Dr. Alex Jahangir is "The Devoted"Apr 19, 2022
April 19th, 2022
Season 2, Ep. 3: Dr. Alex Jahangir, The Devoted
To many people, Dr. Alex Jahangir was the face of COVID in Nashville. He was the one who said “stay at home” or “wear a mask” and he faced hostility for it. But despite any ideas you have about his upbringing or his privilege, he’s endured the kind of life-defining hardship most of us will never understand .
At 6 years old, his family abandoned their life on the other side of the world when war made them refugees. He came to America speaking zero English and was bullied for his heritage and his real name (which is Amir, not Alex).
Despite it all, he's devoted his life to improving his community through his work as a trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt Health since 2009.
This episode is for you if:
-You want to understand the man behind the mask
-You're interested in how he's devoted his life to Nashville and his family
-You already love Dr. Alex Jahangir and you want to hear about the experiences that made him who he is
What's in this episode?
In this episode, you'll learn about Dr. Alex Jahangir's commitment to his role as an orthopaedic trauma surgeon with a specialty in saving limbs. He downplays his role with humility, using his phrase "don't believe the hype."
Dr. Jahangir talks at length about being an immigrant, moving to the US at age 6 to escape the Iran-Iraq war in 1984. His parents gave up everything to give Alex and his brother a better life. Dr. J describes being bullied and doing everything he can to honor his parents and the sacrifice they made.
In this episode, he also covers how he decompresses from his most challenging days, clinically, and the weight he felt in March 2020 as he announced the city was putting into place a "Safer at Home" order which would shut down most in-person operations. He also covers the physical response people had to that order.
We end the episode with everyone's favorite AMPstigator game, Best Time/Worst Time where we cover some life defining moments and how he's changed just since COVID.
📝 Show Notes & Mentions 📝
-Dr. Jahangir has been a trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt since 2009
-Dr. Jahangir's new book on Pre-sale, Hot Spot: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hot-spot-dr-alex-jahangir/1140982788
-RECLAIM by AMPstigator; Save the Date for June 27th in Nashville: https://www.ampstigator.com/events
Connect with Dr. Jahangir
(corresponding to the video version)
0:00 - Intro
1:06 - Don’t call me ‘doctor’
8:11 - Dr. J saves lives
10:39 - The Waffle House shooting
12:55 - Why he’s The Devoted
16:09 - Dr. J lived in a war zone until age 6
23:54 - How an ESL kid transitions into the south
28:35 - How in the world has he achieved so much?
32:45 - His relationship with his parents
36:55 - When does Dr. J cry? (this was the safer at home story)
42:17 - Being targeted during COVID
45:15 - Someone accosted Dr. J
48:36 - Best time/ Worst time
Lauren: To many people Dr. Alex Jahangir was the face of COVID in Nashville. He was the one who said, "Stay at home." Or "Wear a mask." And he faced a lot of hostility for it. But despite any ideas you might have about his upbringing or maybe his privilege, he's endured the kind of life-defining hardship most of us will never understand. At six-years-old, his family abandoned their life on the other side of the world when war made them refugees. He came to America, speaking zero English, bullied for his heritage and his real name, which is Amir not Alex. You would forgive him if he was angry, but he's not. He's the opposite. He loves the city, his community, and more than anything his family, and that's the love that fuels him. This is Dr. Alex Jahangir, The Devoted
Lauren: So, first of all, thanks for being here. Anyone who knows you knows you in this capacity as Dr. Alex Jahangir and I love that one of the first times you and I spoke, you were like, "Please don't call me doctor. Please don't call me doctor. I'm just Alex. I'm just Alex." So I just kind of want to start there with you about how you see your role, and then how you see yourself as a person. Because, to me, it almost feels like you see yourself as these are separate. These are separate things. But maybe that's not true, I want your take on it.
Alex: Well, I know on a broader sense, all my life, I've always wanted to be a doctor. And, so, I remember when I finished medical school, the very first year, I would sign everything doctor. I would like, "I'm finally there." And then I realized it's an honor to for me to do what I'm doing, so first on, just the basic clinician side.
But then just like everyone, you're a reporter and anchor you've worked a long time to get to where you are and I've worked long time to get where I am. But it's just that's what we do. And so who I am is, I do want a level of comfort for people having me. So the formal titles have never been a thing for me, after that very first year of being a resident. And as I've become, now, I guess, more-known in my public role, it's even more interesting for me.
Because yes, I mean, I own what I do and I'm proud of it. And I recognize the privilege, sometimes, that it gives me both in my clinical side and now in the more public role. But at the end of the day I'm just Alex. I'm just some dude who's had some amazing, really cool opportunities and have some neat opportunities to help the world in which I'm in. And, so, do I shun from being Dr. Alex? No, because almost half of my life I've been a doctor, where I spent the first half trying to be a doctor. And, so, now it's like, "Well, it's who I am." It's a really cool thing to be doing, but I'm just Alex.
Lauren: Yeah, I love that. Something you've said to me, before, that it's just really stuck with me is your view. And then also how you tell other residents or younger surgeons that come in and trying to encourage them not to get full of themselves. And I don't think I'd ever heard anyone say this and so then to hear you say it was kind of like, "Oh, wow." The "Don't believe the hype." What does that mean to you and why do you say it?
Alex: Well, I think, as we become more accomplished or get more degrees or be in positions in which you say something and somebody does it. Or you're given this level of respect just by the nature of degrees you've earned or what role you hold. It's really easy to get into a system where you buy into this narrative of, "I'm right."
Lauren: "And I'm amazing."
Alex: "And I'm amazing, and I'm infallible." And, of course, people need to wipe the streets in front of where I walk or put rose petals down or whatever. But that is when really bad stuff can happen. In medicine, especially, if you quote-unquote "Believe the hype" somebody may not feel comfortable highlighting something that may potentially harm a patient.
