Battling asthma while growing up in Beaver Falls, Sheldon Stewart Smith still wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and join the military. Instead, he embraced a new fight to help liberate Blacks all over the world while using his medical degree as a perfusionist and respiratory therapist. He is now a highly sought-after doctor on the frontlines battling COVID-19 in one of the nation’s biggest hotspots — Cleveland Clinic/Fort Lauderdale-Miami.
As the youngest of three children born to Army 2nd Lt. Calvin Smith and Betty Cross (Stratton) Smith, Sheldon Stewart Smith — nicknamed “BuBu” and now known as Dr. Ahmses SaRa Maat — grew up aspiring to become a military hero, much like his father, who was a WWII veteran in the African American flying regiment known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Childhood disability empowered and unknowingly helped steer his career path
Maat reflected on how growing up with chronic asthma impacted his life as a teen navigating life as a young adult, trying to avoid peer pressure.
“It was tough because kids can be mean. Along with the asthma, I also suffered skin rashes. I’d get teased by the boys, but even worse — my girlfriends would shy away, once the skin disorder took effect,” he sadly recalled. “I remember lying in bed praying to God for the ability to just breath normally like everyone else.”
Living with asthma as a child, not only hindered Maat’s aspirations for early athletic prowess, but after high school graduation, a failed military physical exam, his chances to volunteer for the Air Force in efforts to follow his dad’s and older brother’s military-based footsteps were not a reality. His older brother, Newt Smith II, is a retired Air Force officer. In May 2018, a former veterans park in Beaver Falls was officially re-named the Lt. Calvin Smith Tuskegee Airman Veterans Park.
Void of clear-cut career goals after graduating from Beaver Falls High School in 1977, Maat, who never considered himself a committed academician in high school, recalled his 1.47 GPA his senior year, when he needed a 1.5 GPA to graduate. Having been taught to play chess by his father, he challenged the high school’s woodshop teacher to a game. If he wins, he graduates high school. If he loses, he repeats another year. Apparently, Dad’s chess lessons paid off.
Following his early training at Community College of Beaver County and Community College of Allegheny County, Maat initially worked as a respiratory therapist at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. He quickly developed star-quality studying patterns while attending both CCBC and CCAC and was promoted to supervisor at AGH — a stark contrast from his academic performance in high school.
Studying and practicing in Atlanta resulted in a bachelor’s degree in respiratory care from Georgia State University and post-bachelor’s degree in perfusion technology from Northeastern University in Boston. He was able to practice his newly gained experience while working at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, one of the world’s leading Level 1 trauma centers.
While studying and focusing on African spirituality and physics, he attained his Ph.D. in 2000 from the Metaphysical Institute of Higher Learning in San Bernardino, California.
Fast-forward to winter 2020, amid the coronavirus outbreak, Maat finds himself in an unprecedented battlefield — on the frontlines of America’s first pandemic in 100 years as a medical professional treating patients suffering from chronic respiratory deficiencies.
With more than 40 years of experience and training as a respiratory therapist, and later as a perfusionist, Maat is a highly sought-after traveling medical practitioner. He’s currently deployed at Cleveland Clinic/Fort Lauderdale-Miami, helping to counter Florida’s recent spike in coronavirus cases and deaths.
Helping stem COVID-19’s growing rates among Blacks
“While coronavirus patients typically display symptoms requiring oxygen support with symptoms such as chest pains, shortness of breath and muscle aches, the use of external respirators and ventilators are typical devices used to treat respiratory deficiencies,” Maat said.
His perfusionist training requires expertise in administering artificial lungs, hearts and kidneys used during the replacement process of heart-lung bypass surgeries.
“My role as a perfusionist is to keep the patient alive during the replacement of organs, kidneys, lungs, hearts, during the entire operation. Where advanced cardio life-support ends, perfusion life-support begins,” he explained.
Amid current cases of COVID-19 cases rising throughout the United States with disproportionate numbers impacting African Americans, Maat knows and understands how valuable his knowledge, experience and overall skill sets are during this pandemic.
