Don’t reply right away to messages or statements that make you angry. Sleep on your response and see how you feel the next day. As I have taken on more leadership roles, I receive a lot of accusatory emails. I have learned that it’s unproductive to respond defensively. Instead, I take time to think and consider the sender’s point of view. Then, a day or two after receiving the correspondence, I often call the sender for a conversation, sending the message that I’m genuinely interested in what they have to say and making them more receptive to what I have to say.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Alex Jahangir.
Dr. Alex Jahangir is the author of new book HOT SPOT: A Doctor’s Diary From the Pandemic. He is an orthopedic trauma surgeon, is vice-chair of Orthopedic Surgery and professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Medicine, and Health Policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Dr. Jahangir was named to the Metro Nashville Board of Health in 2017. He served as head of the Metro Nashville COVID-19 Task Force for the entire two years of the Task Force’s existence.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I immigrated to Nashville, Tennessee from war-torn Iran when I was six years old, arriving with my mother, father and younger brother and joining other family members who also were escaping authoritarian rule. Nashville institutions took care of my family and me. This includes the health department, where we got check-ups and shots. I was educated in Nashville public schools, went to undergrad at George Washington University, medical school and residency at The University of Tennessee, did my orthopedic trauma surgery fellowship in Minneapolis, and then returned to take a position at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, located in the community that gave my family and me so much after we fled Iran.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
As a high school graduation gift, I was given The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I had no idea when I opened it the many times over the next decades I would think about and recall its lessons. The primary one is to always pursue your dreams. But when pursing your dream remember that failure is inevitable and that you must not fear this failure. The key to success is to keep pushing forward and learn from your failures and never to give up. Another important lesson of the book is that, in striving for your dreams, live in and enjoy the current moment as well.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I graduated medical school and began my internship, I remember thinking “I finally have made it. I am the doctor. I know it all and will lead my medical team to save every patient every time!” This is the funny part.
The scary part is that on the second day of internship, I took my first night of call in the ICU and was completely overwhelmed by the complexity and by how ill my patients were. Fortunately, the ICU was filled with many more experienced and seasoned people than I was, specifically the nurses and the respiratory therapists who had been doing the work for decades. My father, also a doctor, had given me some great advice right before I started as an intern: Always remember that these experts know so much more than you ever will. If you respect them, ask them for help, and listen to their advice, the patients will do far better than if you assume you know it all. Thanks to many amazing nurses during my intern year, I became a better doctor; more importantly, patients recovered and healed. Even today, 20 years after graduating medical school and performing thousands of surgeries, I always ask my fellow teammates for their opinions and encourage the future doctors I am training to do the same.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
A major theme of Hot Spot is leaving no one behind in our society to fend for themselves. This is especially crucial when it comes to major public health crises, but I would argue it’s critical across all facets of the nonprofit, civic and private sectors. We can protect and improve the lives of the most vulnerable among us if we simply make it our priority. If we do, we will not only better their lives, we’ll better everyone’s lives. As I say in the book, we are all in the same boat and each of us has the capacity to right the boat or capsize it.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
There is the story of how my work as head of the Nashville COVID-19 Task Force impacted my own family and what it says about the universal experience we all had during the pandemic.
The toll our all-COVID-all-the-time life was taking on our daughters finally hit home on the day they collapsed over babysitters and bats. Given that Helen and I both had jobs, we always had babysitters for the girls. But we were able to establish continuity in their lives and keep disruption to a minimum thanks to their grandmother Mamani, who was always willing to take care of her granddaughters if our regular babysitter got sick or went on vacation. Once the pandemic hit, two things happened: We cut ourselves off from Mamani to protect her, and our regular babysitter decided to back away from us, rightly, in order to protect her own family. Suddenly, we were cobbling together babysitters to watch the girls for chunks of time here and there so Helen could keep her appointments with her patients.