Airline industry it's been proven a bunch of times. When they do crash analysis, a lot of the times, the crashes occur because the main pilot, who up until now has mainly been a he. He would make an environment in which he was the main pilot and he wouldn't listen, and his word was the end-all and the lower-ranking pilots or the flight attendants wouldn't highlight something that may have saved them from crash.
And, so, when you believe the hype and you start believing in this narrative, then that's when bad stuff happens. And, I think, it makes you less connectable, if people can't connect and it makes you less effective. So, I mean, I do say to my residents, I say to my kids sort of, I mean, I change the words a little bit, and I definitely say it to myself a lot. I'm just like "Believing the hype is what causes things to not go well." And, so, that is really a really important thing for me.
Lauren: Well, I wonder too, because I feel like this idea of infidelity in medicine is such a... I mean, I see it as pervasive. And I don't know if it's maybe because of Hollywood puts it out that way. That there is so much infidelity just within the practice, like within a hospital. And I kind of wonder if that goes in to it as well?
First of all, is that just my perception? Is that a wrong perception? And then if it's right, does it kind of go along with this, "Believing the hype" about yourself that you don't follow the rules, the rules don't apply to you. You don't have to do the right thing, almost, on a moral level too.
Alex: So infidelity in like relationships, is that what you mean?
Alex: I mean, I think, I don't know if it's more than in society in general. But I do think I have seen colleagues who fall into the trap of, you have this grandiose vision of yourself, and how you carry yourself. And then you have people who may also buy into that and thus, it allows you to, I guess, take advantage of somebody maybe by [Inaudible 00:06:54].
And, so, I mean, sure, that's probably true in a lot of professions in which there's that power structure and that power dynamic. Both power in natural power and power in financial reasons, sure it happens. And it probably is that you believe your own hype, and you believe what everyone is telling you, and you convince someone else to believe the hype and it's really not good.
Lauren: Well, I totally get where your heart is on it and I love that about you. I love that you take that stance. Because it does make you so approachable, and everybody feels your humility. And, I think, just seeing you on TV for so many years, leading Nashville's COVID response before actually meeting you in person, when the threat of COVID wasn't as severe. It's just very, very clear that you, Alex Jahangir, does not take himself too seriously.
But at the same time, you're very well aware of what you are capable of. I mean, you've written textbooks. You've written what, like 100, published papers, I feel like on work that you've done. Tell me about some of the things that you are proud of, in your work.
The times where people maybe even questioned you in your trauma surgeon role. Where you're like, "No, no, no, this is what we're going to do and I'm going to show you why." Tell me some of those times that you're proud of,
Alex: I mean, listen, my day job is pretty neat. And I was thinking about this recently, I was driving, and I was like, "There are a few jobs, and I have one of them, in which I, literally, can point out people who have a different life in a good way because I was there."
Alex: I'm very proud of that. It gives me a lot of joy. There are times when I know that, literally, someone's walking because I was there or there are moments where I know somebody would have died. I mean, actually died, if I hadn't done some of the stuff I've done.
And what's neat, for me, is now years later, some of these people and their families communicate with me. And we've developed some relationships that are, again, I mean, when they reach out I'm like, "Gosh, this is amazing."
Well, what I've learned, as a physician, there's an experience that I don't think I've shared with many people is I was in 30A. Where I'm sure many people in Nashville have been, just in Florida, North Florida. And I was standing there on the beach, watching my kids kind of in the shallow water and I saw somebody trip. And I was like, "Oh, that's weird." In the water. And I saw him get up and he tripped again, and I was just like, "There's something not right here."
And I looked at my wife, I gave her that look that she watched the kids, and I went and this guy was having a stroke in the water. And I pulled him out, he was a big guy, and then his adult kids were there to help pull him out and then we did some stuff to resuscitate him. And this was, probably, four, five years ago, and his wife every year or whenever she stuck at church for some reason to think about me, calls me.
Alex: And, like, "My God, that is amazing." That is so neat. And that is something that, at that moment, only I could have done something. And, in fact, in that specific episode, because I remember the lifeguard, poor lifeguard, and by the time he showed up, I took the bag and did the stuff we had to do. And it was like in an instant, like, "Wow." Like how much, first of all, humbling and also what a blessing it is to know that the stuff that I've gotten to learn over the years, it's pretty freakin' neat. And so I'm very proud of that, I mean, I don't undersell it, I own it and it is really neat.
Lauren: Tell me about some of your other stories. Appendages, losing legs but keeping legs. Saving lives. Give me specifics I'm interested.
Alex: Sure, so I think a story that has been shared by the person, so I feel comfortable sharing it is, I took care of victims of Waffle House shooting. And one of the victims, Sharita Henderson, who has, again, she's shared the story multiple times publicly. So I don't feel like I'm sharing anything that she hasn't shared first.
I remember seeing her the moment she came in, and the many surgeries, we've had to go through. Me telling her, "Hey, you may lose your leg." Or the emotional toll of that whole time for her. And years later, people, I think, were so used to everything being such episodic. Like, "Oh, that episode is closed. Look, they have caught the person and then he's found guilty."
Well, these people live with the trauma of it both physically and mentally. And, I mean, I'm very proud that she's walking today and her leg is saved. And it's not for lack of her motivation to do it, I mean, she's worked her tail off, and that's just one thing. There are other people who, what's fun is I'll fix something, and then they'll go have a wedding, and they'll send me pictures of their wedding. Like, literally, they'll be like, they'll come here for a bachelor or bachelorette party.
Lauren: Get hurt?
Alex: Get hurt and then their wedding is just like, six weeks later or four weeks later, and they'll do their wedding, and it's fun. And I, actually, heard once, which is kind of neat is there's a person, just very recently I operated on who her son was getting married and she wanted to just dance at the wedding and she did. And then at the toast, when they toast, they apparently toasted me because one of my friends happened to be in the audience. And I was like, "How cool is that?" And, so, it is a really neat.