But the real question that must be answered is why the African American community has suffered more than any other group during the pandemic?
Maat noted the disparaging numbers affecting people of color as the ones with generally lower immune systems.
“Those are the ones suffering from diabetes, hypertension and obesity. It’s also a fact that too often, Black folks don’t eat lots of vegetables and have lived in environments with high toxins like lead-based paints. Although the larger cause is systemic racism and oppression,” he said. “It exists all throughout the globe, including America, and the medical industry, unfortunately.”
“Systemically, as a respiratory therapist or clinical perfusionist, I tend to see a system geared toward a certain population facing more social ills. I want to make the world a better place, doing what I do — and my non-African peers they see what’s going on, and they too, want to do the right thing,” he added.
Living in a sports-related environment was challenging
Growing up in sports-enthused western Pennsylvania — specifically in Beaver Falls — he wanted to be the next sports star.
“Like all the kids in my 15th Street neighborhood, I wanted to play football, basketball and baseball — and become the next Joe Willie Namath, our hometown hero and Super Bowl III quarterback,” Maat said.
“Hoops and football couldn’t work for me, but I enjoyed playing baseball. It didn’t demand the intense running like basketball, and it wasn’t dirty and dusty like football. I always had to concern myself with staying healthy at all times — so I always carried my inhaler,” he noted.
In retrospect, Maat connected his asthma woes with environmental impacts. He lived next door to the now-razed Armstrong Cork plant, which consistently emitted smokey fumes and white, ashy particles from its factory walls. He also lived with two cigarette-smoking parents.
By the time he reached age 12, with the influence of a childhood neighbor, Richard “Dicky” Morris, Maat started taking karate lessons from the now infamous Beaver County School of the Oriental Arts of Self-Defense, headed by the family of Willy and Roy Wetzel, one of the nation’s first karate instructional schools, in Beaver Falls and later, Rochester. In March 1975, the school closed after a much-reported family battle between son Roy and father Willy.
Maat said his karate and judo training tremendously impacted his breathing patterns and primarily helped him to overcome childhood asthma.
With a growing reputation of being an incredibly skilled martial artist throughout Beaver County, Maat was also able to leave behind unfavorable experiences of being bullied by larger upper classmates while in high school.
He credits his mother and godmother, Marian Jane Taylor, for tending to his crisis situations as a youngster — and later ensuring that he was proficient at self-care, even at a young age.
“I was always a mama’s boy,” he admitted. “She was fully committed to my ailment, and would often take off work early to ensure my medical needs were met. Self-care is essential to my health and has always been a part of my proactive healthy lifestyle.”
Career and family development
While living in Atlanta, he joined an anti-KKK protest march in Forsyth County, Ga., in 1987, led by the late Rev. Hosea Williams, one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) colleagues, along with SCLC head, the Rev. Joseph Lowery.
“In the late 1980s when South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela was released from prison, that sparked my interest in the liberation of Black people all over the world and to live a more revolutionary lifestyle,” he said.
He changed his name, explaining, “It’s similar to when Lew Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The reason for the name-change was based on my culture. I was Sheldon X in 1992 as a member of the Nation of Islam, and in October 1995, I led a medical brigade from L.A. to Washington, D.C., to be a part of the ‘Million Man March.’”
Maat is married to Akua Two Hawk Maat, sharing a blended family including four adult children: Alexia, Malika, Mnsa and GyeNyame Maat.
Although his high school years were somewhat challenging, Maat said within his soul, he pridefully maintains the old Beaver Falls High School creed.
“Once a Tiger — always a Tiger,” he said, adding, “Still fighting.”
Timothy Cox is a Beaver Falls native who graduated with a journalism degree from Point Park University. He also attended Slippery Rock University and CCBC. He formerly worked with Gannett, Scripps-Howard and currently freelances with Beaver County Times, Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Augusta Chronicle and publications in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Washington, Pa., and Washington, D.C.
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