Rare Disease Researcher Dr. Gaurav Goyal Found His Way Through
There’s a tongue-in-cheek saying, which uniquely applies itself to those who devote themselves to the medical field: You must put your own oxygen mask on before you help others.
Finding the balance between helping others and not getting lost yourself is a quiet reality medical professionals face. Some clinicians struggle with the pressure to obtain prestige from academic circles in order to raise money and awareness. Others treat chronically ill or dying patients while advocating for better resources. And even more individuals are trying to find answers for complex research-based questions while the clock is ticking for those impacted by a specific condition. This burden is heavy, which means a prioritization for self care is needed in order to thrive.
Dr. Gaurav Goyal is a physician scientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a focus on lymphoma and histiocytic disorders. He has been the principal investigator on 13 grants related to his field of study, published in a long list of academia articles, and works with patient communities and rare disease specialists to help find answers to difficult rare disease questions. This work also translates into the clinical and translational research he conducts to improve patient outcomes.
Dr. Goyal, who received a 2022 Uplifting Athletes Young Investigator Draft grant in partnership with ECD Global Alliance, found himself grappling to find balance between pressure and perseverance when he came to the United States from India in 2011 to advance his medical career.
During his first three years in America, far away from his family, loved ones, and friends, Dr. Goyal realized he was struggling internally.
"I came from a different country. My focus, of course, was in doing good by getting good scores and helping patients,” Dr. Goyal said. “[On the surface level] I was strong. For me, though, the sense of community was lost. Eventually I realized I was not taking care of myself. I lost the true essence of who I was.”
He recalled, fondly, where his passion for medicine stemmed from—working with his father who is a physician in India. Helping rural communities through their illnesses brought a great joy to his father.
In order to rekindle his purpose, Dr. Goyal leaned on these memories and centered in on mindfulness practices and meditation—two huge components that help him define who he is.
“Self love is the first step. And people matter. I went to a retreat for a whole weekend to sit with myself and meditate,” Dr. Goyal said. “I needed to discover the inherent goodness that lies within all of us. If you just slow down and stop running around, you realize that you already have exactly what it takes to be good to others and help people.”
This fierce compassion is important, but what happens when cracks start appearing in a person’s foundation? What happens when things that once seemed easy become more difficult? It takes more than perseverance to ride the medical research and academia waves of setbacks, failures, and struggles to find success.
It wasn’t until he decided to pursue his fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota where wellness and community started to fall into place to enhance his ability to overcome personal and professional obstacles. Ultimately, wellness or the ability to be resilient and avoid burnout, became the key to how Dr. Goyal navigated his journey.
“Burnout is high. I was trying to find meaning in academic success,” Dr. Goyal said. “When I would have a setback I realized I didn’t have the tools back then to bounce back. At the Mayo Clinic we had humanism in medicine series. It was helpful to discover the power of community and it was instrumental in practicing more compassion when it came to dealing with patients.”
When in fellowship, Dr. Goyal went home to India for a brief trip and could not re-enter the United States for several months because of visa delays. The possibility of him being unable to continue his training and rare disease research at UAB was real. He realized during this time that like all things, difficult times are also impermanent. He started working on building his resiliency toolkit through regular mindfulness practices after this event. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he lost his mother, whom he had a close and deep relationship with.
“I was very close to her. Thankfully I was working on [my own coping mechanisms] and was already on a good path,” Dr. Goyal said. “Otherwise … it would have been very hard. It actually served to strengthen my desire to keep doing this. I was resilient.”
After experiencing the benefits of mindfulness practices in his own life, he decided to spread the awareness among others as well. He pursued a mission to lead an official wellness and resiliency program within the hematology-oncology training program at UAB. In this program he serves as a wellness coach and shares his own struggles and provides an overall message of letting the trainees know it’s okay to be human.
"This program has two purposes. The first is to prioritize our community as being made up of humans first and physicians second. The second purpose is to empower individuals with the tools to be kind to themselves and to others," Dr. Goyal said. "When you are dealing with sick and dying patients you need to take care of yourself too. In that moment, no matter what you are feeling, you need to know what you are feeling is okay. Whether you can or can't do something about it, you should have the tools to be in that moment and get through it. When you are able to be there for yourself, you will realize that you are able to do even more for your patients. You can’t help others meaningfully if you yourself are running low on gas. "