60 years later: The story of the UAE’s oldest working hospital

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The Kanad Hospital in Al Ain is the oldest working hospital in the UAE. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: The UAE’s journey is five decades long, yet its oldest operating hospital dates back to before its formation. Ensconced in the leafy oasis of Al Ain, the Kanad Hospital is still a firm favourite for residents of the eastern Abu Dhabi region.

Its history is rich and heartwarming, and among its key distinctions is its status as the birthplace of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, who was the 12th baby to be delivered there.

Dr Timothy Fincher

Speaking to Gulf News, Dr Timothy Fincher, the hospital’s chief executive officer, traced the journey of the facility, from welcoming 67 babies in its first year or so of operation to 3,800 babies in 2020. “It truly is a phenomenal story, and it starts with the Abu Dhabi’s leadership looking for better care for the community,” Fincher said.

Search for health care

According to him, the late Sheikh Shakhbout bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi ruler from 1928-1966, and the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s founding father and Abu Dhabi ruler from 1966 until his death, had experienced good health care in the neighbouring lands of Oman and Bahrain.

“A number of Christian health providers were already treating patients there, and the two Abu Dhabi leaders asked around for physicians who would come down to Abu Dhabi. It was based on this request that Dr Burwell Kennedy, popularly known as Pat, and his wife, Dr Marian Kennedy, came down to Al Ain in March 1960 for a visit,” Dr Fincher said.

Dr Marian Kennedy
Dr Marian Kennedy treating a patient. Image Credit: Supplied

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Dr Burwell Kennedy, popularly known as Pat, and his wife Dr Marian Kennedy set up the Oasis Hospital in Al Ain. Image Credit: Supplied

Having completed their medical training in Philadelphia, the physicians had previously worked in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine’s West Bank. Abu Dhabi’s leadership therefore asked them to set up a hospital in the emirate.

Basic facility in 1960

The Oasis Hospital, as it was then known, was therefore established in November 1960. Records show that this basic facility, was the first and only hospital in Abu Dhabi Emirate at the time, even though Dubai’s first hospital, Al Maktoum Hospital, had been set up in 1951. It took till the late 1960s for a government hospital to be opened in Abu Dhabi Emirate.

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The Oasis Hospital, as it was then known, was established in November 1960. Image Credit: Supplied

The first hospital was essentially a four-room clinic housed in a guest hose donated by Sheikh Zayed. Building work had started on the site for a more permanent structure, but this took till 1963 to be set up.

High infant mortality

“At the time, Abu Dhabi had a very rudimentary existence, and its people were highly resilient. One of the most obvious needs was infant and maternal care, with infant mortality as high as 50 per cent and one in every three mothers dying in childbirth. So obviously, Dr Pat and Marian focused on paediatric care, as well as geriatrics. But they also did provide veterinary medicine when needed!” Dr Fincher said.

As soon as the health facility was created in November, the physicians found hundreds of residents seeking their care. Two children were born by the end of the year, with 67 babies delivered by the end of the following year.

First royal birth

“Sheikh Mohamed was born in 1961, and we have this record in our oldest files. It is such an honour for us,” Dr Fincher said.

When heavy rains destroyed the first health quarters in 1963, the hospital was moved to eight new prefabricated rooms made of palm branches and corrugated aluminium. When these were destroyed in a fire a few months later, the hospital moved to a 20-room concrete structure at the site of the current facility in Al Muwaiji area.

Real challenges

“The challenges Drs Pat and Marian overcame in their bid to care for the community are truly humbling. For example, take the case of when the doctors had to do an x-ray to set the bone of a patient. For this, they had to get an x-ray machine. But an X-ray machine could only run on electricity, for which they needed to obtain a generator. And given the UAE’s temperatures, a generator needed to be sheltered, so they had to arrange for cement and gravel from Dubai so that a concrete structure could be built. It is this persistence that has always inspired our staff,” Dr Fincher explained.

