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Posted on Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 10:52 a.m.

University of Michigan medical school students, faculty fast for a day to better understand Muslim patients

By Tina Reed

Long before sunrise Wednesday morning, second-year University of Michigan medical student Jess Guh and some of her classmates dragged themselves to Denny’s restaurant to grab a bite to eat.

They don’t typically eat that early, but they wanted to get something in their stomachs before fasting for the Muslim observance of Ramadan.

“It’s the only place that’s open at 4 in the morning,” Guh said.

She and many of her medical school friends aren’t Muslim, but as future physicians, they were trying to better understand how annual Ramadan fasting would affect the lives of their Muslim patients.

They were among about 100 students and about a dozen faculty who participated in the Muslim Medical Students Association’s Fast-A-Thon Wednesday. The event encourages members of the medical school community to try to adhere to the traditional fast from eating or drinking anything between dawn to dusk for one day of Ramadan. U-M was one of many campuses across the United States with similar events.

“In terms of understanding the science and the physical effects of fasting, that’s something we can learn in lecture. Of course, we know what happens to a person’s glucose levels when they don’t eat for several hours,” Guh said. “As a provider, this helps us understand better why it would be important enough for one of our patients to do this.”


Ramadan is a Muslim holy month based on the lunar calendar during which followers fast from eating and drinking, as well as any excess indulgences, between sunrise and sunset.

The observance is meant to teach charity and patience, among other things, said Hasan Siddiqi, a leader of U-M’s Muslim Medical Students Association. On Wednesday evening, they attended a reception to break the fast with Pakistani foods, and several speakers talked about the significance of the observance.

The idea behind the event is that if a provider can understand where a patient is coming from in their religious practices, they’ll be able to find ways to accommodate those practices or better explain why they aren’t medically safe, Siddiqi said.

The hope is to also build awareness and commonality between Muslims and non-Muslims in the medical community, he said.

Still dressed in his scrubs from his rotation in the surgery department Wednesday, Wajeeh Muhammad — who is Muslim — said he appreciated the effort many of his non-Muslim counterparts were making. It will benefit them in the future as physicians, he said.

“The first couple days of this are tough. The most difficult part is not drinking water. It is tiring,” Muhammad said. 

It’s good for doctors to know how people experience the challenge differently and how they're ultimately trying to experience physical discomfort as a way to feel empathy and charity for those who go without, he said.

Matt Velkey, who teaches histology at the medical school, is a non-Muslim faculty member who participated in the fast. He was lecturing all day, so he allowed himself water.

Despite already understanding the effects, it heightened his awareness of the irritability and fatigue that accompanies fasting, he said. He also said he was glad to see so many of his students taking the time to experience it even though it isn’t part of their personal faith.

Many first- and second-year med students are caught up in studying cells or tissues. He said the event forced them to pull back into thinking about their ultimate focus: Patients.

“As a physician, they’d have to decide the line between something that’s medically safe and having religious awareness,” Velkey said.

Photos by Melanie Maxwell,

Tina Reed writes about health and the environment for You can reach her at or find her on Twitter @Treedinaa.



Tue, Sep 15, 2009 : 11:39 a.m.

If these naive kids really want to understand Muslims they should take a semester off and go live in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.....and maybe try to attend church, organize a pro-America rally, date local Muslims, openly criticize terrorists, wear around a yarmulke, etc. Their understanding of Islam would be complete in a very short time.


Tue, Sep 15, 2009 : 9:19 a.m.

Brigs, why don't you prove that Islam is misrepresented to the country? Here is my email address if you would like to talk about this further.


Fri, Sep 11, 2009 : 8:33 a.m.

Some of these harsh comments seem to ignore the fact that this effort explored a cultural practice with true medical significance. It's not just about better understanding the culture of some of your future patients (although that in itself is a worthwhile goal). It was also about better understanding, personally, the physical effects of fasting, which is something that is not only undertaken by Muslims at Ramadan, but also Jews during Yom Kippur (and some other holidays). Not to mention the dieters who sometimes make this a habit, and laboring mothers (under orders from a doctor), and patients before certain tests and surgeries (ditto). The fact that this also helps future doctors better understand some of their colleagues and patients and neighbors is a bonus.


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 9:31 p.m.

Great event! I attended last night and enjoyed the time (and enjoyed the food even more!). It's good that U of M is branching and reaching different corners of multicultural and religious diversity.


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 8:04 p.m.

Briggs, what a sad and cynical view you have on medical students/doctors. Is there a bad personal experience in your past that leads to such a rant? Truly, your comment is misguided. As a medical student nearing graduation, I would like to assure you we get "education" not just "training," especially here at the U of M. There is an emphasis on cultural awareness at our school that prepares us well to acknowledge and gain a deeper understanding of different cultural beliefs/views/practices. I participated in the fast-a-thon yesterday, as I have the past several years as well. I am a non-Muslim female, and each year I find it to be a learning experience for me. I am now working in Detroit at Henry Ford, and 1 out of about 3 or 4 patients with whom I've been working are Muslim women. After my first year of participation in the fast-a-thon, I was interested in reading more about Muslim faith and practices (such as reading about the significance of the hijab), and can honestly say I have made better connection with my Muslim patients than I would have had I not attempted to understand their culture and beliefs. So please, take your cynicism somewhere else, and speak for yourself, or at least from a personal experience instead of in ill-informed, sweeping generalizations. On another note, why do online comments about articles become battlegrounds? My feeling is, if you wouldn't take the time to write it on paper and send it to the newspaper to be published as an editorial with your name attached to it, maybe think twice about your snide comments? I think that seems fair.


