Connecting our world at UW Medicine

Get to Know: Nikhil Desai, Primary Care

Nikhil Desai, DO, joined UW Medicine in January 2021 and specializes in primary care and family medicine with a focus on osteopathic principles. He is a UW School of Medicine clinical instructor and practices at UW Medicine in Ballard.

Let’s Get to Know Him:

What or who inspired you to pursue a career in medicine?

I always gravitated toward science and how things worked. As a kid, my parents gave me a Charlie Brown encyclopedia set and one volume was about the human body. I gave myself assignments and wrote them on my dad’s typewriter.

One was about tendons and ligaments and, since I gravitated toward long words, I included that I wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. It was very specific! I was nine years old and my parents were taken aback by my sudden interest. From that point forward, I wanted to become a doctor.

What was your path to pursuing a career in medicine?

In college, I was still set on becoming a doctor, but my best friend inspired me to take a six-week Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) course. It was intense training and I absolutely loved it. First responders are completely selfless. They save others without worrying about themselves. For a few months, I considered becoming a firefighter or EMT.

I ultimately returned to medicine, but with reinvigorated focus. What stayed with me from the EMT training was the selfless attitude. It still influences me as a doctor. The goal is to help people — no excuses, no fear, lead with your heart.

Was there a specific inspiration for pursuing your specialty of family medicine and primary care?

Desia and his dog Oso.
Desai and his dog Oso.

I studied clinical exercise as an undergraduate and intended to pursue sports medicine. I was accepted to medical school, but that year’s class was over-enrolled, so I accepted an incentive to defer for a year. I gained work experience at a Johns Hopkins Medicine clinical research lab and did group exercise instruction for the federal government.

On my first day of medical school, I had an epiphany that I actually wanted to pursue family medicine. I think my experiences outside of school influenced the decision. Primary care is often the first stop for patients and I wanted to be in a position to see and do everything from the start of their journey.

What is your philosophy and approach to medicine?

My family has been instrumental in guiding me toward a life of service. My parents are immigrants from Africa and India and I didn’t grow up wealthy. I was sometimes on the 40-cent reduced school lunch program. Even without always having much ourselves, it was still role modeled that you help those even less fortunate and contribute to the community.

I participated in the National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program, and they contributed to my medical school tuition in exchange for me practicing in underserved communities for three years after my residency. That first brought me to the Puget Sound.

I try to bring a sense of gratitude and appreciation to my practice. What do others have to go through to receive medical care? How can we better understand one another? What can I do — what can we all do — to dig deeper to help those around us?

What was your path to joining UW Medicine?

I made the move to UW Medicine because of the incredible resources. Investments are made throughout every department of primary care: patient navigation, nursing staff, social work, nutrition, care management and more. That’s all in addition to what I do as a doctor. It’s an organized, thoughtful, comprehensive approach.

What are your professional goals moving forward?

I love to teach and my goal is to be more involved on the education side. The word “doctor” actually means teacher (derived from the Latin docēre). Providing general knowledge and good information both to peers and patients can also help even the playing field. We need to continue chipping away at social disparities, classism, racism and the divide between perceived haves and have-nots.

What other passions shape your outlook?

Desia and his wife, Lavanya, at a family wedding
Desai and his wife, Lavanya, at a family wedding in a Richmond, VA, May 2019.

Being active is as much a personal focus as professional. Exercise for me is everything from weightlifting and hiking to dancing around the kitchen while cooking. I love to cook! I make the world’s best guacamole. The secret is a dash of cumin.

I’m also a big fan of “old-school” World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) wrestling, from the ’90s to the early 2000s. If I was a WWE superstar, I’d like my character to be something clever and sinister, but in real life I’m just an incredibly corny, jokey kind of guy. People figure that out pretty quickly. I embrace my goofiness!

How did COVID-19 change, reinforce or influence your approach to medicine?

The past year has been challenging for everyone. I ultimately faced a period of burnout and, for the first time, had to step back, rejuvenate and take care of my own health. We faced terrible things during the pandemic, but there were also quiet victories: babies born, people caring and connecting with one another, increased clarity about what’s important. It’s that shared human experience which now connects me even more closely with patients.

Guest Writer: Deanna Duff

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