Giving Back to His Community: Heval Mohamed Kelli, MD

Cardiology Magazine, Jan. 2017For Heval Mohamed Kelli, MD, giving back to his community has been a strong motivator since he and his family first arrived in the U.S. as refugees from Syria in 2001. At the time, volunteers helped Kelli and his family to settle into their new home, assisting with everything from furniture to English lessons. Now, Kelli is a cardiology fellow at Emory University and dedicates his time to helping his patients prevent cardiovascular disease, while also finding time to inspire the next generation of young adults in his community to follow their dreams of becoming doctors. Cardiology sat down with Kelli to discuss his motivations, career aspirations and his thoughts on the future of preventive cardiology.

Your story is an inspiration not only for refugees who come to the U.S., but also for anyone who aspires to overcome hardship to achieve their dreams. What keeps you motivated when challenges arise?

I am motivated by the challenges that I have experienced in my life. As a refugee, nothing is promised and your life can change at any second. I found something that I can build and always hold on to it. I realized at a young age that education is something that nobody can take away from me and it is a powerful tool to change my life and community. Education became my motivation, as I was able to work hard and learn how to deal with challenges without the fear of losing it.

I am motivated by my experience of where I started. I am always grateful to be living my dream every day and not be a dishwasher – the job that supported my family and got me through college and medical school. I feel lucky to be here and serve my parents and community. So, every challenge becomes an opportunity for change and progress.

I am also motivated by the great support of my family, mentors and the people who invested in my family when we arrived as refugees. I feel inspired when I see how much people believe in my potential. Therefore, I see challenges are just temporary, as I know I have the necessary support to overcome them.

The reason I am here is because people invested in me and saw my potential. We as physicians have the power to change people and communities. Our presence in the community, especially in underserved ones, can inspire young people to excel and change their futures for the better.

What initially drew you to medicine?

Medicine is like a language to me. I am fortunate to speak four languages (Kurdish, Arabic, German and English) and to have the ability to communicate with many people from various backgrounds. Medicine is a language that can be used to understand people and help them at the same time. Medicine became my fifth language; something I practice naturally and enjoy as part of me.

Cardiology attracted me as heart disease and its risk factors are major causes of death in the world. Many risk factors are preventable through health education and lifestyle interventions. There are many opportunities for learning and implementing knowledge in the community and touching many people’s lives.

The last 10 years have brought a lot of change for you. What do you think the next 10 hold?

I see myself as a leader in preventive cardiology and a community health advocate, as our practice of medicine will be mainly based on prevention, with a focus on the population rather than individuals. My current mentors, Arshed Quyyumi, MD, FACC, and Laurence Sperling, MD, FACC, are helping to shape my career and provide me with the necessary resources and leadership skills to be successful.

I want to become an inspiration for all physicians to invest in their community. I believe that patient care goes beyond the individual and it must also focus on the community. We as doctors have the power to heal communities while inspiring our youth to pursue higher education.

You discuss your research with your mentor, Omar M. Lattouf, MD, FACC, in a recent TEDTalk. What are your current research focuses?

Dr. Lattouf has helped me to better understand the process of research. As a college student, I initially helped to perform literature reviews on topics like metabolic syndrome. I further progressed to helping with data collection and understanding basic analysis. I co-authored a review on metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, followed by a paper on the impact of metabolic syndrome on valvular surgery outcomes. Dr. Lattouf also motivated me to prepare abstracts and present at national conferences. He introduced to me other researchers at Emory such as Mikhael El-Chami, MD, FACC, who guided me through the process of data management and practicing my writing skills. I was able to publish several scientific papers on the concept of implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and outcomes.

These experiences gave me the confidence and skills to pursue an academic career and develop my research expertise. I am fortunate to be able to expand my research through a preventive cardiology research fellowship sponsored by the Abraham J. and Phyllis Katz Foundation and a METRIC T32 training grant. I am currently studying the impact of individual and neighborhood socioeconomic status on cardiovascular risk factors and vascular disease, an interest of mine due to my personal experience as someone from a low socioeconomic status background who lived in an underserved area.

Where do you see the future of preventive cardiology going?

I think the future of medical care will be the use of smartphone and mobile technology to engage our patients. Smartphones are powerful tools to empower patients to understand and improve their health. Providers are able to send information on health education and living a healthy lifestyle. Patients are able to track their health and report to their physicians. It is an indirect, constant communication beyond clinical visits that keeps the patient engaged and responsible for their health.

