Hand on My Heart
A Canadian Doctor's Awakening in Afghanistan
Canadian physician Maureen Mayhew returns to her time spent working in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan in an honest and heartfelt examination of our own cultural assumptions around gender, tradition and belief.
When Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) offered to send Maureen Mayhew to Taliban-occupied Afghanistan, she refused. Fearing she would be forced to give up her independence to preserve her safety, it was the last place on earth she wanted to volunteer medical expertise. But events didn’t unfold as she had anticipated and in April 2000, wrapped in unfamiliar clothing, she stepped out onto the Afghan dust for the first time. Walking toward Taliban immigration officials, a fire raged in her belly and a tremor shot through the hand grasping her blue knapsack. Little did she know that she would return to this country seven more times over the span of a decade, learn to converse in the regional Afghan language of Dari, and develop lasting relationships with women, men—even members of the Taliban—and families through her work as a physician.
In Hand on My Heart: Awakening in Afghanistan, Mayhew juxtaposes her experiences of Afghanistan as a foreign, female physician with her personal journey of questioning who she is as a professional woman in the 21st century. As she travels from one remote outpost to another, sharing cups of tea in secret, muddling through language barriers, and brokering trust with her patients, she finds her Western beliefs challenged and makes sense of her own struggles with gender roles. With curiosity and tenderness, Mayhew reflects on moments of disorientation, fear, wonder and joy. Hand on My Heart is a moving account that takes readers on an uncharted path into the mysteries of the human heart.
“From first touchdown on a desolate airfield, Hand on My Heart travels beyond the journalistic and political images of Afghanistan and lifts the veils to reveal the hearts of the Afghan people. Through the lens of a physician, Dr. Maureen brings the reader on her daily adventures, confronting fears and isolation with respect and joy. Building trust and learning the language, she bonds with men and women to confront the web of religion, gender, and health. Always teaching yet learning even more, she explores the relationships of men and women and sees herself. The book demystifies the human side of Afghan life and reminds us of the universal connections we all share.”
—Thomas A. Burke, PhD, MPH, Professor Emeritus, Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health
“Some people travel to the ends of the Earth to help others. Dr. Maureen Mayhew is one such person, a fearless humanitarian who takes readers on an adventure to the outermost reaches of Afghanistan in her beautifully written and searingly honest memoir, Hand on My Heart. As a physician with Doctors Without Borders, Mayhew brings healthcare to the children and women of Afghanistan. It is a perilous landscape, with menacing Taliban, blistering heat, impassable roads, rudimentary equipment and oppressive attitudes about gender roles. Mayhew encounters a cultural chasm, with Afghans mystified why she remains unmarried and childless. She begins to question her own life choices, while contemplating the meaning of belonging, community and connection. With the Taliban back in power once again in Afghanistan, Hand on My Heart is a timely lament for a country that came so far in the early 21st century, only to be catapulted back to medieval times by brutal extremists.”
—Roberta Staley, author of Voice of Rebellion: How Mozhdah Jamalzadah Brought Hope to Afghanistan
“In remote Afghanistan, in places that have never seen a doctor, let alone a single, independent, fearless woman doctor, we experience the daily challenges Maureen Mayhew faces as she provides medical care to her patients. Hand on My Heart gives powerful insight into how to do this work in the face of overwhelming poverty, unyielding religious beliefs, and a dominating patriarchal society. Her experiences kept me glued to her story, and it is a joy to see how far Maureen will go in the service of people wherever she encounters them."
—Michael C Klein CM, MD, BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Vancouver, author of Dissident Doctor: Catching Babies and Challenging the Medical Status Quo
“A remarkable and revealing journey into the heart of both Afghanistan and the insightful narrator. As this compassionate and nonjudgmental narrative unfolds, Dr. Mayhew immerses herself in Afghan customs, including the importance of family and belonging, and discovers a new way of seeing and knowing herself. Hand on My Heart is a compelling story of medical aid, of discovery, and personal growth.”
—Barbara Sibbald, former MSF volunteer, medical humanities editor and author of The Museum of Possibilities and the forthcoming Twelve Annas to a Rupee
“Equal parts adventure story, personal memoir, and empathetic portrait of the Afghan people, Hand on My Heart gives us a literally behind-the-veils view of life in one of the world’s least understood countries. Maureen Mayhew writes with a doctor’s precision and a novelist’s sense of story about her decade on the ground in Afghanistan as a physician, gaining rare access to the family and intimate lives of people caught up in the tides of history. The story is by turns sad, wise, and joyful, leaving the reader deeply moved by Mayhew’s personal story, the story of Afghanistan, and the deep thread of shared humanity running throughout both.”
—Thomas Hayden, Stanford University, author of Sex and War and On Call in Hell