By: Jessica McDiarmid News reporter, Published on Thu Dec 12 2013
(TORONTO STAR)- The tears trace tracks of dark makeup down her cheeks, as she sits shuddering on a couch by the window of a downtown Toronto condo.
She wails, for the horror her family encountered these past months, for the loss of innocence, of safety, in this world.
She wails for her daughter, who dreamed of becoming a doctor. Her daughter, who was stabbed 16 times, one month after starting medical school in the Caribbean.
That daughter comforts her now. That daughter, Samar Haroun, survived. But something in her mother did not.
“He planted a terrible horror, a psychological fear,” Rabab Idris says of her daughter’s attacker. “Nothing will compensate me. My child’s life, her time, our horrifying situation we’re living, our fear.
“I sleep with sleeping tablets and I scream in the middle of the night.”
As a child, Haroun dreamed of being a doctor.
She arrived in Canada from Oman when she was 15. The next year, she was in university studying science.
The health research she did while earning a master’s degree brought publications and patents. But she wanted to work with people, care for patients. She wanted to be a doctor.
Her undergraduate marks were a notch too low for Canadian medical schools. But she was accepted at several in the Caribbean, which draw students from Canada and the U.S. who haven’t been admitted to medical schools at home.
Haroun, 27, chose the Medical University of the Americas, a private, for-profit school in St. Kitts and Nevis, a two-island nation about 400 kilometres east of Puerto Rico.
It took her a year to secure a loan to cover the roughly $150,000 the four-year program would cost. Classes started Sept. 3.
Not quite a month later, Haroun got a ride home from a friend’s just after midnight. It wasn’t far but they didn’t walk alone at night on Nevis, the smaller of the islands with a population of about 12,000.
It was about 12:30 a.m. Oct. 1 when she got back to her place, a one-bedroom ground-floor apartment in a building with three other units, all occupied by medical students, all men. She felt safe there.
She stepped in over the welcome mat and locked the door behind her. She walked past the bright red couch with the desk pushed up to it, the breakfast counter and the wooden cupboards, into the bedroom. She went to the closet.
A man with a knife rushed her.
“He was shirtless; he had a tie around his hair,” she recalls.
She fought as he stabbed her again and again.
The curtain rod crashed down. She hit him with it. She bit his thumb. She grabbed the knife blade in her hand to keep it from her chest.
She looked him in the eye and said, “Please stop, think of my mother, think of my family.”
He didn’t stop.
Her neighbours heard her screaming. They were pounding on the door, trying to get in. The attacker jumped out the window. Haroun managed to unlock the door before she collapsed.
There was no doctor at the hospital when she arrived, blood spurting from her back. A wound to her cheek had cut right through, sliced her tongue. The bone in her chin was showing.
It took perhaps 30, 45 minutes to get into surgery. X-rays were taken, but no CT scans, no MRIs — neither are available in the country. Haroun came out of sedation in a filthy recovery room with about eight others, no air conditioning (average temperatures in St. Kitts are between 26C and 31C in September), and medication coming from a syringe marked “antibiotics.”
Haroun asked the university to call her friend in Toronto, Andrew Tyrell. No one did. A friend on Nevis looked him up on Facebook.
“That was my disappointment in the school,” says Haroun.
Tyrell got the message and called Haroun’s older brother, Hussam, at home in Toronto.
He told their mother.
Rabab Idris got sick. She cried. She fainted. She wailed.
“This is the most horrifying situation that ever can happen to any family,” says Idris. “Send your child to study medicine, to pursue a career and save people’s lives, and you would never dream that this child could have been killed herself.”
Hussam and Tyrell left for Nevis, arriving Oct. 2, the day after the attack.
The doctor said the wounds were superficial, nothing life-threatening, says Tyrell.
“We only realized how wrong he was when we came back to Canada.”
Samar had purchased medical evacuation insurance, required by the university, and health insurance.
But it didn’t go smoothly. On Oct. 4, she was to be shuttled to the airport on the larger island, St. Kitts. Instead, she was dropped at the ferry, with her bandages, in the heat, as a walk-on passenger. The cab that was to collect her on the other side was late.
The insurance company flew her out on a commercial flight in economy class, despite the doctor recommending business class for the extra space. It was about 10 hours of travel, with a transfer in Miami.
That day she left, police arrested 19-year-old Shane Shorter, plane ticket for Jamaica in hand, at the same airport.
Shorter is charged with attempted murder, breaking and entering and theft. He remains in prison awaiting trial. His mother was charged with being an accessory several days later.
From Pearson airport, Haroun went straight to St. Michael’s Hospital.
She had an injured carotid and a dissected vertebral artery — a tear to a major blood vessel in the neck that supplies blood to the brain.
Worried about clotting, doctors put her on aspirin. Ten days later, she had a stroke.
It didn’t do lasting damage, but she has to take a stronger blood thinner now. She may be able to stop it at some point — in three months, maybe six. Or she may not. She attends appointments nearly daily with a slew of specialists.
“The most upsetting thing for me right now is the fact that I’m not in school, because I worked so hard for it,” says Haroun. She doesn’t know if she’ll get into a Canadian medical school.
Haroun says she’s disappointed — with the poor medical care, the insurance and evacuation ordeals, the absence of a warning to others in the wake of her attack. (The university, as of deadline, had not responded to the Star’s request for comment.)
The Canadian government recommends that travellers to St. Kitts and Nevis “exercise a high degree of caution,” in part because of its limited medical resources and moderate crime rate.
The U.S. State Department notes there has been an influx of illegal weapons to the islands.
“Violent crime — including murder, petty street crime, automobile break-ins and burglary — continue to occur,” according to its website.
Students need to ask more questions before setting off to Caribbean medical schools, Haroun believes.
“We all just feel so lucky to get into med school finally, no one asks questions,” says Haroun. “I didn’t ask any of those questions. I didn’t think in a million years I’d have to think of any of those things.”