctors are driven by a desire to help others, but for Shahrukh Khan, his motivation is also deeply personal.

He was just six-years-old when his father died of a heart attack in India. Many years later, when he had only just begun his degree studies in the Philippines, he lost his mother in the same way. It was at this point that Shahrukh decided to become a surgeon or cardiologist.

It has been a long and complicated road to reach the point he is at today – just two years away from becoming a qualified doctor. When he was just 13-years-old, he met someone who, although neither of them knew it at the time, would change his life. That person was retired teacher Liz Fewings, who was Skyping in from her home in London, UK to his school’s new computer lab in Hyderabad, India.

Eight years on, she can still recall their first meeting. “The Granny Cloud session had been arranged through Suneeta (Kulkarni) and I was expecting a group of kindergarten children,” she explains. “I had prepared to read Jasper’s Beanstalk and had my trowel and seeds and everything ready when suddenly in walks a group of teenagers! Suneeta was laughing like a drain but I went ahead with it anyway – they seemed quite happy!”

Shahrukh was put in charge of organising his 9th grade group, which didn’t really take off, but he and Liz continued to talk to each other. He made the most of any opportunity to be part of this early self organised learning environment (SOLE) to improve his English and general knowledge skills.

medium_c954397b-38bb-4e36-8e65-c28a60d93376Shahrukh in the Philippines today

When he was looking to study for a degree, it was Liz that he turned to for help. Studying medicine in India is very competitive so it made sense to look elsewhere. At one point, he was all set to study in the Gobi desert until Liz showed him quite how cold it could get there compared to India. She also helped him avoid obvious scams and colleges that were little more than a PO Box.

Together they looked for more suitable locations based on climate, living conditions and cultural differences and came up with the Philippines. Even after he received his offer letter, Liz was still looking out for him – she wrote to the registrar of the university to double check it was genuine!

Liz refers to Shahrukh as “Mr Fixit” because even from an early age he was so resourceful. He helped to set up an Internet café in India and has just launched a website with his sister for students applying to study in the Philippines, to help them avoid falling victim of unscrupulous agents.

A third of his fellow students have had to re-do part of their first year, but Shahrukh passed with flying colours. One of his favourite aspects of the course is the problem based learning sessions (PBL), where they are given a scenario and have to diagnose the patient by working in a group. He points out that his early exposure to SOLE was not dissimilar to this way of working, which might be why it comes more easily to him.

The heavy workload of a medical degree doesn’t leave much time for anything other than studying but when he does have a break, Shahrukh likes to explore new places on the island with his friends, watch telugu films and cook his signature dish – a curry with fish or chicken. “Every time I go back to India I stock up on spices,” he tells me. “They have some here, but it’s just not the same!”


The BBC covered Liz (above) and Shahrukh’s original story nearly two years ago and at at the time Liz was inundated with requests from people who wanted her to be their friend and do the same for them. “I couldn’t possibly do that for them all, but one girl was really persistent so now I’m mentoring this young woman in Pakistan,” she explains.

“She’s a graduate looking for a job and she was living in front of her computer so I kept trying to persuade her to do something else to make her more interesting to employers. I told her I would make her a shawl if she did something different so she did and now she’s started a little sewing business with her sister making salwar kameez for people, which is wonderful. It just needs somebody to show a bit of interest and these young people can achieve so much.”

When Shahrukh graduated from his first degree there was no family there to share the day with him. However, Liz has promised him that she will make it to the Philippines to stand in as loco parentis for when he becomes a doctor in two years’ time. “I’m very fond of him,” says Liz. “He feels like a nephew to me.” It will be the first time they have actually met.