I love what I do and what I've done now for... I started working in Vanderbilt in '09. So the fact that I've been able to, hopefully, help a lot of people, in the thousands, it's really cool. I mean, I really like it.
Lauren: Well, and I think that's kind of the crux of why I wanted to talk to you today, and why I wanted to have you be in one of the episodes, it's because I do sense devotion from you. And the reason I use that word is because you don't just love the city, and you don't just love your job or love your family. What's the higher form of love? It's devotion.
To almost give yourself to a cause and I sensed that. And I did something, in advance, of your episode that I've actually never done in my whole career. Where, as you know, I asked you after we talked, I said, "You know, there's things I just don't fully understand." And I asked you, "Can I speak to your wife?" And you probably freaked out a little bit, because you're like, "Oh, God, what is she going to ask my wife?"
But just being able to talk to your wife and hearing the person who has committed their life to be your partner, to be your partner in life. To hear how loving she was, and, gosh, she was just so beautiful about how she viewed your commitment to what you do. And she told me this, she said, "It happens all the time. That we'll come into the house, someone will be in the house. He's always pulling glass out of a knee or like fixing some, like, I don't know, house-call-type doctor, old time medicine situation." And I thought, gosh, that just paints a picture, in my mind, that paints the picture. It's not someone who, again, it's the "Don't believe the hype." I can help people, I can serve people. I can do it on my kitchen counter.
Alex: Yeah, it's really funny, Helen, she told me she had the interview. But she, actually, didn't tell me what she told you, so I feel a little anxious.
Lauren: Oh, really?
Alex: But, no it is really, I mean, it is a neat profession that I've had the privilege to enter. Somebody asked me yesterday, "Would you want your kids to go into medicine?" Because, I think, there's just a lot of people, at least, have this narrative of "Doctors now don't want their kids to be doctors." Or my wife is a speech therapist or a nurse, and my gosh, if they want to do that, like they have the passion for it, because it is hard work to do any of that. Why wouldn't I want to encourage them to do that?
Because it is a true gift that we get through our training. And it's a gift that you can just give to the world. You can, literally, get on a plane and go to some place that needs your services and provide them. And, again, if you don't believe the hype, you don't care if you're not getting paid to do that work, and you don't care about all the other things that come with a nice first-world country and being in medicine.
It's a very, I mean, it's a very comfortable life too which I mean, I think that's a really nice part of it, too. But it is a really cool thing to be in healthcare. And the past couple of years have shown it's a tiring thing, it was tiring for the past couple of years. But if you can be selfless, I think it's one of the most amazing professions that there is.
Lauren: Yeah and you're totally right, the last couple of years have been hard for people. And I'm sure it's forced a lot of people to think twice about, "Okay, am I really in this for the right reasons? Is this right for me right now?" You mentioned something that is just like the perfect segue.
You mentioned, when you're in medicine in a first-world country and I don't think people realize you are an immigrant. And your story, I think, is just really powerful and I think it informs a lot of the devotion you have, again, for this town, for the people here for helping and service and then the devotion you give to your family.
Because there was a risk at one point of not having any of that. So I want to talk to you about that. You were five and six, I think, I believe you said when you remember war planes, flying overhead. Tell me about your early childhood and how you got to Nashville?
Alex: Sure. So I was born in Iran, in '78. So just to give you reference, it's July '78. And then in, I believe it was January of '79, so about six months after I was born, the revolution in Iran happened. In which the Shah of Iran was kicked out and the Islamic Republic of Iran got founded or formed or whatever you want to call it. And, so, Iran went from, again, I don't remember this part, Iran went from a very western country, very pro-U.S., friendly country, to my mom and everyone else having to wear hijabs and everything became surreal, so it became a really tough place real fast.
And then in '80, 1980, there was a war with Iraq. So Saddam Hussein found opportunity and invaded Iran and that led to a war that lasted eight years. So from 1980 to 1988. And we lived in Tehran, so the capital.
I do remember watching TV with my brother, my brother's two years younger, and we'd watch cartoons. And I don't remember a lot, but I remember this, all of a sudden, the emergency alarm thing broadcasting and my mom would grab us and we'd go into the basement of the apartment complex we lived in.
I remember a few times, seeing the war planes fly over and hearing stories from my mom, and some in retrospect, of gunshots that they avoided. And, so, again, in 1980 to 1988. In '84, my parents really didn't see a future for me and my brother.
My brother's four, I was six. And, it's tough, I guess, like most parents, and I was thinking about this, reflecting on this a year or two ago, because I think the age I was then, so it's about last year. So the year last year I was, is the same age as my father was. Very similar, he and I've had very similar like he is a physician had some successes.
Lauren: Cardiologist, right?
Alex: My brother is a radiologist, excuse me, my dad is a radiologist. My brother is a cardiologist.
Lauren: Okay, radiologist, I'm sorry, thank you.
Alex: And his kids, me and my brother, were about the same age as my kids are now. And I think about, "Gosh, could you give up everything and then just to move without a set plan." And they did and I'm very grateful to them because we came to Nashville, which is not a normal move you make from Iran. But we had a family member here, an uncle, an aunt and a couple of cousins and we moved to Nashville. And we spent the first many months in their house and were fortunate because, again, we had means to be able to move. First my brother, my mom, and me went to Germany, that was the first place we were able to go.
And in Germany every day we tried to get a visa to come to the U.S. and finally found out we can go to Belgium and we went to Belgium and got a visa. And, so, my mom, my brother, and me were the first move and my dad moved some time several months later, I believe. And we moved to Nashville and Nashville is where I learned English. Nashville is where, I mean, everything that's happened to me is because of Nashville
Lauren: Because someone in this town said, "I'll help you."
