Heval Kelli (B.S. ’08)
Cardiologist and Health Education Volunteer
Heval Kelli and his family sought refuge in the U.S. after fleeing Syria in 2001. Now a cardiologist, he’s stepping up to help with COVID-19 testing efforts in the community that took them in.
I WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW this is what a refugee looks like. It’s someone who can save your life.
During this crisis, I’ve been volunteering in Clarkston through health education and prevention programs. The Ethne Health nonprofit clinic that serves the city took the lead and started to educate the public about the virus from day one. They hosted one of the first free drive-through testing sites for Clarkston, which became an example for Georgia. I worked with other physician volunteers to educate people about the event by working with community leaders so they understood the severity of the crisis.
Many refugees have limited access to testing and care due to language barriers. And while there is a lack of access to information due to those barriers, there is also an abundance of misinformation. Some refugees are afraid to speak up about being infected due to the stigma of being labeled as COVID-19-positive.
But for this event over two days, we had more than 100 volunteer interpreters on call. I triaged patients to be tested. People were so appreciative to see all the volunteers who were there for them. It reminded me of the time a group of church members came to my house when we arrived here. We felt relieved that someone cared about us. I sensed the same feeling at this event.
We did 150 tests, and the data showed 24.5 percent were positive. Out of those, 60 percent were people ages 20 to 39.
I was also exposed to relatives who tested positive. I had similar symptoms of fever, cough and fatigue. I was concerned for several reasons. I have elderly parents with medical problems who live with us. My wife, Kazeen Abdullah, is also a Kurdish refugee and a doctor, and we have a 1-year-old baby. I was anxious as I knew I had to stay home while someone else covered my work. I wanted to be there for my team. Fortunately, I tested negative.
My co-workers are wonderful. Everyone is trying to be there for each other. Although this is a new virus and there is a lot to learn, they are up to date with new information. They are dedicated to serving our patients during these times while trying to protect themselves and others. So, while I’m ready to help my patients and my community, I’m also being very careful to protect my family. But I felt I had to do the drive-through testing in Clarkston because the city welcomed me and my family when we were refugees. It was my turn to give back during another crisis.
I’ve also helped Georgia State’s Prevention Research Center (PRC) with a proposal that was focused on serving Clarkston and the refugee community. While the COVID-19 crisis is creating some challenges in advancing our work due to social-distancing measures, we’ve had opportunities to expand through social and digital media. In collaboration with PRC advisers and experts, I started to host community panels by inviting COVID-19 experts to educate the public and various immigrant and refugee communities.
It’s all been done through a livestream where the audience can engage with the experts. In a series called “I Had COVID-19,” we had people with the virus share their personal experiences while raising awareness. Another was “I Fight COVID-19” with health care workers from the frontlines. We can reach more people and bring information into their homes through personal stories and panels of experts. I am just the servant who is connecting people.
My parents told me I owed a book to those who taught me the alphabet. I owe volumes to people at Clarkston High School where I learned to speak English, at Georgia State where I had great mentors in chemistry and biology who believed I could be a physician, and at Emory where I’ll finish in June before joining Northside Cardiovascular Institute in Gwinnett County. I owe these places not just as a physician but as someone on the frontlines and as an advocate for the community. I do it because I want to come back and be there for the person I remember I used to be.
Photo by Tom Griscom