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 8 p.m.

i think it's great that medical students will take time out of their busy education to explore a religion that is often marginalized and misrepresented in this country. way to go!


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 7:11 p.m.

The sad thing is that med students cannot be taught anything. The only thing they learn in med school is that everyone they will meet for the remainder of their pointless lives has the IQ of an untrainable dog, and should be treated with disdain, condescension and disrespect. This is the overriding lesson of med school and it is well learnt. Follow these students into their careers, check up on them by posing as a Muslim patient or any other patient and see how well they treat their patients and how much understanding they have achieved. Few doctors have more than a smattering of education (med school is not education; it is training), and the unfortunate result is that they believe the rest of the world is similarly disabled. The secret lives of med students and doctors should no more interest the rest of us than how the hospital's janitorial staff occupies their leisure time. And, aside from all of that, the careful reader will discern that the real point of this misguided exercise is not to understand Muslims as Muslims, or why they fast, but merely to understand how any person feels while fasting. How does that rate any kind of story?


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 5:01 p.m.

One of the my favorite things about the academic settings I have been fortunate enough to attend is that the environment is, by nature, conducive and encouraging of sharing ideas/thoughts/viewpoints and learning from each other's experiences. More than a hundred people voluntarily chose to fast for the day to share in this experience with their classmates, eager to learn what Ramadan and Islam - a faith other than their own - is about. TruthSeeker, I am glad you bring that up; last year the Christian organization on campus held a talk during Easter on the significance of the holiday, and students of all different faiths came to learn. I (a non-christian and non-muslim) have enjoyed both these experiences, as chances to hear people passionately share their views and culture with others who may not share that faith, but are eager to appreciate their enthusiasm. These experiences could no better highlight the cooperative nature of the academic world today.


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 3:24 p.m.

I am a non-Muslim medical student who attended Fast-A-Thon, and I came away with (1) a greater appreciation for the similarities between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and (2) a profound respect for my peers and faculty who are partaking in the month-long fast. This event was incredibly enlightening and (in my opinion) necessary considering the large Muslim population in our community. I am interfacing with Muslims on a day-to-day basis, and I now feel that I can better understand their world-view, and I also feel more connected to them having gone through Fast-A-Thon. I am a bit disheartened to see that some individuals have decided to view this event in a negative way. The event was meant to identify common ground between us all, not to divide us. Obviously the aforementioned individuals are missing the point. Perhaps they should attend next year...and if any of them want to plan an event teaching us about their faith, I'm eager to learn. Just don't hate on people for making an effort.


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 3:14 p.m.

I think that knowledge and understanding of cultures and communities different from one's own is a very powerful force empathy and compassion among people from different walks of life. In my opinion this event seems like a great opportunity for medical students and faculty to show interest in and appreciation for the growing Muslim population in this country and I commend the Muslim Medical Student Association for hosting it.

Jordan Miller

Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 2:56 p.m.

I think this is a great idea. Encouraging our medical caretakers to empathize with their patients can never be a bad thing.


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 2:33 p.m.

One thing that wasn't mentioned in the article was the topic of the talk, and the emphasis placed by all the speakers and organizers on the salient lessons of the fast. For example, a large portion of the keynote speaker's presentation stressed the similarities and common roots of the Abrahamic faiths. Furthermore, the Assoc Dean of Diversity at the medical school and the Dean of Student programs both spoke at the event, and reminded everyone present how this event truly stressed not our difference but our similarities. In the intro given by the moderator, the essence of empathy, patience, charity and reaching out ACROSS RELIGIOUS/ETHNIC lines was stressed. It is rather unjust of the commenters to attack this honorable gesture without understanding the core message - that this month of Ramadan truly tries to espouse the principles of sharing, charity and empathy for all in the community, not just in Islam. Furthermore, Muslim students at the medical school are more than happy to participate in a fast set up by the Catholic students association, if such an event is organized. However, since no other groups have taken the initiative to promote such cross-religious practices, I think it is admirable rather than condemnable of the MSA to set up this event. Muslim students work at a homeless shelter in Ann Arbor regularly, in order to provide service to those homeless people within this community. I would hope that future commenters would refrain from spewing forth baseless accusations and sarcasm to target this community of students that is trying to reach out and bring recognition to the diversity and vibrant unity of the Ann Arbor and medical school community.


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 2:18 p.m.

I suggest they also fast for 2 to 5 days and rely upon the hand outs from strangers so they can better understand the homeless population and those who are living in tents...just a thought....they will no doubt see this population in the emergency room on a regular basis.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 2:01 p.m.

In turn, will religious students sleep in on a Sunday in order to better understand atheism? And what are Muslim students, for that matter, doing to learn about others?


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 1:50 p.m.

Of course! They all need to understand what it means to be a Catholic (which is what you're describing, not all of Christianity) since hardly anyone in the USA knows what it means to be Catholic. /sarcasm I mean, for real, why try to better understand a minority religion in our country? Especially one that values individual privacy at times above medical care?


Thu, Sep 10, 2009 : 11:50 a.m.

I am assuming then that the Med students and faculty will fast on Fridays during Lent to better understand Christianity right???