Alex: Yeah. And I mean, it's a welcoming town, definitely, in the '80s welcoming, and, I think, it's welcoming now. Albeit there's some loud voices that sometimes aren't welcoming and, I think, we just need to be louder to be continuing to welcoming. Because, I think, especially, as the city is now 12% foreign-born.
Lauren: Whoa, I didn't know that.
Alex: Yeah, Nashville is 12% foreign-born. When I moved here it was definitely not 12% foreign-born. And it is a really, I got so many opportunities, I learnt English here, I went to public schools here, had summer-enrichment programs. Gotten my vaccines and some dental care at the Metro Public Health Department in which, down the road, I ended up becoming the board chair of.
My first volunteer job or first minimum wage job was at the now Adventure Science Center. I ended up being the chair of the board of the Adventure Science Center a few years ago. So it's really, I mean, it's what a great community we have. And look at the opportunities it has given me, my brother, all my cousins who have subsequently moved in.
I mean, I have an amazingly successful group of cousins, who, again, had the similar experiences I did. And, so, yeah, this community has given us so much.
Lauren: Yeah, I want to take you back to that point where you guys moved because it's not lost on me that you moved separately. Because your father, to your point, highly-educated, had a career, and had a life in Tehran, and then realized that he couldn't provide that for you guys. He couldn't just leave, right? I mean, there had to be maybe some strategy in how you left. It was almost a secret, wasn't it? I mean, did you leave with more than a suitcase?
Alex: Yeah, it was very bare minimum. And like I said, my mom and my brother, and me went to Germany. My uncle, at the time, who was, I think, he was 18, 19, had been smuggled over and ended up in Germany. Because he had to serve in the... and, so, we were fortunate enough to have some means, as a family. So my grandfather could have hired someone to smuggle my uncle over the mountain. So we went to visit my uncle originally.
Lauren: I mean, is that like "Air quotes" "We're visiting the uncle."
Alex: That's right. And then subsequently then we went through the immigration process to the U.S. and through embassies in Germany and Belgium. And then once we came over, then my dad had to, again, sometimes all the details are lost, because I was a kid.
But then my dad, again, through the process was able to get his paperwork in order to come over. But there's a lot of stuff that my parents had to sell or give up. They have their wedding book which is really neat, and they have a few trinkets and stuff.
Lauren: Things that were-
Alex: But I'm sure there are things that they've never told me that they just had to give up. And I think about, gosh, the house I live in now, I've been here 12 years, and I look at all the stuff we've collected. And, I mean, to just say, "Hey, how can I get all this down to a few suitcases in?" Because there was a strategy that I don't think I, probably, will ever fully appreciate and understand.
Lauren: I'm not sure that I fully understand, too, what could have happened to your parents. If people knew that they were trying to escape and not just maybe even travel?
Alex: Yeah, I mean, if you look at the Iran/Iraq War, a million people died, a million Iranians, I believe, died in that war. And, so, I mean, who knows? I mean, I don't know. But I'm very fortunate and appreciate the fact of what they've done for us.
Lauren: Right, and, so, the next phase, I think, to your personal story is the other part that I really want to get into with you. It wasn't a beautiful experience all along. I feel like you have made the choice to frame it in a beautiful way with a heart of service to give back, but it wasn't always that for you.
Because I just think of you guys I think of a highly-educated family, moving to a nation where they don't speak the language. Having everything, giving everything up trying to do it for their children. So they moved to Nashville, a place that albeit had very little diversity even at that time. I think Nashville is changing in that regard in the level of diversity. But that created, I imagine, a very hard experience for you and your brother, because, I mean, yes, you are Alex, but you are Amir.
Lauren: So you grew up Amir. And, so, how was that received, as an ESL kid, English Second Language kid, who's speaking Farsi trying to learn English, named Amir in the American Christian south.
Alex: Yeah, that's the question not many people ever ask. I do think broadly I am the product of every experience I've had and I've been a very fortunate, successful person. So, broadly, the good outweigh the evil let's just start with that.
But, I think, one can't be naive to the fact, especially, when the Gulf War happened in '91 or when the 9/11 attacks happened. That an Amir growing up in the South there were challenges. But, I think, what outweighs those challenges is a community of good people who said, "You know what, don't listen to that person." Or figuratively, and maybe, literally, punch back if you need to, if you're provoked.
That's something that, I think, are lessons that, I mean, it's not easy sometimes. And, I think, but again, now I'm in a place where I can believe a little of my own hype in saying, "Look, look, what an ESL six-year-old, who came to this country with minimal, but can do for the community now. And be a model, an example for others who may be in that same exact position right now. One really neat thing, for me, this past two years is I get some neat opportunities to be any other things now. And I was invited to be on a panel for a fundraiser for an organization that provides legal services for immigrants. And I was like, "Yeah, of course, I'll be there.
Lauren: Oh, wow.
Alex: And, so, I went to this fundraiser and one of the other panelists who was this first-generation American or, actually, she immigrated here from, I believe, South America or something. And she started telling stories and crying about the fact she doesn't feel like she could be there for her kids like she wants to. Because she's working two or three jobs and all that. And, literally, her story of how she felt her perception of how her kids are. I was like, "I, literally, the story you share about you as a mom is what my mom had to do with me and my brother and look at us." Don't be sad, have hope and I think that's what we can do.
And, so, or I could roll and say, "There's so many mean people here and they make fun of me because of my name or where I'm from, and they're all xenophobic, and, so, screw 'em. I'm done with these people, I'm going to be bitter about it." I can do that.
But why do that when there's so much hope that my story can provide? And, again, "Don't believe the hype" Actually, just do it, like, literally, do it. And, so, I mean, I think, if I told you, "No I was all happy the whole time." I think you would see through that but, again, I don't like that whatever, right?
