“You are a special guest of our country,” a customs official informs Pam Fulmer, a lifelong Independence resident, upon her recent arrival at the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she was on a mission to train 42 Saudi mammography technologists how to detect early signs of breast cancer.
What made the 1970 Truman High School graduate a special guest, Pam says, was that the Saudi government – which no longer issues tourist visas – invited her and San Diego resident Louise Miller into the Muslim country last month to conduct an early cancer detection program in cooperation with the Ministry of Health Care for Saudi Arabia, General Electric and the Medical Technology Management Institute.
“Breast cancer is such a deadly disease internationally, and for Saudi Arabia, it is the leading cause of death in women … and has increased from 19 percent in the early '70s to 29 percent (today),” says Pam, a self-employed radiologist technician registered in mammography, radiology and quality control.
With the Saudi government pushing to start an early detection program, “We were called upon to go over and teach 'good positioning' for mammography technologists,” says Pam, a 1972 graduate of the School of Radiology Technology at the Independence Sanitarium and Hospital. She also has a bachelor's degree in health management from Ottawa (Kan.) University.
“There are many (Saudi) hospitals that have equipment,” she says. “However, they don't all have the technologists trained to do it. So that is why the Ministry of Health wants to get all the (technologists) trained and the equipment to detect early breast cancer.”
Going into a Muslim country where women are second-class citizens, Pam did her homework well — learning the “dos and don'ts” for women. She knew she would be wearing a black abaya that covers her body from her neck to her feet. However, because Pam wasn't a Muslim, she would not have to wear a scarf or veil. She also knew all interaction between the sexes is prohibited, except at work or in the family. … “But in the business world, we had conversations.”
As for elevator protocol, “We could go up in an elevator with anyone who was not Arabic. But a Muslim woman could not go up with any man other than a relative,” she explains. “So we could go up with other people; however, there was an American man that got on an elevator with a Muslim woman, and the doorman came and physically pulled him out and said, 'You can't go up in the elevator with her because she is Muslim.' If I had gone up with a woman, it would have been fine.”
Never really feeling afraid or threatened, Pam recalls a “scary” on-the-street incident that left her feeling “apprehensive.” As she and her friend, Louise, were walking to dinner one evening at a nearby outdoor mall, Pam recalls a group of Muslim women shouted, “Cover your hair,” as they walked past them. That was the exception. While touring the royal palace, Pam remembers numerous women came by and welcomed them to their country. “So you have both ends of the people.”
Any surprises? Yes, but none as big as this: “Women don't do anything,” Pam says.“They go to the mall and they have women parties; at night, they stay at home.” Another surprise, she says, was that at a huge high-end shopping mall at Kingdom Tower, the third floor is reserved for women only. There, Pam explains, women can remove their abayas and show off their expensive clothes and jewelry hidden under their abayas.
At the conclusion of the intensive training, Pam says she was touched by what happened. After receiving their certificates, “They all wanted their picture taken – with their certificate – with Louise and I. They wanted to remember the education we had given them.”
As for any negative feelings Pam may have taken to Saudi Arabia, those feelings are no more.
“My feelings have changed,” she says. “My fear of going into the unknown and thinking there was going to be people who were going to treat us terribly has turned around to where we are planning several more trips into different areas in the Middle East. ... We have already been invited to Oman … probably in January or February.”
What changed her feelings, she says, is this: “We hear about the terrorists. I met people just like me. I met people who had families, who loved their children and wanted the best for (them). I met people who went to work, came home, had dinner, interacted with their kids, went to bed and started it all over. No different than you and me.”
In summation of her 10-plus-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Pam recalls boarding the plane in Chicago feeling as though she might never come back. She was scared and apprehensive because of what she heard on newscasts. But she returned home to her family with a new-found love for that area of the world.
“I want to go back. I want to see more and I want to train more mammography technologists, because the need is really there. It has opened a whole new world to me and I want to be a part of that world. ...I just feel like I (am) doing the right thing.”
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.