One day, not long after April 15, we went a new babysitter too far. Helen told the girls someone they didn’t know well would be staying with them while she went to work. Almost as if on cue, the three of them dropped to the floor and began to wail and flail. It was as if our five-, seven-, and nine-year-old children had reverted to their two-year-old selves in an instant. What they were wailing about was bats. “Who eats a bat?!” They cried. “Who does that?! Why would someone eat a bat?!” It quickly dawned on us that they were talking about Patient Zero, the person in a market in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China who had supposedly been exposed to or even dined on a bat, fallen ill, and started the viral chain reaction that would eventually separate our daughters from their grandparents, their school friends, their teachers, and their neighborhood pals, and would foist upon them a string of random caregivers brought in to replace the ones who were now afraid of the Jahangir family. It could all have been so easily avoided if, they reasoned, one person in one city thousands of miles away just had sense enough to order fish or chicken off the menu instead of bat. Who would ever want to eat a bat anyway?
Helen and I could only hold them while they let it all out. As I cradled my daughters, I remember thinking there were a lot of adults out there feeling exactly the same way my children did.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
Six months before I was appointed head of Nashville’s COVID-19 Task Force, my mother-in-law‘s father passed away. He had died in the U.K. and I had never met him. Afterwards, she shared with me letters he had written during World War II while serving as a pilot. Immediately, I heard his voice and felt a bond with this man I had never met. When Covid reached Nashville, my daughters were 5, 6 and 8 years old. I erroneously assumed the pandemic would be over in a few months and they would never remember it. I wanted them to understand what it had been like. So I began keeping a journal of my day-to-day experiences leading the task force.
These journal entries were pretty basic, recording the number of cases, the number of deaths, the problems we’d faced on a certain day, and how we approached them. Almost a year into to the pandemic, I read through my notes and was overwhelmed by what I’d lived through, as well as what my city and country had lived through.
I also could see common threads running through the entries, such as our attempts to address health disparities, the crucial role of Black leadership, my own sense of “otherness” as an immigrant — all of it unfolding in a political climate that took the simplest acts, such as whether or not to wear a mask, to a boiling point. I realized these stories were universal, not just an account that would mean something someday to my children. That’s what inspired me to turn my experiences into a book.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
All of our policies and practices were carefully considered to help as many Nashvillians as possible, particularly vulnerable people who tend to suffer the most in any crisis. But when I think of specific people, I think of the employees of the Nashville Health Department, 80 percent of whom are women. One of the many jaw-dropping stories that runs through the book is of the Health Department’s Director, who was credibly accused of using his power to intimidate and belittle women on his team. My fellow members of the board of health and I were faced with a choice: give this director — a talented professional in a tough position whose expertise we desperately needed as the pandemic raged — a second chance or force him to step down. We chose to stand up for the women of the department and force his resignation.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- We have become a nation of bullies and it must stop. We need to end our collective, kneejerk instinct to vilify people we disagree with and offer the benefit of the doubt — and a little old-fashioned kindness instead. Politicians who traffic in conspiracy theories and demonize “the other” are largely responsible for our current poisonous dialogue and should accept responsibility for reversing course.
- Our nation has always vacillated between our ethos of rugged individualism and concern for the collective good. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of rugged individualism, which now looks like plain old selfishness. We care too much about our own “rights” without stopping to consider whether what we demand for ourselves or our family could have a negative impact on someone else or their family. We need to return to putting others ahead of self again. If everyone does this, then everyone will be ok.
- We need to focus on ending health inequity and prioritize health justice. This needs to happen at the federal level, but every city should tackle this as well. The pandemic brought health inequity into sharp relief, and it isn’t just present in the realm of infectious disease. People living in poorer communities have poorer health outcomes, a phenomenon known as the social determinants of health. We can and should do something about this. Everyone deserves quality healthcare.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, true leadership means stepping up to help achieve the greater good — which translates as the best outcome for the greatest number of people.