Lauren: Yeah, well, I mean, I think too at this point, as you were saying, half of your life has been spent as a doctor now, half of your life was not. And, so, now you're at the point where it's almost tipping to this other life that you've created for you.
Which is something else I do want to talk about did you feel galvanized by the hate or the misunderstanding? Did you say, "I'm going to show you, I'm going to be this person." I just want to understand.
Because here's why I'm asking, when I look at your bio, I remember the first time I looked at your bio the first time you like came up as someone that we were interviewing as the chair of the Metro Coronavirus Task Force. It's 2020, early COVID, and as a journalist, I'm like, "So who is this person? I need to understand who this person is."
I started reading your bio and I was like, "Holy crap! How can any one single person even achieve all the things that you've achieved in their lifetime? Let alone being someone who's, I mean, are you 43? How can, even at that time, a 41-year-old person have done as much as you've done? And so knowing all that, I want to get to the root of that, why have you done all this? Were you galvanized by this bullying even? Were you thinking, "This is what I'm going to do to show other people what I can do?" Or was it something else?
Alex: I don't think it ever was to show somebody else like just, "I'll show you." I don't think that's a good way to live in a way. Because if you're always doing something for someone else in a vengeful way. Now, in life, I'd say there's a few things I, probably, have done for that purpose. I can think of like one or two small things and I'm, like, somebody tells me, "You can't do that." And I just do it to show 'em, so, listen, I'm not that perfect.
But I do think, actually, I don't think, I know most of the great opportunities I've been able to take advantage of is because I'm like, "Man, look at me, what a cool opportunity I've been given because of my past." And, so, I'd be more willing to say yes and make it work. Because, probably, often, whether subconsciously or consciously, realize that this, probably, should never have been given to me. And, so, I take advantage of it and then I'm able to, sometimes, have success at it. And, so, that's what always drives me. So it's not really a vengeful, like, "I'll show you." But, albeit, like I said a couple of times I could very clearly tell you that was the case.
But really is like I tell people this sometimes, and this may sound stupid, but I often think of my life like Forrest Gump. And I watched the show, within the past year, I saw it again, just randomly on TV. And if you remember Forrest Gump, for those, I realize I'm getting old, and Forrest Gump, probably, is like I was in school.
But Forrest Gump would have all these amazing opportunities and then he would take advantage of them. And then he would be running out of ammo go for it at the White House or do the Watergate thing or invest in Apple, like all these random, would appear to be random, things that had to happen to him yes they're sort of random, but they're only random and he's happy to have success, because he said, "Yes." And he recognized that, I recognize that what a neat opportunity I have. And I do have sort of a, if you will, mission statement, Helen made me do this when we first got married, because I used to just say yes to a lot of things.
Lauren: Yeah, and she's like, "You need to say no."
Alex: And I think rightfully so and I'm still not really good at that, but I'm getting there. But at the end of the day, it's what is your ultimate goal and will this help achieve that ultimate goal? And if the answer is "Yes", then the answer to the person asking is "Yes". And, sometimes, I mean, something's got to give.
So you can't do a million things and do it reasonably well and that's just takes a thing maturity to recognize what that is. And, listen, I have failed many of times and I think that's fine, it's okay to fail once you've really tried.
But, so, again, not vengeful, often, but is just recognizing that if my parents made a different choice or if I mean, many steps, I wouldn't have any of these opportunities. And so it's all very, very humbling.
Lauren: Yeah, and I know you, just based on my conversation with your wife, when she painted this picture for me, too, I thought, "Oh, my gosh, what a beautiful thing." I want to understand your relationship with your parents. I know when you speak to them you speak in Farsi. I know that you invite them to every award ceremony, every time that you're honored. Tell me about the honor you have for your parents.
Alex: Man, I mean, literally, everything I can do now is because of them, and not just because they brought me to the world. And, so, I think if they're sitting here they would never be like, "Oh, we missed out on this or that." In fact, I've never heard my parents, once, in all these years, even the hardest times, say, "You know if it wasn't for you, we'd be doing this amazing life." Never, never, and it always surprises me because, gosh, I don't know how you cannot think that.
And, so, for them if I can share a little of, again, really cool honors I've been able to get in the past few years. And even before, I guess, my little, one of your, I believe it's on Channel 4, recently said, "Modest celebrity" was an adjective they used for me and it was awesome. I thought it was really funny, I was like this is super. I was like, "Well, I guess, modest is more than I thought, but modest sounds good."
But I guess if I can share some of that with them, they love it more than me, they do believe the hype. It's amazing. They believe the hype and they'll introduce me their friends as Dr. Alex. And I'm like, "You don't call me Alex in private but if that's how you want to introduce me, go for it." It is so cool.
So, of course, any opportunity I get to take them do something. So we got to go to the Fourth of July fireworks and kind of be in a really cool area and I took them. Or there's something I'm being honored at later next month and, of course, they're the first people I want to take. Or public schools did a thing, of course, I'm going to take my parents.
So the experiences that I perceive that they missed out on, again, it's me perceiving it, not them, they've never verbalized that, I want to include them. And, so, we're doing a little family Disney Cruise in a few months, and my parents are coming with me. Because maybe they wanted to do that when they were in their 40s, and I was 10 or eight-year-old, and they just never could. They've never said that, but I just perceived that.
So, of course, I'm now at a place I can do that, why wouldn't I? Because you never know how long life is. Because, I think, one thing that my day job shows me is the fragility of life.
Lauren: Umph! I bet.
Alex: I have seen a lot of people die at a really young age or a lot of lives changed, because of a moment of God knows what. And, so, maybe that's another reason of my drive to do as much as I can in whatever timeframe. Because we don't all get 90 years, and we don't get good 80 years, sometimes, or good 70 years, so, carpe diem. I mean, you got to do that.
