What exactly is art; who defines it; who makes it, and where in Atlanta do poets, thespians, and artists congregate and create? We’ll use this space to catch up with a few for a few…some you may know; others we hope you’ll be pleased to make their acquaintance.

Dhaval Desai is one of the inspirations for this column in understanding how he used art to navigate the pandemic. In the true sense of “physician heal thyself,” Desai’s memoir, Burning Out on the COVID Front Lines: A Doctor’s Memoir of Fatherhood, Race and Perseverance in the Pandemic, grew into a prescription for what ailed. During the pandemic, Desai shared his expertise as a healthcare professional and the ups and downs of his experience (similar to us all) as a human being. So, it’s not surprising that if he had to choose a different career, he’d be a teacher. He briefly taught high school before attending medical school and found many parallels between teachers and healthcare workers. When Desai is not practicing medicine or spending time with his family, you might find him around Ponce City Market or Sandy Springs exercising, writing…or teaching.

What was your journey from physician to author—how and why did you decide to write Burning Out on the COVID Front Lines?

As an attending physician, I am passionate about the patient and human experience. I have a B.A. in Economics and a minor in Spanish, so in college, I learned to write and think critically. And during the pandemic, my life, like all of our lives, was disrupted—my responsibilities between work and home often collided. So, I began to reflect and write about my experiences as a physician and patient, contemplating what we could do better in healthcare. With inspiration from books by physicians, like In Shock by Rana Awdish (which changed me for the better) and encouragement from a supportive literary agent, my journey to writing my memoir began.  

How did art/writing help you move toward healing?

Truthfully, during the first year of the pandemic, I struggled on so many levels and survived day-to-day putting out fires that I didn’t write like the first year of the pandemic. I didn’t know how to displace all of what I was feeling and going through. It was isolating. 

When I began sharing my medical knowledge and healthcare advice in various media outlets (online, print, radio, etc.), it was a wake-up call for me that I had a voice that needed to be heard. I found a greater purpose than even serving on the frontline. I enjoyed it. I found a more profound mission in sharing stories about burnout, navigating leadership crises, and balancing my time with my family and work. 

I saw colleagues around with similar stressors, and I realized if this were going on in my local circles, it was going on elsewhere, too. After that epiphany, writing became cathartic. All of this gave me an aerial and longitudinal view of what my path looked like, and soon, minor issues that I would often catastrophize really felt like “minor issues.” My mind could focus on other things than the daily grind. It was such a critical step in healing.

Now that the isolation of the pandemic is behind us, so to speak, what keeps you up at night?

I often think about what our healthcare system will look like in a few years. I realize that healthcare around the country is so disrupted: the system and its workers are constantly asked to do more with less. On a bigger scale, I worry that physicians and the frontline team have so many competing priorities that they need more time, energy, and morale to effectively navigate, care, and advocate for their patients.

Your interview in Authority Magazine reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” What advice would you give to medical professionals—and anyone customer-facing—on the art of making people feel seen and heard?

My primary advice will always be to BE KIND.   No matter how complex the system you work in is or the challenges coming your way, there is such a vulnerability felt by the people you serve. Knowing you have made someone feel heard, given hope, and navigated them in the right direction is why we do this. As healthcare professionals, our impact on our patients is palpable and resonates. You may not be able to solve everything, but a smile, compassion, and kindness go a long way.

Based on the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than one in five U.S. adults experience issues that include depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, etc. Your memoir addresses burnout and the stigma attached to mental health issues healthcare workers sometimes experience. How can we create safer spaces to normalize conversations and acceptance around mental health and wellbeing? 

I believe the primary way to make mental health more accepted and normalized in culture is to talk about it. This means checking in with each other and listening to each other, sharing our own stories, and being vulnerable. Sometimes, it’s good to hear what others are going through or have been through to know it’s okay to “not be okay.” That’s one of the reasons that I’m sharing my story. I feel sometimes my calm nature is misleading, and others may think, “This guy has it all together.” That is far from the truth. I’m in a better place than before and hoping my real-life story will help others. I hope my vulnerability will help others share their stories and cascade to normalize these conversations.

Dr. Dhaval Desai’s Take 5 Playlist

Teri Elam is a poet, screenwriter, and storyteller who believes there’s an art to most things. She’s exploring what art means to creators in and around Atlanta.