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How a Kindergarten Teacher Taught Me to Be a Better Doctor

6 minute read
Desai is a father, husband, son, and doctor. His commitment to fostering and advocating for humanity in medicine inspired him to write a personal narrative of his experience as a frontline physician during the COVID-19 pandemic, Burning Out on the Covid Front Lines: A Doctor’s Memoir of Fatherhood, Race, and Perseverance in the Pandemic

I always thought that if medicine didn’t work out, I would be a school teacher. In fact, before becoming a physician at a hospital, I worked as a high school teacher. I find that bonding and trust are an essential part of how we learn, a product of understanding and compassion that only teachers can understand. One needs more than communication skills to impart ideas and what we value in our learning institutions; a teacher, above all, needs heart. I know this as a leader of a healthcare team, a frontline worker, a clinician, and a mentor, but I also know this as a father of a rising second grader, my seven-year-old daughter Kaiya, who is just starting out in our school system. From this perch, particularly when it comes to the needs of my patients, I see a stark similarity between our country’s healthcare workforce and those who work in education.

Teachers or health professionals, frontline workers are committed to service: to educate students and to care for patients, respectively. Each requires enormous dedication and attention to specific needs. Both professions involve institutional cultures with competing priorities among their staffs. In each instance, workers must assimilate themselves into a system often strained to the tipping point, due to the increasing loss of highly trained personnel and a scarcity of resources.

Administrators, too, in each respective case, are faced with the challenge of how to align crucial tasks with mundane requirements that can take focus away from those who need it most, under conditions where time and staff are limited. Add to this to the COVID-19 pandemic and the social upheavals that followed, with disparate outcomes for the different populations being served in both education and healthcare. Patients with limited health literacy and resources would wait too long to seek medical attention when suffering from COVID-19, often self-treating at home or minimizing their symptoms, which ultimately led to higher morbidity. The subsequent COVID-19 surges also led to an entire generation of essential frontline staff—teachers, doctors, and nurses, among many other professions—leaving the profession with no clear sign of ever coming back.

Read More: Pandemics Don't Really End—They Echo

Truth be told, in my profession, I often ponder what the future of healthcare holds for its workers, and whether I can sustain the necessary compassion and positive leadership with all the chaos interrupting our workflows and system. I imagine that post-pandemic, educators and school administrators may be similarly affected. Since schools have reopened, a new generation has entered the workforce—in a considerably changed environment. But now is the time when those with passion and dedication are needed most.

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In April 2023, I had the privilege of helping select the Teacher of the Year award at my daughter’s elementary school. I jump at any opportunity to be in a classroom and converse with the teachers through interviews, not to critique but to observe and be aware.  The nominees were sharply engaged and deliberate; nothing felt rehearsed or staged. This is simply how they operate. I could’ve observed it all day.

One interview in particular, of a kindergarten teacher, almost made my jaw drop. Her control, poise, and ability to teach addition to a group of five and six year olds was impressive enough. Yet, her answer to one of the panel questions stunned me.

When asked, “What are the two characteristics of an effective teacher?” she answered directly, without pause.

“First, I think you have to love your students, and show them love every day. And second, you have to have a passion to teach.”

To say I was impressed is an understatement. The simple words—and the expert, poignant perspective they conveyed—struck me as an epiphany. It is clear that here, and in countless classrooms throughout the country, are dedicated teachers who remain passionate and purposeful about their work. They leave politics, drama, and private agendas at the door, and focus on the task at hand—to teach.

Speechless, I just smiled and stared for a moment. That instant, I substituted “doctor” for “teacher” in the question: What are the two characteristics of an effective ­­­­doctor?

Then came the answer: “First, I think you have to love your patients, and show them love every day. And second, you have to have passion to heal.” Simple, to the point—but a game-changer.

It’s often thought that physicians and healthcare professionals need to maintain distance and avoid emotional attachments to their patients at all times, otherwise it could create a conflict of interest. Thinking on it now, I’m not so sure that’s the most effective approach. I would argue that love is a natural outgrowth of caring, a bond that develops during treatment, through mutual commitment and trust. We demonstrate love by treating patients as family—that is, we do everything within our means to advocate for and help them.

Patients often have difficulty navigating the healthcare system, which can be frustrating and challenging even to the experts. As complications arise, patients often face an array of critical choices. How are they to make informed care decisions if we remain distant and largely unavailable? At the root, most healthcare workers would readily agree that they went into the profession to help patients heal. That ideal—that vision—gets easily blurred after working in complex, overburdened systems. But hearing that teacher’s straightforward answer was a simple reminder that passion and love are not only sorely needed in healing, too, but are also fundamental to our caring and effectiveness.

While I was once afraid to declare love for my patients, I won’t be afraid to use love moving forward. Attentiveness and listening are key. At times, my attention is drawn to administrative tasks as a medical director, but I remain focused on direct patient care. I am there for them, willing to do the utmost for my patients and, it is my hope that I ,thereby, set an example for the next generation of doctors to follow. I don’t always get it right but I try, through a bond of trust and, yes, love. I want the best for them. Love is a word everyone knows and understands. To be loved makes us feel loved. We should all be able to offer and accept it.

To retain this generation of frontline workers, we must set them up for success. All of us need to remind ourselves that facing people and creating community is where the reward lies—always. Leadership and administration are great career challenges but maintaining that connection to people is what allows us do what we’ve spent our lives training for: to heal. If healthcare workers and teachers—the facilitators of healing and knowledge—can follow the simple, sage advice of a passionate kindergarten teacher, our patients and students will be in the best, most loving, and capable hands.

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