Lauren: I just think it's just so beautiful. I think it's so beautiful. I think your path has just been so different. But to your point about there being so many people who are foreign-born in the city now, maybe it's not as different as we think.
But for a woman who, you know, gosh, all of my relatives have been in this country for hundreds and hundreds of years. As a White woman who grew up as an upper-middle class what do I have? What do I have that would force me to honor my parents in the way that you do? I don't, I don't. I don't have the understanding or that kind of devotion.
So, to me, I hear your story and I'm like, "Wow." You highlight, for me, the level of devotion that maybe we should all have, it makes me want to cry, actually, like the level of devotion we should all have for the people who have given us things. I'm sorry.
Alex: Oh, I feel it.
Lauren: It's just beautiful. It's really, really beautiful. And I'm sorry if I make you uncomfortable by my tears.
Alex: No, I appreciate, I think you're verbalizing how I feel.
Lauren: I do wonder, speaking of tears, I do wonder how often you, in your role, are even crying? I feel like you do deal with so much loss. Are there points where you're like, "This is too much." And if that's even the emotional release that comes from you or if it comes in some other way?
Alex: You know it's interesting I don't cry much, I really don't. And I think about this, actually, more than I've ever realized. I rarely cried at like my grandparents' funerals or I hadn't, I don't cry.
But during this past two years, there were two times I cried in the COVID years. And, actually, I came out with a book and I've actually described this in this because I don't, again, I'm not a crier. So the day that we did the, "Safe at home for everyone." It was a Sunday, I believe. And I was driving up 12South because I live south of town. I was driving up 12South going to Office of Emergency Management and I knew what we were about to announce. And it was dead at 12South, I don’t know if you've, probably, been to 12South, it's always bumping with people.
Lauren: There's always people.
Alex: And I remember I drove by Jeni's Ice Cream and MAFIAoZA'S, and these are places that I would go all the time with my kids. And all of a sudden, I don't know what happened, I just started getting real, I was started getting heavy. I was like, "Holy crap, we're about to do something that I don't know if we necessarily know the implications, but I know it's going to change the life here." I mean, I wasn't even thinking global Nashville, I was thinking just me and my family.
And I remember I had to pull over and it was the weight of the whole thing. And, so, I was like, "What the hell just happened?" It was weird, it was not a normal thing I did. And, I think, through the day job, I've gotten really good about just putting up a wall.
Lauren: And compartmentalizing.
Alex: And, I mean, it's not loss, and we're talking about actually the other time. I'll tell you one time, it's not COVID time that's, probably, the only time clinically ever, as we talked about, I took care of some of the Waffle House victims.
And I remember I walked up Mr. Shaw, and I walked him up to the room, the families wanted to see him. And the first time the father of one of the victims saw him and hugged and embraced, they did and I was right there in the room.
And I was just like, I mean, again, I saw myself as a father. I saw myself and that was, probably, actually, not probably, that was the only time I think, clinically I've ever like, choked up.
Alex: And so I don't do it often, but it's not for a lack of-
Lauren: It's not that you don't feel the emotion, it's just maybe that's not the release that comes?
Alex: But, I think, sometimes the world is heavy and sometimes I think crying is not a bad thing, and it's a great, I mean, I just, again, but what amazing opportunities that have allowed me to be in those positions at that time. And I think you have to humanize it some because I don't think any of those situations are situations in which you're... you can't be a robot.
I don't think you can do any job well if you don't have some level of empathy and sympathy. There's a lot of jobs where people can perceive, like, if you're a CEO of a company, you still need to have some sympathy and empathy as you're thinking about margin. And if you're a physician you definitely need to have some or you're an anchor, I mean, you report on things that impact people's lives forever.
And if you're cold about and heartless about it, somebody just found out their loved one had something tragic happen to them. And you're in there doing something, really, immoral, maybe too strong word, but-
Alex: Heartless, just so you can get the hype for five minutes, that's terrible. And, I think, those people who do that don't last long in any industry.
Lauren: You can see through that and I think even more so then see, I think, there's an awakening happening all over our world, maybe in our society, maybe it's because of COVID. Because I think we are leaning in more and more into feeling our way through situations.
I think COVID really changed a lot for people. Because for the first time our calendars were clear. And we were left with just ourselves and our thoughts. And, so, there was a lot of deep diving of how do I feel in this situation?
So I think people who you're describing, I think, we can all see through and feel through the intention of someone. And if intentions are good then we feel that, if intentions are selfish, I think, we feel that. And maybe it's a skill that gets honed over time by the people who are willing to listen to it.
But I have always felt your intention. But I feel like there's a lot of people who did not. And I will just tell you it has felt always, to me, that it was unfair. That you had been unfairly targeted in the decisions that you had to make. And it wasn't just your decisions, I mean, there's this whole team of COVID people.
You were spending like 60 hours a week on a volunteer position, trying to do the safe thing for Nashville, still seeing patients, still having a family with three young daughters. I don't know, it's just beyond me that people would target you as like, "Why did you shut our city down?" I'm kind of like, "Get over it." But what was your experience in these last couple of years, when people were just, I don't know, just seeing you as the target for making their lives hard. How did you deal with that?
Alex: So I'll tell you, first of all, it was much harder for Helen than for me, which would piss me off more than anything else. Isn't like any anger, it was because it really bothered her. And once we were talking about this and she's like, "Imagine flipping roles, and somebody just talk all the smack about Helen." Of course, I'll be pissed off.
But when it came to me, so one of the things you brought earlier is an Iranian growing up in the South, so there was some bullying that happened. And back then I would just let it go and act like I don't care. And at the end of the day reality is everyone cares, of course, you care. I don't care if you're 13, I don't care if you're 43, about to be 44 you care, of course you care.
