Frontline Friday's celebrate GFA alumni on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis. Brothers Imran Ali ’96 and Tariq Ali ’04 share their unique outlooks from their perspectives of a broadcast medical journalist and cardiovascular disease fellow.
What drew you both to medicine?
IMRAN: It was actually during the eleventh grade when I took Biology II taught by Mr. Gary Caputi where my love for medicine was truly solidified. I loved the way things worked so perfectly with all the organ systems. I simply found how what I was learning was applicable to potentially caring for others. I was actually very interested in journalism and media and worked with my best friend Justin Watras ’98. We edited videos and worked on the media side of things at GFA. Now I have found a way to blend both media and medicine together as a broadcast medical journalist. I actually see that you can reach many more patients in a one-minute segment rather than a 15-minute visit with only one patient. Often patients are thirsty for accurate information relayed to them in an easy to understand way and that is why I am passionate about using the power of the media to educate and help people make better choices.
TARIQ: Like Imran, where I am today was greatly shaped by my time during my high school years at GFA. For me, I began to be drawn to medicine through discussions both in and outside of the classroom with Mr. Robert Conlan and Mr. Roger True who both brought the science lessons to life and opened me to the possibilities that it could bring in the years to come. My eventual draw to medicine is also quite similar to the common story of many others in witnessing and serving as a caregiver for those that had fallen ill in my family and recognizing the immense power of being able to provide comfort and restore the dignity that diseases often strip us of.
How long have you been in the medical field? Where do you currently work?
IMRAN: My path in medicine has been a long and winding one as I dabbled in research and public health policy beforehand. I also worked at CNN's Medical Unit for one year. I worked in the NYC Mayor's Office in disaster preparedness with Hurricane Sandy. After medical school, there is residency and fellowship training. I am currently in fellowship training. I have been in medicine for about six years now. I will be finishing off my last year of training with plans to be a Geriatrician with a focus on taking care of older adults with cancer. I am currently at the University of Connecticut Center on Aging and will finish up in July 2021 at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. I am also a medical contributor to Walt Disney Television's ABC News Division. I am part of the ongoing Pandemic Coverage Team.
With anxieties very high at least from what I am seeing in my clinic, people are relying on the news media and the internet to better understand questions surrounding the pandemic such as the different types of testing and what kind of precautions are needed without going overboard. I find it also very important that we debunk some of the false information that is so readily spread out there. As the information rapidly changes often in a matter of days with information about new vaccine trials, antibody versus antigen versus PCR tests there is a lot of information to sort through and I work with the team at ABC News to review all of the information before it goes on air. In fact, when I am on-call for World News Tonight, I often receive a call from anchors minutes before going on air to ensure what they are saying is medically accurate. I am very excited to bring my background to the team to help ensure we are able to arm the public with accurate information during this critical time.
TARIQ: My path has been quite circuitous as well. In addition to completing medical school at Brown, I obtained a Masters in Business Administration at Harvard as I realized during my time after GFA working with the nonprofit Save the Children that in order to be effective in driving health care improvements at a societal level, I need a toolset that an MBA provides. I am currently in my third year as a cardiology fellow at the Tufts Medical Center in Boston after completing three years of internal medicine training at Penn in Philadelphia. After becoming a cardiologist, I plan to obtain additional one-year training in critical care medicine to ultimately serve in the role of a Critical Care Cardiologist managing our most sick heart patients that require heart pumps and are awaiting heart transplants. I am also excited to spend some of my time using my MBA to shape how we can more appropriately provide care within hospital systems and in turn improving patients' access to care.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, what does a current day look like for you?
IMRAN: I have clinic days which have become more of a Telemedicine only session as my patients are elderly and frail. I also see consults in the hospital but during this time I have been at the nursing homes which have been a flashpoint. My day usually begins by going through two security checkpoints where I am screened with a temperature scan. Then I begin assessing the new cases that have to be shifted to the designated COVID-19 wing and if there were any deaths overnight. I then get into full protective gear and try to go to see the patients in the non affected wing only to find some of them showing symptoms of COVID-19. Getting tests for our patients had been a challenge at first but the CT Department of Health has been assisting with more testing kits so that we can understand how the virus is moving amongst the patients.
