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Keeping the American Dream Alive During COVID-19

Heval Kelli, MD
American Board of Internal Medicine
Specialty: Internal Medicine

The American Dream is as unique as each American who dares to dream. For Heval Kelli, MD, a Kurdish refugee from Syria, his dream is to be able to give back to the country that welcomed and supported his family so generously nearly 20 years ago.

While he is no longer the frightened 11-year old boy beaten by Syrian police and forced to flee the only home he knew, he remembers that time well and it fuels his work today. “Many refugees have a justifiable fear of perceived authority, and that can include the very medical professionals who are trying to help them,” said Dr. Kelli. “It is our job to respectfully educate them about ways to protect and improve their health. A way to show that respect is to make a sincere effort to know who they are, from the trauma they endured, to the language they speak, to the customs they follow.”

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Kelli and his wife, Kazeen Abdullah, MD, recognized that immigrants, refugees, and lower-income families in their Clarkston, Georgia community did not know or understand the risks and prevention strategies. They quickly translated and distributed Kurdish and Arabic versions of Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data and guidance about the novel coronavirus and made hundreds of calls with the community about symptoms, testing, and resources. Dr. Kelli also hosted multi-language Zoom calls and a Facebook Live Q&A series to help educate this population. He also joined the Clarkson Health Task Force on COVID-19 that brought together the city of Clarkston, churches, non-profits, and medical professionals to find workable solutions for their community.

The task force noted that the COVID-19 positivity rate was alarming for a few large apartment complexes that housed significant refugee populations in Clarkson. To save lives, resources needed to be deployed immediately to these “hot spots.” They set up free COVID-19 testing nearby and distributed multilingual educational materials. More than 10,000 masks and hand sanitizers were given to residents. The complexes did not have internet access, so the team worked with community partners to ensure that residents had access to Wi-Fi. This enabled children to attend school remotely and ensured that those families could have access to timely and accurate information about the pandemic. In addition, financial aid for families was arranged.

“It is critical that physicians understand that their influence can go beyond the exam room,” said Dr. Kelli. “We are connectors and can bring various stakeholders—from patients to businesses to hospital systems—together to identify and solve problems.”

Dr. Kelli would like to see America focus on providing quality care to the historically underserved populations of immigrants, refugees, and lower-income families. “By helping to create a system where underserved communities have access to affordable, sustainable care, we will help the entire nation,” he stated.

To that end, he encourages medical professionals to roll up their sleeves and volunteer at free or low-cost health clinics. “It’s incredibly rewarding and is usually pretty straightforward care for patients with treatable health issues, such as diabetes and high blood pressure,” said Dr. Kelli. “Don’t feel helpless. You could be part of this solution on an individual level, and also be part of these organizations that actually do some great work on the ground.” He volunteers each week at one of the city’s free clinics and is often stationed at the very busy drive-thru COVID-19 testing site.

After living in German refugee camps for six years, Dr. Kelli’s family was grateful for the warm welcome they received from the Clarkson community. He believes many Americans invested in his success, and he is now privileged to give back through medicine. “I made it this far in life because of Americans who helped me. It is my pleasure and honor to serve this community and help my neighbors find their American Dream.”

Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), Dr. Kelli specializes in general non-invasive cardiology and preventive cardiology at the Northside Hospital Cardiovascular Institute in Georgia. He also is an adjunct assistant professor in the School of Public Health of Georgia State University. Dr. Kelli was profiled in an April 2020 article in National Geographic and on “Top Docs” by the Medical Association of Georgia.

(Published: October 21, 2020)

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