I learned many leadership lessons during this experience. Here are a few:
- Adversity rather than ease defines real leaders;
- Those who would presume to step up must put the needs of others above their own and band together to address them;
- The best leaders have the courage of their convictions and stay the course, even in the face of withering criticism;
- These leaders however also are willing to change course, despite their pride, when shown a better way;
- They freely admit their mistakes and keep trying to do their best;
- Most important of all, they recognize the work of leading is never done. There will always be new challenges that require new solutions and fresh resolve…. The road never ends.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Imposter syndrome is real. Anyone with some level of introspection experiences it. Remember you belong at the table because of your hard work and your expertise. I got over my worst bout of imposter syndrome in my role as head of the Task Force when dealing with members of the Nashville business community, many of them high-powered CEOs in the tourism industry. They were understandably upset that their hotels and venues had been shut down by our emergency declarations and initially tried to take it out on me. I was not used to interacting with C-Suite executives and was intimidated at first. But once I realized they were genuinely scared and worried for their teams, I became more assertive because I knew I could help. We negotiated reasonable accommodations for these companies that successfully balanced public and private interests.
- Don’t reply right away to messages or statements that make you angry. Sleep on your response and see how you feel the next day. As I have taken on more leadership roles, I receive a lot of accusatory emails. I have learned that it’s unproductive to respond defensively. Instead, I take time to think and consider the sender’s point of view. Then, a day or two after receiving the correspondence, I often call the sender for a conversation, sending the message that I’m genuinely interested in what they have to say and making them more receptive to what I have to say.
- Always ask Why. Why does it have to be this way or why did someone react a certain way. I remember when vaccines were first available, I was at a vaccine event in North Nashville, a part of town that was a majority-minority community. We were quickly vaccinating the long line of people who had come that morning, when suddenly the line stopped moving. An African American woman in her late 60s had come to the event with her family, but when her turn came to get vaccinated, she refused. We could have simply moved her along, but I asked her why she had waited in line this entire time, and now was refusing. I wanted to know her “why”. She explained that her hesitancy was because she didn’t trust “mainstream” medicine because of how they treated “people like her” when she was growing up. This took me aback but as we started to chat I could see her processing our discussion as I addressed her concerns and questions about the vaccine. She ultimately agreed to get the jab. If we don’t ask the why, we will never know if we can move someone to a better decision.
- Always make sure to take care of yourself and your family. No one ever dies saying they wish they had worked more. I have seen friends burn out, commit suicide or get ill and die prematurely. I have seen friends whose kids don’t know them because they work too much or chase dreams and neglect home. I try to always remember that and place my wife, my daughters and my extended family first. Doing so is also the best way I know of to take care of my own mental health.
- Don’t take yourself so seriously. Life is too short to worry about being perfect, which is an unattainable goal anyway. During my years as a surgeon and leader, I have learned I have to get out there and do my best every day, and not let the fact that I’ll likely make mistakes along the way stop me. I’ve also learned to laugh at myself. It’s the best way to show both humility and humanity. And finally, I’ve become better and better at just saying I’m sorry. Most people don’t expect you to be perfect. But they do expect you to own your mistakes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t believe the hype.” As a trauma surgeon and subsequently as head of the Task Force, it was very easy to get caught up in the hype of being the person in charge who supposedly has all the answers. People give you praise and accolades regularly. But taking these compliments too seriously leads to arrogance and a presumption that you’re always right. True success and true leadership requires humility and the willingness to listen and accept that you could be wrong. Displays of arrogance will lead to people declining to work with you. It may also lead to people getting hurt whether you’re in the operating room or leading a pandemic. So no matter what recognition and authority I am given, I try to remember to never believe the hype and to stay humble.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
President Barack Obama. He overcame adversity as a child and young adult and strove to help every community in which he lived. He persisted in taking what he believed to be the correct path to improve the lives of people in spite of intense criticism. And he did it with a level of grace and dignity I truly admire. Finally, he was able to achieve all of this while always being a good spouse and father to his daughters despite his extremely important responsibilities and time restraints. As a husband and father to three daughters, I admire how he did it and try to emulate him.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Everyone is welcome to follow me and my latest work on my website, alexjahangir.com, or on social media:
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you so much for giving me a platform for discussing my book Hot Spot, my work, and my point of view on so many critical topics. I truly appreciate the opportunity.
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Dr Alex Jahangir Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.