One example of this is an app I helped to create with Dr. Lattouf, sponsored by the Georgia Department of Public Health, that allowed me to combine my passion for preventive cardiology with my background in mobile technology and web design. We worked on creating metabolic risk toolkits with a focus on a mobile application, Met-IQ. It allows users to simply visualize their metabolic risk profile, metabolic IQ, to initiate awareness and tracking of health progress. The project also made me recognize the challenges that come with health education. We are currently planning to raise funds for the second phase to improve the app and provide notifications on healthy tips based on a patient’s profile.

You’ve had quite a few mentors throughout your career so far. How have they have influenced the way you mentor others now?

Successful mentors are investors. I believe that the ultimate goal of mentorship is investing in people’s potentials. Dr. Lattouf recognized something in me when I was just a dishwasher. He invested his time in changing my life. Now he is my life mentor, and we have developed a strong partnership with the purpose of providing similar experiences to others.

I am also blessed to have great academic mentors such as Dr. Quyyumi, Dr. Sperling and Viola Vaccarino, MD, PhD, who invest their strength and efforts in advancing my research and academic skills. I am also fortunate to have amazing clinical mentors such as Allen L. Dollar, MD, FACC, who is expanding my clinical skills. Emory University has been a blessing for me as it has provided the platform for a successful career in cardiology.

Finally, I am fortunate to have amazing fellows who are very supportive and helpful in my Emory cardiology fellowship. We work as one team and apply our strengths to complement each other’s weaknesses. For example, one of my research co-fellows, Muhammad Hammadah, MD, has been a great resource and help. He dedicated his free time and efforts to advance my statistical knowledge and writing skills. He models the true example of a team player and an excellent physician.

How do you balance your time between fellowship, research interests, volunteering and your mentorship program, the Young Physician Initiative?

My experience of washing dishes while caring for my family and excelling in school taught me to appreciate every minute of my time. I developed strong time management skills and always planned my days and weeks in advance.

My mission in life is to serve others and improve communities. My mission inspires me to find the time to make a difference by focusing on my aim and how I can help. I am inspired by the people who have personally invested in me, and I feel motivated to do the same for others. We all have the power to change the world, and it does not take much time to be present in our community. It is time that is well invested with the return of many blessings.

I have also learned how to build a team of leaders, which helps me balance my time. For example, the Young Physician Initiative provides interactive pre-medical preparation for high school seniors interested in medicine. We meet once a month for an hour after school to discuss medical cases, host physician speakers and review medical problems. I developed a team of medical students who are actually running the program. We realized that one hour per month can positively impact the confidence and inspiration of young people from underserved communities.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I love music. During medical school, I developed technical skills in music engineering. In my free time, I collect traditional Eastern music and mix it with Western sounds. I also volunteer my musical engineering services to local artists who create music with positive messages.

Cardiology Magazine, Jan. 2017

Kelli with his brother, Mohamed, who is a general surgery resident at East Tennessee State University, and his mother, Saadia, who helps new Syrian refugee families in need.

Clinical Topics: Arrhythmias and Clinical EP, Congenital Heart Disease and Pediatric Cardiology, Diabetes and Cardiometabolic Disease, Dyslipidemia, Prevention, Sports and Exercise Cardiology, Implantable Devices, SCD/Ventricular Arrhythmias, CHD & Pediatrics and Arrhythmias, CHD & Pediatrics and Prevention, CHD & Pediatrics and Quality Improvement, Lipid Metabolism, Exercise, Sports & Exercise and Congenital Heart Disease & Pediatric Cardiology

Keywords: ACC Publications, Cardiology Magazine, Adolescent, Adult, Cardiology, Cardiovascular Diseases, Cause of Death, Clinical Competence, Defibrillators, Implantable, Fear, Fellowships and Scholarships, Financial Management, Georgia, Goals, Health Education, Heart Diseases, Leadership, Life Style, Male, Mentors, Metabolic Syndrome X, Mobile Applications, Motivation, Music, Parents, Patient Care, Plant Oils, Refugees, Research, Research Personnel, Risk Factors, Running, Schools, Medical, Social Class, Students, Medical, Syria, Time Management, Universities, Vascular Diseases, Viola, Volunteers


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