By Dr. Alex Jahangir
The following excerpt was adapted from Hot Spot: A Doctor’s Diary from the Pandemic, a memoir of the first year of COVID in Nashville by Dr. Alex Jahangir, head of the Metro Nashville COVID-19 Task Force. Published by Vanderbilt University Press and released Sept. 15, 2022.
I was bullied in elementary and middle school. In Nashville in the 1980s, I was the kid with the weird name from Iran, then considered America’s worst enemy. And I didn’t even own a pair of Air Jordans, the cool kids’ shoe of choice, which my parents had neither the money nor the inclination to buy for my brother and me.
Those days ended when I entered Nashville’s MLK Magnet High School in eighth grade. Established on the site of the city’s first Black high school, it was the first educational environment I’d ever been part of where acceptance was the rule and kids who bullied others were considered losers. I grew happier, grew bolder, and grew up in that inclusive and wonderful place.
But I did not grow out of my anger toward bullies. I just buried it. The pandemic made me realize my anger was still very much alive and well, the wounded anger of a child. As I stepped up in March 2020 to help lead Metro Nashville through a monumental crisis for which there were no easy answers or easy exit, I became aware that the country had become one big schoolyard playground. Bullies were everywhere; social media gave them a platform to virtually arm-twist and intimidate anyone they wanted at any time of day or night—and seemingly without consequence.
When they began to come after me, I did what I had done as a kid. I shrugged off the attacks. I told myself, and anyone who was worried or upset on my behalf, that I didn’t care. That wasn’t true. Of course I cared. Everyone cares. People need to be supported and uplifted by their communities, not torn down. Yet something else happened to me after I accepted the position as head of the Nashville Coronavirus Task Force. I entered a realm of civic leadership that reminded me of walking through the doors of MLK Magnet High School in 1991. Always with the full support of the members of Metro Nashville Board of Health, I joined forces daily with Nashville Mayor John Cooper and his team. No one ever folded or allowed the divisiveness that characterizes the present state of our body politic to dissuade them from taking responsibility and making tough decisions regardless of the fallout. When it came to serving the residents of Nashville, Tennessee, throughout the first year of the pandemic, they wasted as little time as possible worrying about or kowtowing to bullies.
By the time May 4, 2021, arrived, I had evolved into someone who truly felt the same. I was reminded, as I had been when I watched so many families caring for their elderly loved ones, that the pandemic may be turning us into an older country where we realize we don’t always win—and that winning isn’t everything. It may be forcing us to recognize that some things can’t be bested or beaten or screamed at until they retreat.
It is not lost on me that most of the leaders with whom I worked arm-in-arm during the first year of the pandemic were African Americans. Most of the advice I received for how to move past my frustrations and handle adversity was their advice. Most of the actions that revealed to me a brand of leadership selfless enough to rise above criticism and setbacks were their actions.
The typical American story is the story I am proud to call my own—the immigrant escapes oppression, works hard and rises up in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The African American story (and the Native American story as well) is the opposite. It is the story of a civilization that has survived despite slavery, segregation, forced experimentation, redlining, community destruction and systemic injustice. I am reminded of other ancient civilizations, like the one I was born into, that have seen too much war, invasion, disease and disaster over the course of centuries to leave anyone to fend for themselves. Is it any wonder that many of the heroes of the war against COVID in Nashville are products of African American culture? It is also a culture that leaves no one behind, a culture embodied by those Meharry Medical College students going door to door throughout Nashville’s poorest communities, checking up, answering questions, lending a hand.
As the pandemic forces Americans to realize the limits of our ethos of rugged individualism—and reckon with the fact that we cannot simply snap our fingers and fix everything or pack our bags and leave—I am hopeful our country can begin blending American ingenuity with ancient endurance. The one is necessary for us to be who we are, the other to stay who we are.
I am one doctor who led one coronavirus task force in one American city. I was called a hero one day and a villain the next. Neither was true. I did my best for the institution that gave me the greenlight to serve: Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I did my best for my city. I did my best for my family, friends and colleagues. But I never did my best alone. Ultimately, it was not my fight to lead, but to share. Because of the people with whom I shared responsibility, I believe we will never go back to square one, no matter how damaging the fourth surge is or how many surges come after.
There is a saying in trauma surgery: All bleeding stops. I don’t have the answers for when or how. But I believe it will be soon, and I believe we will recover. I have faith in our country’s capacity to do whatever we set our minds to. My faith has been tested and tried since March 2020, and my faith has been restored. We overcame impossible challenges in Nashville. We overcame them nationally. We can do it again.
But until the bleeding stops, we must endure with all the grace we can muster—whether we consider ourselves leaders or not. We must hold our families close and treat one another with respect and compassion. We must care more about others than ourselves. We must leave no one behind.
About the author:
Dr. Alex Jahangir is an orthopaedic trauma surgeon and a professor of orthopaedic surgery, medicine, and health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He is vice president of business development, vice chair of orthopaedic surgery and director of the Division of Orthopaedic Trauma at VUMC.
Dr. Jahangir was appointed to the Nashville Metropolitan Board of Health and served two terms as chair. In March 2020, he was named chair of the Nashville COVID-19 Task Force by Mayor John Cooper. In this capacity, he led the response to the COVID-19 pandemic for Nashville, including the development and implementation of policies that mitigated the spread of the virus, increased access to testing and assessment for all in the community, established a robust public health infrastructure, and served as a principal source of information to the public regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in Nashville. He served as head of the task force for the entire two years of its existence.