Dr. Heval Kelli and his family came to America from a refugee camp in Germany exactly two weeks after September 11, 2001. They had been forced to leave Syria six years earlier, and were tired and anxious about their new surroundings. Dr. Kelli recalls a businessman in the airport in New York treating them kindly, which set the tone for their experience in America.

After settling in a suburb of Atlanta, the Kelli family found themselves struggling to earn a living. Heval was only 18 years old at the time, and took a job washing dishes at a restaurant to help support his parents and younger brother. By day he was a student, and on evenings and weekends he worked as hard as he could to earn income for his family. “We were very frugal,” he recalls. “My mother cooked everything, we never ate out. But we had very good food and we had each other.”

His life changed forever when a heart surgeon at Emory University, Dr. Omar Lattouf, enlisted his help on a research project, and from there became his mentor. Dr. Kelli is now a practicing cardiologist and researcher for Emory University, and one day a week he donates his time to a free clinic for those without health insurance in Clarkston, Georgia – the same community that welcomed his family with open arms so many years earlier.

Dr. Kelli recently sat down with 1heart2lives at Refuge Coffee in Clarkston, Georgia to discuss why he entered the field of heart health, how he thinks the discussion around heart disease is evolving, and a bit about how his own experience has influenced him as a practitioner.

refuge coffee

Refuge Coffee in Clarkston, Georgia

To begin with, please tell us a little bit about why you decided to enter the field of cardiology.
Heart disease is the number one killer that’s fairly preventable, and there is a need for doctors as both healers and educators. Cardiology is very common to everyone, it impacts everyone, and there is much we can do to improve health that involves only increased education. I can talk about cardiology at every age, which means there is much we can do at every age to create positive change.
Consider this: the average American can tell you what type of gasoline is best for their car, they know all sorts of things like this, but they don’t understand blood pressure metrics or what BMI means. And that’s on doctors. We underestimate how smart our patients are, and therefore we aren’t educating them properly. So I’m working to change that.

What are some of the initiatives you are working on to increase education and understanding of heart disease?
I feel strongly that we need to take the discussion of heart health out of the clinic. A doctor gets to spend on average fifteen minutes with a patient, which isn’t nearly enough time to answer all of their questions and teach them about healthy heart measures. But what if, say, doctors moved the discussion to a coffee shop where 10-15 people could come, and then could have a real talk about these issues? It breaks down a lot of the barriers, and information becomes shared. People tell their friends what they have learned, and that creates impact. It’s an environment where people are comfortable and engaged.
We’re also looking at how technology is used. I think phones are the future of healthcare, where people can share information, track their health and habits, and more. When people get good advice they share it, and cardiologists can help make that happen. If someone can use Facebook, they can manage their health.
Beyond that, technology can level the impact socio-economic status has on health and healthcare. Everyone these days has a phone, which means everyone can have access to the tools needed to manage their health.

How have your experiences as a refugee and working with impoverished communities shaped who you are as a doctor?
When you’re a refugee, simplicity is key because of the language barrier. Simplify the process to make it accessible. Use tools that are easy to understand. Much of my philosophy as a practitioner is driven from the challenge my family and I had as refugees trying to get and understand healthcare. But it’s practical for everyone.
And the work I do in the clinic is related to that. Volunteering is the essence of medicine, helping and taking care of people. We all have some mission to help. And I can help my patients manage their health with affordable and simple solutions.
I am not alone in this, I also work with young people in these communities to inspire them to pursue the education needed to impact community health.

Your life changed because one person saw something in you and became your mentor, and now colleague, in the medical field. How do you see this experience translating to other young people who come from impoverished communities?
The story of becoming a doctor, or journalist, or anything else is replicable. There is a good chance you can achieve this because of education. It’s not like the story of someone who came, and instantly achieved massive financial success, which is not very replicable. I was blessed to have someone mentor me, and so I founded the Young Physician Initiative here in Clarkston to motivate kids to learn.
It does not matter where you came from, with education you can have this kind of success, and it’s very realistic to attain. As doctors we are not just healthcare leaders, we are community leaders as well. In twelve years I changed my family’s status as a result of going to school. That’s something we can inspire other kids to do, no matter where they are coming from.

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
Educate yourself! The AHA has the Life’s Simple 7 metrics, they are easy to follow but have a big impact. Pay as close to attention to maintaining your heart as you do to maintaining your car or your home. And don’t be afraid to have real conversations with your doctor about your health; it’s what we are here for.

To learn more about Dr. Kelli’s story, please watch his TEDx Talk below

To learn more about Dr. Kelli visit his website here.