But if you're being honest with yourself, and if you believe, which I still do that the decisions that we made, and you're right, it was not just me. I would advise Mayor Cooper and we'd had a lot of other health experts, Dr. Hildreth, others from other places. Dr. Wright, I mean, there were a lot of people, it wasn't my decision in isolation. I mean, and I have to give the mayor some credit because from the beginning he said, "Let the science drive it." Be honest with him and with the public. And I admit sometimes, of course, there were mistakes made, we were all figuring this out in real time.
Lauren: It's new, it's an entirely new thing.
Alex: So what was new to me, which is so fascinating, is there are some really, I don't know what rating this thing is. There's some chumps in this world, I mean, there are some chumps that you just want to-
Lauren: You can say whatever you want.
Alex: ...punch them in their face. I'm a trauma surgeon my language can get rough. But there are some just bad people. And these bad people seem to have a lot of courage behind a screen, which I think is really funny, because if they don't I'd blow them off.
But I've had people come up to me in public and accost me verbally and maybe a couple of times physically. And I'm a 6"2, 200-pound guy who's in good shape and it blows my mind. I'm like, "What is wrong with you?" I, literally, looked at him and I'm like, "What is wrong with you, man?"
And I think that is maybe where, as a society, we have maybe transitioned some from where we were or maybe I was just naive to beforehand. Because I don't think most people feel, and, I think, most people still don't feel that it's okay to bully physically and definitely emotionally. Like I'm emotionally pretty hard.
Lauren: Like, hard to crack, you are saying?
Alex: I'm good, you can talk all the crap you want. You could do whatever funny meme, well, funny memes are real fun but there are not many of those. Like, whatever the hell you want to say go for it, screw you man, I'm fine with it, I'm very comfortable in my skin. I don't believe the hype but I do believe the hype to an extent, I'm very comfortable in my skin. But it's not okay to make someone feel threatened. It's not-
Lauren: Like physically threatened?
Alex: Physically threatened and, more importantly, it's not okay to make somebody's family feel threatened. And, so, when it comes to, does that change one's behavior? It never changed my fundamental beliefs on how we approached things. It never changed decisions we made. Because, again, we followed, from the beginning as the mayor said, the science best practices. And, I think, for me, one thing I've always tried to do, and, I think, I've done it reasonably well now or years ago, is just be straight up. And don't join one camp and just start harping the one camp verbal stuff, I just don't and, I think, it irritates some people. Unfortunately, I think we've just become partisan, right?
Lauren: Super partisan.
Alex: So one could see very clear, I mean, I think if you knew me before, I'm center-left. But I'm not going to harp everything that the left is saying just because that’s what the left's talking point is. and probably your taste is on the left. But on the same token, I'm not going to... you just have to be true, speak the truth. I think most people, most normal people, which is, probably, 89% the world see through that. And the 5% or something on either side that don't, the problem is not me, it's them.
Lauren: And they're very vocal, those 5%.
Alex: And they're very vocal and I think a lot of them are, frankly, cowards. And, the ones that aren't cowards, I mean, listen, I love having an intellectual discussion with anyone or debate, whatever you want to call it, as long as there's civility to it. But the moment you lose your civility, I mean, screw you, I don't need you and I certainly feel about it. And, again, it doesn't really faze me because I feel in my heart we have followed a path that I can justify and I hold that truth for not just the COVID part of my life, but every part of my life. I try to make every decision with the, "Is this really who my inner compass is?" And the decisions that I haven't been led like that are the ones that I often regret and I try to make less of those, as we get older.
Lauren: Yeah, let's play a little game.
Lauren: I like to ask everybody that sits in the chair you're sitting in, a very specific set of questions, are you ready to answer them?
Lauren: Okay, when was the best time of your life?
Alex: I think right now. I mean, I think, what is so cool for me and it's more of a kind of a broader answer. I think, like we're doing this thing with the kids where we're traveling all 50 states.
Lauren: I love that.
Alex: And we just got off one of those trips, just yesterday, just midnight.
Lauren: A few hours ago.
Alex: And it is really cool because it's allowed me to connect with the kids. It allows me to give them an opportunity I never had growing up, and it just brings me joy. And, so, right now and every time we do that is really a great time.
Lauren: I do love that. And how many states have you been to so far?
Lauren: I love that too. Your girls bring so much to you, I know. Do you feel that they ground you or what do you think they've brought for you?
Alex: Oh, they definitely ground me. I mean, they definitely don't believe the hype, I can tell you that. But certainly, it's really fascinating, they roll their eyes when I'm like they see me as anybody.
So what they bring to me is, and I think most parents hopefully will say this, I mean, the kids make you realize that this world is more than just about you. And if my mission statement that Helen has made me hold to is, "Is what you're doing helping the community?" And you can define the community in any way you want.
Whether it's a small microcosm of a house or a work environment or a society. What better way to give to the community than raising three, hopefully, very productive members of that community down the road. And, so, kids are freaking awesome. Sometimes they cause you headaches, but I think any parent can relate with that too. But they're awesome, they really have grown.
Lauren: When is the worst time or was the worst time of your life?
Alex: I think there's two, I think, the early one when we moved to America, what I do remember sometimes there's some hardship. And I think that was one. And then at the beginning of this COVID pandemic, I think, every individual, every single person listening to this or watching this, had some real hardships. And, for us, I had my personal private hardships of how do I balance career, kids are now homeschooled.
I am in an environment where I'm more likely to pick up the disease and bring it home and infect my entire family, including my parents, and potentially kill them we didn't know anything in March of '20. And then balance that with the now public role I had, which I never, in my life, ever thought I mean, I was fine in my obscurity. I, really, I'm totally cool with that. And then there was all this stuff we've talked about the hardships of that. But the beginning of the pandemic was probably one of the more difficult times in my adult life.
Lauren: Yeah. Wow. When was a turning point in your life? That you can look at and say everything changed from that point?
