Thirty-six years ago, an Indian immigrant was applying for a fellowship in the top Allergy-Immunology program in the nation at Wilford Hall Medical Center. Following the interview, a nurse revealed to the interviewee as she exited, “Honey, it was good of you to apply, but you’re not going to get this position.”

Shocked, the young doctor asked why, and was told that there had never before been a female nor foreigner in the program.

Incensed and motivated, the 33-year-old physician returned to Omaha, Nebraska and told her husband that she was qualified and had the experience to succeed in the program. She persisted and repeatedly called Dr. Robert Jacobs, the chairman who conducted the interview. Ultimately, she became the first woman accepted into this Air Force Fellowship. She broke the barrier and set the bar; today the program is dominated by women.

That immigrant was Ret. USAF Lt. Col. and Flight Surgeon Raiqua S. Arastu, M.D., who died suddenly of causes yet unknown on Dec. 10, 2019. 

Born Oct. 3, 1950, Raiqua Sultana was the 10th of 12 children during a time of high infant mortality: both the child before and after her died at birth or soon after. Though raised in an Islamic household of the Dawoodi Bohra sect, her father sent Raiqua to be educated by Irish nuns at Rosary Convent Higher Secondary School in Hyderabad, Deccan. India had only recently gained independence from the British Empire, so convent schools had the best English medium instruction in the young nation. The country, and thus Raiqua’s family, were split following independence, with restricted travel between Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. Raiqua’s father was not only a religious scholar and hafiz (one who recites the Holy Quran from memory), but also a hakim, or physician of Unani (Perso-Arabic) and herbal medicine.

Raiqua’s conviction was evident from an early age. Upon the death of her father when she was 16, her paternal uncle attempted to take control of the family and arrange Raiqua’s marriage after high school. She protested knowing that her father was adamant about access to higher education for all his children, regardless of gender. She aspired to practice medicine like her father, older brother and sisters.

Ever the negotiator, Raiqua made a deal: she would engage the man presented by her uncle, under the condition that she be allowed to complete medical school prior to marriage. (In India, trade and professional schools directly followed high school without the undergraduate education common in the West). Two years into medical school, she received word that her fiancé was ready for marriage. She reminded her uncle of the agreement and refused to marry midway through school. The engagement was broken,

Raiqua completed her medical training at Osmania Medical College, graduating in the top 10 percent of her class and instead married Zaffer Arastu, who became her husband of 45 years. (She recently returned to Hyderabad to celebrate her 50th medical school reunion alongside colleagues now spread across the globe.)

The young couple emigrated to Canada where their daughter Eliza was born in 1977 and soon after, sent her to India to live with her paternal grandparents, allowing Zaffer to work and Raiqua to focus on her internship in pediatrics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She recalled being separated from her first-born as the most difficult years of her life.

(third from right) Dr. Raiqua Arastu poses for a photograph while enlisted in the United States Air Force.

Eliza returned from India as a toddler and the young family moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where I was born in 1980. Raiqua completed her training as a pediatrician at Creighton University and joined the United States Air Force taking her first assignment at Offutt Air Base. She would later be awarded a Medal of Commendation in 1983.

Following her Allergy-Immunology Fellowship, the family was transferred to Phoenix. Raiqua was stationed at Luke Air Force Base where her second son Ali was born in 1985. She completed her training in aerospace and battlefield medicine the following year.

The family always considered San Antonio home. They moved back as Raiqua ended her active duty and transitioned into the Air Force Reserves in August of 2001. While serving as a reservist, she established a bustling private practice at Live Oak Allergy & Asthma Clinic and later expanded to a second location conducting numerous research trials while staying active in academia.

She reveled in fashion, was an avid skier and explored her world by traveling constantly with family and friends. Raiqua served as a mentor to countless physicians, young men and women, the Muslim community, as well as her large family that called on her regularly for counsel, medical advice and support. Colleagues, friends, and staff shared that she was their confidante, someone they could always count on to listen and advise without judgment. She lives on as a dynamic icon who served country, family, and community through medicine, love, and justice.

The Arastu Family with Dr. Raiqua Arastu center.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, former City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Chief Diplomat Shahrzad Dowlatshahi, Father David Garcia, and Symphony Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing were among hundreds of other friends, family, patients, colleagues and neighbors who attended the Dec. 11 services at Sunset Memorial Park. Members of the Agarita Chamber Ensemble played stirring and mournful classical movements to welcome guests on the cold, foggy morning. The string trio then played “Still a Queen (In My End Is My Beginning)” and Franz Schubert’s cyclical Andante from String Quartet in A minor, Op. 29 “Rosamunde” during the burial. 

A three-volley salute followed the playing of taps by a bugler. The honor guard folded a U.S. flag over Raiqua’s coffin before presenting it to Zaffer on behalf of the President and the nation. A young soldier revealed three shells in his white-gloved hand. Turning them over to me, he said: “These shells represent the values embodied by Colonel Arastu: duty, honor, and service.” 

Indeed, she exemplified these values in each and every aspect of her life. 

Dr. Raiqua Sultana Arastu is survived by her husband, Zaffer, three children; Alefiya (Eliza) of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Suhail of San Antonio, and Ali of Philadelphia, and six grandchildren; Sarrah, Danyal, Mikael, Rahil, Mariya and Seher. Her son-in-law Dr. Mufaddal Ghadiali and daughter-in-law, Dr. Sanaa Somalya Arastu along with Raiqua’s siblings and kin across five continents recognize the incredible path she paved, ever leading tirelessly by example.

Raiqua loved music and believed in the power of education, especially for the underserved. Gifts in her honor can be made to support the Musical Sprouts program at Musical Bridges Around the World.

Suhail Arastu

Suhail Arastu

Raised in San Antonio, Suhail Arastu was away for a decade and then boomeranged home in 2008. He now works in advancement for Musical Bridges Around the World and is the Mayor’s appointee to the Public...