Hayatullah Niazi is a physician assistant and family nurse practitioner with the UC Davis Spine Center.
Hayatullah Niazi is a physician assistant and family nurse practitioner with the UC Davis Spine Center.

Never give up: A former Afghan physician finds a new career, new cause in California

One decade ago, Hayatullah Niazi arrived in California from Kabul, Afghanistan. After serving as an interpreter and medical liaison for U.S. armed forces overseas, he escaped the Taliban with his wife and four children in search of a new life and new career in health care.

“Out of the 168 medical students in my class, I was one of two selected for a neurosurgery residency. When I heard about a physician assistant position here, I thought, ‘I have a medical degree, that would be a job I could do,’” recalls Niazi, whose cash was fleeting. “Then I learned that physician assistant is a profession and I would have to spend five years in school to attain the degree. I needed a job that week. It was a crushing blow.”

Like so many Afghan immigrants, Niazi discovered his skills did not directly translate in America. So he worked as a pizza delivery driver, and a nightshift gas station attendant in Hayward, California, where he thought he would work the rest of his life.

“Knowing myself, I said, ‘Hayat, you can’t see the death of your career in this gas station,’” Niazi says.

After several false starts and stops, Niazi learned of the physician assistant program at UC Davis, where he applied in 2010, then again in 2012. More disappointment. So he relocated his family to Sacramento and, thanks to a counselor at Sacramento City College, entered the nursing program. He attended classes Monday through Thursday, then worked as a pizza cook Fridays and Saturdays. He achieved his goal, yet UC Davis remained his dream. So, he applied to the family nurse practitioner program, now part of the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, and enrolled in the master’s-degree program in 2015.

“They really looked at my application and gave me the opportunity,” Niazi says. “Looking back, when they told me I wasn’t ready in 2010, they were right. I really needed more time in this country to understand how the differences in my culture, language and background could bring value to health care in this country. This was finally my chance.”

Niazi earned a master’s degree in the Family Nurse Practitioner Program and a physician assistant studies certificate. He chose the physician assistant route and currently works at the UC Davis Spine Center. In this role he feels he is able to spend more time educating and problem-solving with patients than he would as a physician — skills he attributes to his nursing and School of Nursing education.

“I saw a patient from Afghanistan yesterday. The minute I pronounced her name with the proper Farsi inflection, she looked at me and smiled,” Niazi explains. “When you speak the same language and know cultural background, patients feel that connection. It’s not just about the physical ailment; they feel their cultural differences are valued.”

It has been a decade since he was that newcomer to this culture. Today, Niazi and his wife seek to buy a house. He looks to serve on the Elk Grove Muslim Association board. The oldest of his five children heads off to college in hopes of becoming a physician.

“Now I put everything I learned in school, even my leadership skills, into practice,” Niazi says. “I tell my children, if you have a mission and vision and a goal, giving up is not a good option.”