Alex: I think both of the experiences I just told you about.
Lauren: Wow, okay.
Alex: So, obviously, if I had never come to America, at age six, none of this would happen. and, so, that is easy. The pandemic, because I'm not the same guy as I was in February of '20. And, I think, it is on so many levels, but one of them, on one level it's this, we kind of sort of talked about this earlier about how there's always this itch to prove that I could do something.
Alex: I mean, there really is and maybe part of the reason I have said yes to everything is trying to scratch that itch. So can I be this medical doctor? Can I write this paper or this book or whatever? I always would say, "Yes." And then, I think, I've done something big now and it's not saying there's not a drive still.
But the itch is not necessarily there to just to do something, it's to do something that is even going to be more impactful. And I'm just not the same person, I've just view the world a little differently. So without doubt, obviously, moving here at six and then this past couple of years has really changed who I am.
Lauren: Was there a moment of clarity just at any point in your life that you were like, "Aah, this makes sense."
Alex: The pandemic for me. It's allowed me to see clarity of what I want or what I don't want. And I'll tell you this, again, I've had some really amazing opportunities recently. And there's one that's recently come up that two years ago, I would have jumped for million times over.
Lauren: Yeah, like, "Yes, I'll take that opportunity."
Alex: Oh, my God without a second. I don't give... But then over the past, it's not like, I mean, maybe there wasn’t a moment, like the exact moment. But within the past few months I realized, this is what I value, this is what I want to do. Maybe I don't fully have it developed what I want to do, but this, isn't it? And it's hard to make that realization but I'm a lot more at peace. And, also, it helps me to have a partner, I mean, I don't think we've talked about Helen as much. She really is the grounding force for me. I'm totally stealing this from Dr. Dre, okay?
Lauren: Okay, I'm ready, what is it?
Alex: So there's a great documentary called The Defiant Ones. It's a three-part documentary and Dr. Dre was talking about his wife. And I was like, "Holy crap, this clicks for me." He described himself as a kite and his wife is the rock that's holding the kite down.
Alex: And that's not a negative holding down, right?
Lauren: No, no.
Alex: And, so, the kite is still doing this thing and flying and it's doing this, it's having so much fun. But, at least, the kite can keep doing that because if the rock wasn't there the kite would go away into a tree and get stuck. And when he said that it resonated with me so much. Super great documentary, by the way.
But that's how I feel Helen is with me and this clarity points, this turning points, she's helped me. Those have been like I've had these moments in the past few months, and then bouncing it off with her is when you realize, "Yeah, maybe this is the aha moment." And, I think, I'm developing it right now, it's really a neat place to be.
Lauren: Yeah, it's a beautiful way to describe your wife, too, by the way. It's funny because it's in that same way that I've described my relationship with my husband and I'll use two-word pictures. Number one, I've always said like, "If life is a big ocean and you're just sort of floating around in the ocean, I've always been the sail and then my husband is the boat, is the hull of the boat. And the other way I look at it, too is, like, if it's a tree, I'm a tree but he's those deep, deep, deep, deep roots. The only thing that's keeping that tree upright is because it's strongly rooted and there's a steady force.
Alex: To stand on.
Lauren: And I do feel that because, as a tree, what is a tree? Also susceptible to the seasons but when there are strong roots nothing is going to hurt the tree.
Alex: So I'm going to quote you now instead of Dr. Dre.
Lauren: Okay, great, what an honor.
Alex: That does make sense, how you describe it really resonate
Lauren: Because it does require the balance to that to allow, and a strong partner, to allow that to happen in the other person. To allow that person to be who they need to be, what they need to be to go after what they feel really strongly needs to be gone after.
I've got a couple more questions for you. What is something about your nature that you've either overcome, or you continue to overcome?
Alex: My lack of patience. I think, sometimes, maybe it's what allows me to be, I think, be a good surgeon, there's some arrogance there.
Lauren: I don't think there's arrogance, I think it's, probably, acknowledgement.
Alex: But you have to, sometimes, not have patience to be able to make quick decisions and be able to make decisions on limited experience. But, I think, in the world in general, you just need to kind of, slow down, and hear things, and process things, and make more informed decisions, and I've gotten better at that but, sometimes, I think, I can do a lot better.
Lauren: Yeah, is there any particular words or phrases that, phrase, singular, that you find yourself saying a lot right now?
Alex: Well, we talked about it before, but don't believe the hype is really a big one. And then the other one that, sometimes, I'd say a lot to my kids, these days, is suck it up. Because, I think, we want to give our kids so much. But, man, who I am now is because some of the sucking up I've had to do and it stems from hardship.
Alex: And, so, those are, probably, the two things I'd say maybe not as often, maybe verbally and just internally a lot.
Lauren: What's your purpose?
Alex: My purpose I really believe is to give back to the community in which has given me so much. And by community, again, I think, I view that word is that community, for you, might be family. Community could be this room. Community can be bigger. And as long as I feel like I'm positively influencing whatever community I define at the moment, that's it.
And I think long term, as I kind of mentioned earlier is if I can give the community three very successful people, in my daughters, that continue this for generations and hopefully they can pass on to their kids. How neat of a purpose is going to be 100 years from now, when I'm way gone and they look at this story of this, random, kid from Iran who moved here when he was six.
Lauren: Wow, that's so beautiful. Thank you. Thank you for coming here today. Only sleeping however many hours, and then just coming over and doing this, I appreciate it.
Alex: It was really a pleasure, thank you for having me.
Lauren: So what do you think? Tell me in the comments below like it, share it with someone who needs to hear it. I'm adding new videos all the time to help you reconnect yourself and then prepare for purpose. And since you're here, I've gone ahead and linked to my playlist the episode AMPlified, it is shorter clips from each episode, still, though, very much power-packed with encouragement, it's all right here. So thanks for watching and I'll see you next time.
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