What is truly heartbreaking is the isolating effect of visitor restrictions. A lot of these elderly residents feel "trapped" by staying in their individual rooms as all of the activities were curtailed. Some residents depended on family interaction to maintain their orientation and as a result, they became more confused and disoriented. Everyone wearing masks and goggles frightened some already confused residents. Some depend on reading lips to understand caregivers but now could not because of the masks.
I, unfortunately, have also seen residents rapidly get ill and die within a week’s time. I have had to carry difficult conversations with families as they felt often helpless and could not easily be at their loved one’s side. It has been a truly difficult time for the older population.
TARIQ: Like Connecticut, Boston was hit quite drastically early on by the pandemic. Our hospitals became unrecognizable where most Boston-area hospitals including mine were nearing the maximum of their surge (makeshift) ICU bed capacity. Nurses and doctors from various specialties were reassigned to care for the influx of coronavirus patients. While many of us were reassigned, we still continued to care for our sickest cardiac patients including performing heart transplants during the peak of the surge. I personally was emergently promoted to attending physician (senior physician) and ran teams in the coronavirus-dedicated ICU caring for those most debilitated by the virus. The 1st wave is now dissipating and so we are seeing many of us returning to our original roles including myself as a cardiology fellow but we know, unfortunately, that it is a matter of time before we will need to deal with another surge.
What is one piece of advice you would give to the GFA community at this time?
IMRAN: Cherish your loved ones.... honestly with so much tragedy and families being forced apart, even the simple act of being together on the couch to watch a TV show with your family is a blessing. School will eventually return to normal, but for many families, the new "normal" is very bleak so there is a lot to be thankful for.
TARIQ: It is truly unbelievable trying to comprehend how challenging this year has already been and I am incredibly proud of the future generation's ability to mobilize and unite around causes that are important for our nation to tackle. I'm excited by how inquisitive, creative, connected, well-traveled, and principled they truly are. I do want to caution however that while it is only natural to become overwhelmed by the multiple fronts we are being challenged by today, to not lose sight of the dangers that this virus brings as it is cruelly relentless and does not pause regardless of societal movements, politics or economics needs. Always wear a mask covering your nose and mouth. Do not pull it down even if you need to talk loud. And keep your distance even if it is one of your closest friends or family that you haven't seen in a while. My biggest surprise working in the coronavirus ICU was that the majority of patients were under the age of 60. We will get through this but we need to stick with the guidelines as that is truly our ticket to the other side.
How would you say GFA’s motto Quisque Pro Omnibus, or “Each For All”, embodies what you see on a daily basis?
IMRAN: I saw those nursing aides in nursing homes as true heroes who worked so hard under difficult conditions. Often these aides were responsible for so many patients due to the staffing shortages. They came in day after day helping the medical staff providing the essential assistance for things we take for granted. Some of these patients needed help to get out of bed or to use the bathroom--tasks that otherwise would be considered mundane now put those aides at great risk. They worked hard because they understood how much these nursing home residents depended on them. They truly embodied the "Each for All" mentality and I am inspired by them as I continue my work.
TARIQ: Looking back, these past few months make me think back to Coach Pete Karlan's teaching back during my spring months playing lacrosse at GFA. When we were a man or two down on defense, we ditched our assignments and came together to defend our zone. We could no longer think of our individual needs but knew our only way to make it through was by serving as a unit. I could not have been more amazed and proud of how my colleagues — physicians, respiratory therapists, nurses, and technicians — ditched their prior departments to band together in learning new skills to help combat this unprecedented challenge as one cohesive unit. From disparate floors and roles, we became one, always seeking ways to fill in gaps that were needed — even if it is not something we have ever done before. It was truly inspiring to witness.