Employee Profile - April 2009
Dr. Ibtisam Al-Hashimi, professor in the Department of Periodontics, is director of HSC-BCD’s Salivary Dysfunction Clinic. Al-Hashimi has devoted her life’s work to improving the quality of life for patients suffering the debilitating effects of dry mouth and other symptoms of chronic autoimmune disorders.
Al-Hashimi says she has known since she was a child that medicine intrigued her, but she never imagined she’d focus her career on salivary dysfunction. She grew up in Iraq among family members who worked in the medical and engineering fields, and Al-Hashimi received a dental degree from the University of Baghdad. She then proceeded to become one of the first women there to earn a specialty diploma in oral surgery.
In 1981, Al-Hashimi moved to the United States and earned her master’s degree and doctorate at State University of New York at Buffalo. That’s where she became acquainted with salivary research.
“When I came to get my master’s degree, I worked in a lab that focused on salivary research and I thought, ‘What a weird area of research,’” she says. “But later as I was studying protein biochemistry for my Ph.D., I got to know more about it and thought, ‘How does this affect people? Surely it does.’”
Al-Hashimi applied her clinical background to the research and in 1984 opened a salivary dysfunction clinic in Buffalo, N.Y. – the first of its kind.
When Al-Hashimi joined HSC-BCD in 1991, the college’s Stomatology Center was well established and Dr. Terry Rees, who was then chair of the periodontics department, supported her establishment of the Salivary Dysfunction Clinic as an extension to the Stomatology Center. Al-Hashimi says about 85 percent of the clinic’s patients have Sjögren’s syndrome, a debilitating and often undiagnosed autoimmune disease that causes extreme dryness of tissues throughout the body.
In 1994 she also collaborated with Baylor University Medical Center and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas to create the Sjögren’s Multi-Specialty Referral Center. Most rheumatologists in the Dallas/Fort Worth region refer patients to the center as part of the diagnostic workup for Sjögren’s syndrome.
Al-Hashimi says the field has come a long way. Two medications have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating salivary gland dysfunction, a victory considering pharmaceutical companies originally did not consider the field a profitable investment. HSC-BCD’s clinic maintains an advanced database and works with a Sjögren’s support group to increase awareness about the disease. It’s the patients, however, that Al-Hashimi speaks of the most when she explains her work.
“I enjoy treating patients, especially because many of them are discouraged trying to find a diagnosis,” she says.
Sjögren’s patients not only experience dry mouth, which compromises their quality of life due to difficulty eating and talking. Sjögren’s is difficult to diagnose, and patients are often told that there is nothing wrong with their health; the problem is all in their heads. This often leads to low self-esteem and psychological problems. Al-Hashimi remembers a dramatic change in one patient’s outlook when she gave her a diagnosis of what was ailing her.
“A patient traveled from Waco and, like all out-of-town patients, I encouraged her to see Dallas while she was here. She said she wasn’t interested and only wanted to have her appointment and go home,” Al-Hashimi says.
“After I worked up her case and gave her a diagnosis at the end of her second visit, she told me she was going to the West End to have a steak! Her demeanor changed once she heard the diagnosis,” Al-Hashimi continues. “She was so relieved to just have a diagnosis, a name for what was wrong with her.”
It is this kind of care she can give others – together with teaching and research – that Al-Hashimi says she enjoys at the college.
“Academic life is not the richest life financially, but helping people and making a difference in their lives is what’s important,” she says.
What colleagues say about Al-Hashimi:
Dr. Jeffrey Rossmann, professor and chair of periodontics: Dr. Al-Hashimi brings world-class expertise to Baylor College of Dentistry. She is recognized as an international authority in the field of salivary dysfunction and provides a level of care for her patients that is remarkable and often overlooked by others. Her compassion and understanding of the patient’s difficulty in enjoying a quality of life most of us take for granted is a passion that makes her a truly wonderful caregiver. We are fortunate to have her in the department and available to the dental community.
Dr. Jacqueline Plemons, professor in periodontics: Dr. Al-Hashimi is brilliant. She is extremely intelligent and incredible with her patients. She has managed to successfully combine a career in the biomedical sciences and clinical patient care. She is the epitome of an academician and a pleasure to work with.
Dr. Celeste Abraham, assistant professor in periodontics: I have worked with Dr. Al-Hashimi in the clinical setting as well as on various research projects over the past 15 years. The work we have completed together has given me a definite example of a clinician-researcher who has demonstrated dedication, devotion, determination and detail for every task that she encountered.
Dr. John Wright, Regents professor and chair of diagnostic sciences: I have worked closely with Dr. Al-Hashimi since she arrived at BCD in 1991. One of the most rewarding aspects of an academic career is the opportunity to interact and work with some of the country’s most acclaimed scientists in various disciplines, as Dr. Al-Hashimi is considered in salivary gland dysfunction and Sjögren’s syndrome. We have collaborated on several projects and I have learned a lot from her, as she is the “go to” person for salivary gland dysfunction.