Imagine being pregnant with your first child and working as an ER doctor in one of New York’s busiest trauma hospitals when all of a sudden COVID-19 hits — and you find yourself in the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. For some, this would be a perfectly valid reason to call it quits, but not for Dr. Poonam Desai, who went back to her job with renewed force, walking right into the frontlines of ta hospital in Queens, determined to take care of her patients.
Until, that is, one day when she inevitably tested COVID positive.
Desai is a quintessential super-achiever. The dancer, educator, doctor, health expert, and Instagram sensation all rolled into one is a veritable powerhouse of success. Born to immigrant Gujarati parents, who moved to the US with little to nothing in their pockets, Dr. Desai believes her story is an ode to their struggle.
“I was very fortunate to have a career where I was able to help people and especially people who are in need,” she said. “So it was never a question in my mind whether I would go to work or not during my pregnancy, but it was always in the back of my mind that I may get sick and that it would affect the pregnancy.”
Despite her willingness to work, it wasn’t clear what the long-term consequences of the virus would be, on mother or child. And if that weren’t enough, working in the ER while pregnant is not easy — pandemic or not. “Being pregnant, I had to go to the washroom a lot, and that would require me to take everything off, my PPE [personal protective equipment], and then put it back on,” said Dr. Desai. An expecting mother is a little shorter of breath than the average person, and the PPE can be quite uncomfortable, making it difficult to breathe. Plus, pregnant or not, one still has to clock in the regular 12-hour shift in the ER where patient after patient would roll in, all through the night.
Dr. Desai assumes, like many of her other colleagues, that she contracted the coronavirus at the ER in Queens, among the hardest hit neighborhoods in the world.
Her symptoms, thankfully, were mild – ranging from a sore throat to headache, and the loss of smell and taste. But she was unstoppable.
Despite being quarantined at home, Dr. Desai would still want to work and be of help and only very painfully gave in to the idea that she would have to work from home after testing positive. So the most pivoting she had to do was to teach herself how to be okay with this situation.
“In terms of mental health, this was the first time in my life that I had to be at home,” she said. “Growing up, even though I had a lot of hobbies, I found myself working hard in school, trying to get the grades to become a doctor one day. I felt like my entire life I’ve been constantly on the go.”
So the peak of the pandemic was the only time Dr. Desai found herself at home with the newfound challenge of figuring out how to make the most of it. She rose to the occasion. She saw, and continues to see, patients virtually, and took up hobbies like cooking and meditation. With all social plans canceled, she took the diagnosis as a blessing.
Dr. Desai’s Early Path
Born and raised in Southern California, Dr. Desai happened to end up in NY for residency in Emergency Medicine at 25, stayed for a Fellowship and then ultimately, to work. She grew up in a tight-knit, conservative family — “we always had people in my house” — and still abstains from eating meat or consuming alcohol. “I developed a love and a passion for dance,” she said, because of her mother, who enrolled her in various classes.
Dr. Desai later completed her training in the classical dance form of Bharatnatyam. Apart from that, she’s a pro at Bollywood dancing and has even performed a set at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Her popular Instagram account is a testament to her love for dancing, medicine and fitness.
She delivered on many of her family’s expectations and never really saw herself as the “rebellious one” but did not check all the boxes when it came to what her parents wanted. The expected trajectory for Dr. Desai would be to marry a Gujarati man and settle down. Her father worked at a gas station, put himself through college, and became a chemical engineer. In many ways, Dr. Desai fulfilled her parent’s dream of achievement and thanks to that, her success seems much sweeter.
But in doing so, she has also shattered many stereotypes assigned to South Asian women. Moving to New York City gave her greater independence. “I didn’t have to come home and explain all of my decisions and hear opinions from everybody; whether it was this auntie or your uncle or you grandma or whoever,” Dr. Desai said candidly. “Previously, my entire life, I thought I’m going to marry a Gujarati person, I’m going to follow the route that society established for me.”
During her early days in the City, she was only interested in dating Gujarati men “because that’s what I was told to do.” But even though she tried, nothing felt right, until she met her now-husband, a businessman of Jewish descent, on the dating app Bumble.
A Modern Marriage
After getting to know him over the years, and taking note of how he respected her religious beliefs and how well he got along with her family and friends — “better than some of the Indian men I’ve dated”— she knew he was it. “He doesn’t have to be Indian to be perfect for me. He just has to be perfect for me. That was very important for me to understand,” Dr. Desai said. But convincing the family was a task. “It was a bit of a hurdle for my family at first, but it was more about them understanding that this was my happiness.”
As a symbol of synthesis, the couple’s wedding was performed by both a rabbi and pandit on stage, intertwining both the Hindu and Jewish ceremonies. “I wasn’t going to give up my identity to be with my husband, my culture and my background, and the same went for him. We knew that we were going to just bring our cultures together and see how much of both we can pass on,” said Dr. Desai.
Dr. Desai has become an example of a happy and diverse marriage, in many ways reflecting the quintessential American dream her parents first immigrated in pursuit of. Today, the couple celebrates each other’s festivals and hopes that their child will be proud of being both Jewish and Hindu at the same time.
The Path Ahead
Dr. Desai is due with her first child any moment now and continues to practice telemedicine from home. Being South Asian in the medicine world is more of a boon than a challenge, she thinks. So was her experience with COVID any different?
“I think the only thing different for me, which was probably cultural, was my family,” she said. “They were calling every single day to check-in. Every single person you could imagine was checking in daily, and they were telling me that I can’t go back to work even if I wanted to.”
Dr. Desai records her work and fitness mantras on social media regularly. So what then is her ultimate message for South Asian women? “Ask yourself what makes you happy; and if that aligns with your morals and values, don’t give up on it,” she said. “If you follow that in every aspect of your life — like choosing your career or choosing a partner — it will make you much happier and much more confident with your decision.“
If you liked this piece, you might also like the stories of Mothers during the Pandemic
This story comes from the July 2020 issue of SEEMA Magazine, check it out here!