2023 AHA Physician of the Year followed his dream of making a difference
When Dr. Manesh Patel's phone rings in the middle of the night, it's likely because someone is having a heart attack. Patel, the chief of cardiology and clinical pharmacology at Duke University School of Medicine, knows he needs to jump out of bed and race to the hospital. A life is on the line.
Some might see this part of the job — the long and unpredictable work hours — as an inconvenience. A downside. But not Patel.
To him, it's a privilege.
"I grew up thinking about how I could make a difference in the world," said Patel, an interventional cardiologist who was born in Uganda and raised to find ways to be of service to others. He's driven "by that feeling we get when we feel we are making a difference," he said. "It is a privilege to get to do this as a physician."
Whether he's opening blocked arteries, mentoring the next generation of physicians, chairing the American Heart Association's annual Scientific Sessions, researching peripheral vascular disease or talking to patients about lifestyle opportunities for heart health, Patel sees every aspect of his job as an opportunity to improve lives. "I've been doing it for 16 years, and when they call me in the middle of the night, I'm excited. It's a big opportunity I have, to touch lives. Caring for people can have a long-lasting effect."
Patel's passion and dedication to patient care have not gone unnoticed. Because he personifies the AHA's mission to be a "relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives," Patel has been named the 2023 Physician of the Year. He will be honored June 14 during the AHA's National Volunteer Awards event, a virtual ceremony that is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Central and is open to the public.
Patel said he chose to specialize in cardiology because it allowed him to apply science to save lives — and continue to learn in the process. He divides his time between patient care, mentoring and research, but each provides opportunities for learning how to improve people's lives, he said.
"I want to be discovering things while we deliver care, and learning how to deliver care while we are making discoveries," Patel said. He encourages doctors in his division to speak with patients about their goals and preferences and to turn clinical procedures into teachable moments — such as talking to people getting stents about the need to increase physical activity levels so they can live the lives they want. "Sometimes, it's telling grandma this is what you need to do to be able to go have ice cream with the grandkids," he said.
Sometimes, it also means following his own advice. Patel remembers one patient who was overweight with diabetes and had a heart attack in his 30s. He helped the man come up with an eating and exercise plan. But Patel also was 50 pounds overweight at the time. The man challenged him to do the same.
"I started riding a bike, watching my diet," he said. The pounds came off — of both men. "I saw him in clinic last week, and he was ripped. He's healthy. It gives me joy when someone does something you think they can't do."
Patel also derives joy from collaborating with his colleagues as a volunteer for the AHA. As chair of the Scientific Sessions the past two years, he worked with the AHA team to find ways to add value to the meeting that people couldn't get online. For example, they set up areas where young investigators could have mentoring sessions with leaders in the field and hands-on interactive areas for clinicians to learn about new imaging devices, and encouraged more interactions during poster sessions.
"Camaraderie is so important at these meetings," he said. "It's a place where the next generation can come to learn and share, but you want the ability to interact with people."
And animals. As vice chair in 2019 Patel, with the AHA leadership, oversaw the addition of a "puppy booth," where visitors could pet puppies to help lower their blood pressure during the meeting. "It had one of the longest lines there," he said.
A local animal shelter operated the booth, and it found homes for all the dogs. "Other meetings are copying this now," he said, which is the highest form of praise.
Patel has a soft spot for dogs. Mr. Boscoe, a chocolate labradoodle named by Patel's wife, Sallie, brings joy to the family's home in Durham, North Carolina, where the couple is raising two teenagers.
The Patels — both physicians — share a passion for health with their children around the dinner table. "We talk about how we can affect people's lives, how we can be healthy ourselves," he said. And just as he was encouraged to make a difference in the world, he encourages his children to do the same. "I tell them to figure out something they are passionate about it, what they can do to make the world a little bit better place."