March 10, 2021

Murfreesboro heart clinic reveals power of diversity

In suburban Murfreesboro, just a short drive off Interstate 24, is one of the most diverse practices and clinics in Vanderbilt Health.

The diversity represented at Vanderbilt Heart Murfreesboro includes, from left, Ahmad Abu-Halimah, MD, Murali Kolli, MD, Ravinder Manda, MD, and David Dantzler, MD.
The diversity represented at Vanderbilt Heart Murfreesboro includes, from left, Ahmad Abu-Halimah, MD, Murali Kolli, MD, Ravinder Manda, MD, and David Dantzler, MD.

In suburban Murfreesboro, just a short drive off Interstate 24, is one of the most diverse practices and clinics in Vanderbilt Health.

Vanderbilt Heart Murfreesboro, 1370 Gateway Boulevard, Suite 200, has faces that are Middle Eastern, Indian American, African American, Hispanic and white. And those are just the physicians.

“We ended up with this beautiful diversity in our clinic,” said Ahmad Abu-Halimah, MD, assistant professor of Clinical Medicine, who helped found the Murfreesboro location.

“All of these colors are here. We have Christians, we have Muslims, we have Jews and we have Hindus. It’s really awesome.”

Vanderbilt Heart Murfreesboro started in 2009 by combining Abu-Halimah, newly hired, with the existing practice of Murali Kolli, MD, assistant professor of Clinical Medicine, and Ravinder Manda, MD, assistant professor of Clinical Medicine. In the ensuing years, it has only grown more diverse, adding J.C. Estrada, MD, assistant professor of Medicine, who is Hispanic, and David Dantzler, MD, assistant professor of Clinical Medicine, who is African American. Rounding out the clinic are Allen Naftilan, MD, PhD, associate professor of Medicine, and Geoffrey Chidsey, MD, assistant professor of Medicine.

The doctors at the clinic talked about how their diversity has added a multifaceted richness to patient care. On one hand, a patient who is not a minority has the opportunity to meet doctors who have a different ethnic background, opening doors to understanding. On the other, minority patients will most likely find a physician who looks like them, which builds trust in communities that have been historically neglected by medicine.

Dantzler has noticed this time and again in encounters with African American patients.

“I can’t count the number of times over the years where I may get a wink, smile or a nod from someone who looks like me,” he said. “They may tell me that they have never had a Black doctor before and, warranted or not, I may automatically be gifted a certain level of trust from them. That can help break down boundaries that they may feel with other physicians. Of great concern to me are the disparities in the offering and delivery of health care to certain populations. To battle this I think we need to not be color blind, but to see everyone’s colors and truly appreciate the background that comes with each person’s experience. Once we achieve that, we are one step closer to closing the gap in these disparities.”

Abu-Halimah echoed Dantzler’s sentiments. He readily acknowledges that patients may be first taken aback by his thick accent and a face that doesn’t look like theirs.

“Then you establish this bond with them, and you have a wonderful relationship with these patients, then suddenly these patients realize that they don’t look at this anymore,” he said. “They don’t think they’re talking to somebody with an accent. They don’t think they’re talking to somebody of a different ethnic background. They feel that they’re talking to somebody like them. And at that point, the reality that the patients understand is that we’re all equal, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds. That by itself is a huge achievement.”

Abu-Halimah shared a story about his mosque, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, which drew protests starting in 2009 for simply planning to expand. One of those protesters subsequently had a heart attack and became one of Abu-Halimah’s patients in the ICU. Before seeing him, a nurse informed Abu-Halimah that the man felt uncomfortable being treated by the doctor because he was among the protesters of his mosque.

Abu-Halimah assured the patient that he would treat him just as he would treat a member of his family.

“I want you to express your freedom of speech,” he recalled saying to the man. “And I’m going to promise you, I’m going to treat you like you are a brother to me. And he said, ‘you’re calling me brother?’ I said, ‘I’m calling you brother.’”

A week later, the man was back in the Vanderbilt waiting room declaring, “I was against Muslims before. Now I am supporting their freedom of religion. I was treated by Abu, who is a Muslim guy.”

Abu-Halimah added, “This, for me, I felt was probably better than a Nobel Prize.”

Kolli adds yet another dimension. He has the skin of a man born in India and the accent of a man raised in small-town Alabama, where his parents were doctors. He grew up among some prejudice and remembers joining in when his friends would make fun of his father’s accent, just to fit in. He regrets it now, but understands why he did it and it shapes the way he treats patients now.

“Once you understand how being seen as something ‘other than’ can make you feel, it makes you more empathetic toward other cultures and other religions and other genders,” he said.

He said building understanding is more challenging now, in the current political climate. But barriers of understanding are still broken individual by individual.

“I think the way you combat that is just to keep doing the right thing,” he said. “Keep treating people the right way.”

Vanderbilt Heart Murfreesboro is a comprehensive clinic, with 36 faculty and staff, including seven physicians, four nurse practitioners and other office staff. They take a team approach — from the front-line patient care specialists to the doctors — to meet patient needs on a schedule that works for them.

The doctors are especially proud of pioneering the concept of same-day access to a specialist for patients who have an emergent issue, saving the trip to the emergency department. The concept has since spread to other Vanderbilt clinics.

“It’s not the severity of the illness that determines whether you need to be seen or not,” Kolli said. “It’s the discomfort that someone is feeling. If you’re having chest pain, you don’t know if it’s indigestion or a heart attack. It worries you that it might be something serious and might need to be seen immediately. It’s about comforting the patients. I think diversity is part of that.”

André Churchwell, MD, Levi Watkins Jr., MD Professor and Chief Diversity Officer for VUMC, said, “As one of the senior (meaning older) cardiologists in VHVI, I have had the pleasure of knowing most of the members of this clinic when they were either in their residency or cardiology training or both. In witnessing them in the crucible of difficult cardiac decision-making, we knew they were our best new faculty selections, to be part of a growing new clinic, in one of the fastest growing counties in the country.

“We recognize them not just as great cardiologists, but great human beings, who continually connect with their patients like they are part of their family. Their humane care, in this outstanding clinic, reflects one of the exemplary habits promulgated by my late, great mentor, J. Willis Hurst, MD, on ‘what good doctors try to do every day’ — they give a small piece of themselves to every patient. You know this is the case, when you talk with their patients,” Churchwell said.