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Dr Marian Kennedy with a patient. Image Credit: Supplied

Similarly, in the absence of a blood bank, the first blood transfusions used the hospital’s staff, including Drs Pat and Marian, as donors. “Dr Marian had O-negative blood, so she was a universal donor and was chronically anaemic as she helped out her patients. Another incident occurred when Dr Marian was delivering a baby and the mother underwent a post-partum haemorrhage. To help her, an engineer and a lab technician donated blood, but more was needed. So Dr Marian scrubbed out, donated blood, then came back in to help the mother,” the doctor said.

Gradual growth

Over time, more medical professionals came down to Oasis Hospital, and the hospital grew to include up to 30 staff members by the last 1970s.

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Dr Pat Kennedy with a patient. Image Credit: Supplied

Drs Pat and Marian had brought their children with them when relocating to Al Ain, a seven-year-old girl, Kathleen, and a five-year-old boy, Scott. They went on to have two more children while living in Al Ain until 1975 — Nancy and Doug, and considered the city their home. Records show that the two dedicated doctors did not even take a holiday for two to three years at the beginning, and they even performed cleaning and maintenance work because of the lack of support staff. In turn, the doctors were warmly loved by the people of Al Ain, and became known affectionately as Kanad, based on Kennedy, and Mariam.

Expansion

In 1990, the hospital moved to a 36-bed building structure, and introduced more medical specialities for the community. Further expansions were completed in 2015, and a brand new majlis was added the same year, built as a replica of the original 1960s majlis.

Renaming

Four years later, the name of the hospital was changed under the directions of Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed from Oasis, which referred to the oasis of Al Ain where the hospital is located, the name was changed to Kanad Hospital, in order to honour the Kennedys. “The locals have always called us Mustashfa Kanad, and so this change actually aligned the official name of the facility to what it was always known,” Dr Fincher said.

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The hospital is today managed by True Sojourners, a non-profit organisation which took over operations in 2020. Image Credit: Supplied

The hospital is today managed by True Sojourners, a non-profit organisation which took over operations in 2020 from another organisation that had managed it since 2006, Cure International. It boasts 700 staff members and 78 physicians, and has seen the birth of more than 121,000 babies. An estimated 230,000 outpatients pass through its doors every year.

Honoured founders

Drs Pat and Marian, Abu Dhabi’s medical pioneers who viewed helping the community as a calling from God, had moved back to the States in 1975. But their children, two of whom became doctors themselves, retain a strong bond with Kanad Hospital. While they have visited through the years at different junctions, Scott is still on the board of trustees for the facility.

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Further expansions were completed in 2015, and a brand new majlis was added the same year. Image Credit: Supplied

Dr Pat passed away in 2000 at the age of 81, and was posthumously awarded the Hamdan Award for Honouring Individuals Working in the Field of Medicine and Health, along with his wife. Dr Marian also received an Abu Dhabi Award in its inaugural edition in 2005, before passing away peacefully at her California home in 2008, aged 84.

There are also other long-serving hospital staff who are fondly remembered today. They include Maria Myer, a nurse who worked with the Kennedys in the earlier years, Dr Larry Liddle, the hospital’s longest-serving physician, and Dr Ericsson, the hospital’s first general surgeon who joined in 1976.

Place of comfort

While it offers care in many more specialities, including internal medicine, urology and ENT, Kanad Hospital is mainly referred to as the leading maternity hospital in Al Ain, with one of the lowest rates of C-section births in the UAE.

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Local authorities have also renamed the two roads leading to the hospital as Al Shifa, meaning ‘healing’, and Al Umoumah, which stands for ‘motherhood’. Image Credit: Supplied

Today, more than six decades after its launch, residents visiting Al Ain still find comfort in its rich legacy. Local authorities have also renamed the two roads leading to the hospital as Al Shifa, meaning ‘healing’, and Al Umoumah, which stands for ‘motherhood’.

“For many of us, like Drs Pat and Marian, Al Ain is home. I myself came here from the States in 2009, and have stayed on. Last year, we saw patients from 170 nationalities, and being here at Kanad feels like we get a snapshot of the world while taste true Emirati warmth,” Dr Fincher added.