Master’s = adventure in Qatar for new graduate

March 02, 2015 / by / 0 Comment

By Janie Magruder
GCU Today Magazine

There are no tiny patients born too early for their own good, no new mothers wrung out with worry over their babies’ ragged breaths, no nurses rushing to respond to jarring alarms in Marla Booker’s new workplace.

In fact, the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Sidra Medical and Research Center, which Booker has been hired to help staff and run, isn’t open yet. But there’s still plenty for this Grand Canyon University alumna to do in a place that could not be more different from where she spent her entire adult life, as a wife, mother, nurse and hospital administrator.


Less than a month after graduating last fall from GCU, Marla Booker moved to Doha, Qatar, joining health professionals from around the world who are building a new hospital for women and children. (Photo by Hassan Sheikh, Sidra Medical and Research Center)

In November, not 30 days after walking across the GCU Arena stage to accept her diploma for a master’s degree in health care administration, Booker moved 6,600 miles from her longtime home in Connecticut to Qatar, a small, oil-rich nation on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Ending a 25-year career at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, she is helping create a state-of-the-art hospital for women and children in the capital city of Doha.

It was a bold move for anyone but especially for someone who, at age 47, never had traveled outside North America other than on a backpacking excursion to Thailand six years ago.

“That trip was the beginning of my realization there is so much out there I have not been exposed to that I really would like my kids to explore,” she said. “I wanted to open up the world to them.”

And Booker wanted to use her new degree. So, three days after Christmas Day, Marla, her husband, Jason, and three of their four children, Evan, 16, and 14-year-old twins, Ally and Liam, relocated to Qatar, the richest country in the world, according to Forbes. Son Kyle, 17, joined them in early February, days after meeting criteria for an early high school graduation.

The family lives in a fully furnished, four-bedroom villa in a compound for Sidra employees, most of whom are from Australia and the United Kingdom. The Bookers are getting to know their new homeland, basking at the beach in early spring temperatures 30 degrees warmer than back home and marveling at the bustle of new construction. They’ve even ridden camels.

Such an adventure never would have been possible without GCU.

Finding a global purpose

Booker’s nursing degree from the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, Conn., gave her sufficient knowledge and skills to rise in her career over two decades, from nurse to assistant nurse manager to nurse manager to NICU director. But as health care began to change with technological advancements, access and population growth, Booker knew she also needed to keep pace with innovation.

Marla Booker graduated from GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions in October. (Photo by Darryl Webb)

Marla Booker graduated from GCU’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions in October. (Photo by Darryl Webb)

An Internet search led her to GCU’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions and an online degree that would accommodate her life and courses that would quench her thirst for learning. Booker enrolled for the fall semester in 2012 and studied hard for two years, taking only one two-week break.

“I felt the need to be prepared to understand and face the challenges of the future, and I felt this degree would open the door for opportunities within health care,” she said.

Booker was right: Nine months into her program, she was contacted by a recruiter regarding the Sidra position, which required a master’s degree. About a year later, after talking with her family and thoroughly investigating the schools, housing, culture and, well, life in Doha, she accepted the job. Her family was on board, as was the U.S. Secretary of State’s office and the Qatari embassy, which had to sign off on her degree and background check.

But there was something special Booker wanted to do before heading east and that was go west, so she came to Phoenix in October to walk with her classmates at commencement.

Now that she has started her job, Booker is discovering the applicability of those GCU courses, in which she studied emerging healthcare delivery models, the industry’s policies, economics, legal and ethical principles, workforce management, leadership styles, business analyses and more.

“It’s given me a very global perspective of health care and some very good basics in change theory, leadership models, the economics foundations,” Booker said. “I’d say I use every day a bit of every course that I took through GCU. For example, we looked at international health care, which allowed me to get a big-picture glimpse at developing a whole new health-care model here.”

She literally is helping build the hospital from the ground up, Skyping with nurses around the world (190 whom eventually will be hired by Sidra into the NICU and brought to Doha) and ironing out the differences in a global management team whose members possess myriad perspectives on health care.

“When you think about building a hospital, you have to think about the population you’re going to serve, the equipment you’re going to need, the team members you want to hire, the infrastructure you need to have,” she said. “People from different areas of the world all believe they do the best, the right thing. So a lot of what we’re doing now is coming together to arrive at the best practices internationally and integrating them into our hospital.”

Finding their place in a foreign land

The work week in Doha is Sunday through Thursday, and the day begins early, at sunrise. Booker and her husband, part of a Sidra team establishing the center’s physical therapy department, walk outside their home in a gated compound to catch a bus to work. The couple arrives at work at about 7 a.m. and is back home in time to have dinner with their children, something that rarely happened in Connecticut because of their schedules. They often swim together in a compound pool or go to the gym.

Sidra provides a stipend not only for the family’s housing but also for the Booker children to attend a private school, Compass International. The school offers a rigorous curriculum, an ultramodern library with new computers and after-school activities such as soccer, boating and swimming. The Booker children have access to field trips that their mother could have only dreamed of, to mystical places such as Tanzania and Turkey, for example.

Qatar has many malls, with familiar stores such as Sephora and Gap, and markets, where the Bookers stock up on Coffee-mate and Eggo waffles. The malls are alongside traditional markets, or souqs, where goods have been traded for centuries.

Doha parks and beaches are beautiful, and the Bookers have jumped into Qatari culture. They attended a color run in January, when participants wore all white clothing and were doused with colored paint by organizers. And they’ve held falcons, which are very much part of Qatari culture.

“When I started talking about doing this, I got many different reactions from people. But now that we’re here, you meet other like people who have transported their whole families or still have families back in the U.S., among other countries, and you suddenly feel like this is the norm, that what you’re doing is normal,” she said.

One thing that, for Booker, has taken a little getting used to is seeing the different ways that people dress, from black and white robes to colorful abayas, outer robes worn by local and Muslim women. It is culturally sensitive for women to not show their knees and elbows in public, but in the Bookers’ compound and similar places the restrictions are relaxed, and shorts and bathing suits by the pool are the norm.

The heat will be an adjustment, too, but as temperatures spike to 115 degrees in July and the Booker children get out of school, the family will take a multiweek “annual leave,” a Qatari custom. They most likely will return to the U.S. to visit family and friends. Before that, however, a two-week spring break-like trip most likely will include a visit to Sri Lanka, 2,300 miles to the southeast near the tip of India.

“I never thought in a million years that I would be here, looking at these international places for travel,” she said. “But here I am.”

About Qatar

This sovereign Arab state in southwestern Asia is nearly surrounded by the Persian Gulf. Qatar’s population, which has almost tripled in 10 years, is estimated at 2.1 million with a majority living in the capital city of Doha. Arabic is the official language, but English is commonly used as a second language. Qatar’s priorities, according to its emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, are to advance health care and education and build infrastructure in preparation for hosting the 2022 World Cup. Falconry is a popular hobby in Qatar. The birds are allowed to travel in the cabins of many Middle Eastern airlines, usually hooded and tethered to their handlers’ gloves.


Contact Janie Magruder at 602-639-8018 or [email protected].

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