Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Dr. Soniya Gandhi
Aug 19, 2021 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Meet Dr. Soniya Gandhi, infectious disease specialist at Cedars-Sinai and Vice President of Medical Affairs and Associate Chief Medical Officer. In January 2020, Dr. Gandhi led the medical team that treated the first patient in Los Angeles known to have contracted SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, after traveling from Wuhan, China, to L.A.
We talked to Dr. Gandhi about her work as an infectious disease specialist during the pandemic, how her experiences traveling and volunteering abroad solidified her commitment to healthcare as a human right, and the many peaks she's reached as an avid hiker.
"My time abroad really affirmed that healthcare is a human right. Regardless of your ethnicity or nationality, every individual deserves high-quality healthcare."
What inspired you to become a physician?
Dr. Soniya Gandhi: Even at a young age, the concept of serving the underserved was very important to my family. I've always wanted to be in a service profession.
While in medical school, I took time off to volunteer abroad at rural clinics in Tanzania, Peru and southern India. These experiences were profoundly transformative for me as a physician. Infectious diseases tend to impact low socioeconomic classes. Working in resource-limited settings solidified my passion for global healthcare.
My time abroad really affirmed that healthcare is a human right. Every person needs to be healthy to achieve their full potential. Regardless of your ethnicity or nationality, every individual deserves high-quality healthcare.
You were in charge of the unit that treated the very first COVID-19 patient in L.A. What was that like?
SG: Media reports about the spread of coronavirus in China was something that, as an infectious disease specialist, I was paying very close attention to early on. On Jan. 23, 2020, I got a call at 2:30 a.m. that there was an individual in the emergency room who had traveled from Wuhan with a fever who was highly suspected of having contracted the virus that causes COVID-19.
We initially treated the patient in the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital and we made the decision to transfer the patient to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for treatment and observation.
As an infectious disease specialist, I did think that COVID-19 was going to spread outside of Wuhan eventually, but I don't know if anyone could have predicted this.
With the first patient, it was a moment to recognize that the virus is now in our backyard. In less than two months, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.
What have you learned in your role at Cedars-Sinai during the pandemic?
SG: We were so nimble in this past year and able to adjust to whatever this pandemic threw at us. We really came together as a team.
There were many times where I was grateful that Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital was part of the Cedars-Sinai health system, from being able to rely on the medical center for PPE to transferring patients to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center when needed.
What is the difference between an epidemiologist and an infectious disease specialist?
SG: I like to describe my job as being a "disease detective"—finding the cause of the disease, determining the risk of the disease and figuring out how to prevent it.
The difference between an epidemiologist and an infectious disease specialist is how we are trained. An infectious disease physician has a medical degree and completes a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in infectious disease.
Typically, an epidemiologist has a master's in public health and tends to focus more on the public health aspect of infectious disease prevention.
"I like to describe my job as being a "disease detective"—finding the cause of the disease, determining the risk of the disease and figuring out how to prevent it"
From your perspective, how do you think COVID-19 will change how we approach the spread of infectious diseases in the future?
SG: There are many global factors contributing to the chances of another pandemic. An increase in global travel, adventure sports, urbanization and humans going into environments we have not been previously, such as deep into the tropics—all of these factors could generate another epidemic or pandemic.
As we've seen, the need for a strong public health infrastructure, not just nationally, but internationally as well, is becoming much more important.
Looking at the COVID-19 pandemic and what it's taught us, we need to separate politics from science, irrespective of where you are on the political spectrum. In the U.S., unfortunately we combined the two, and I think this was detrimental to our response to COVID-19.
You're an avid alpinist. How did you get interested in hiking high peaks?
SG: Growing up, my family was very nature-oriented: We were outdoor enthusiasts. We would go to national parks, and as a result I became very passionate about hiking.
I got into climbing as an undergrad. I've always been driven by challenges. I've summitted Mount Kilimanjaro, which has an elevation of 19,000 ft.
The highest peak I've reached is just under 25,000 ft., in the Peruvian Andes. I've done climbs in Nepal, the Himalayas, Peru and Africa.
Wow! Any plans to do another challenging climb soon?
SG: Honestly, I have a 4-year-old son, so I'm in a different stage of life at the moment. I still have all my climbing equipment, mountaineering ropes and ice hacks. I hope to dust those off and get back into it.
In the near future, I'm taking a trip with my son to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Forest. I want to introduce him to the joys of nature. Doing anything in nature is very inspiring and calming, very peace-inducing for me.