Fellow For Life Rahul Gaini: “Mentors are everything.”

By: Javacia Harris Bowser

Fellow For Life Rahul Gaini spent his Albert Schweitzer Fellowship year striving to improve mental health conditions in Alabama’s pediatric population. Following emergency department visits at Children’s of Alabama, psychiatric patients were often given a follow-up appointment at the Crisis Clinic – which many patients were unable to make. Rahul sought to change that.

As a result of his project, 36 patients deemed at risk of not attending their clinic appointments received navigation services and did show up for their follow-up care.

Thanks to handouts, reminder calls and texts, and because patients had the opportunity to work with hospital staff to choose the best appointment date, more children got the treatment they needed. Furthermore, a DHR child abuse case was reopened because a patient who spoke very little during previous visits was able to use a whiteboard at the Crisis Clinic to draw out the abuse she was experiencing.

Rahul credits his site mentor Cynthia “Cindy” Jones with giving him the guidance and support he needed to pull off a successful project. Cindy serves as director of the Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) at Children’s Hospital.

At the time of his fellowship during the 2019-2020 academic year, Rahul was in medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His courses at UAB gave him the foundational knowledge he needed for his project.

“But I had very little information on how to actually execute next steps,” Rahul says. “Cindy having so much experience at the Psychiatric Intake Response Center, knowing the culture, the responsibilities of each person there, and how the flow of every day looked – that was really, really valuable.”

But this wasn’t the only reason Rahul nominated Cindy for 2019-2022 Mentor of the Year – which she won.

“Cindy did a great job asking about not only how she could help me with my project, but how I could grow as a person,” Rahul says. “I felt like I could talk to her not only about the project but also any conflicts going on in my life. And so, I felt connected to her at a professional and personal level.”

Cindy says she thinks her profession has a lot to do with that.

“I am a licensed professional counselor,” she says. “I don’t ever lose that. No matter what I’m doing, that’s always part of me. So it really mattered to me how he was doing in all areas.”

So, she not only wanted to know how his project was going but also how he was balancing the project with medical school and everything else.

Rahul hopes that he can model this type of mentorship in the future.

“When I get to the level in my career that I can start mentoring other people, I hope to not only teach them the ins and outs of medicine, but also to support them in their endeavors personally, too,” he says.

Teaching By Doing

Rahul is currently completing a residency at Duke University Hospital, where he’s doing his training in neurology.

“I think there’s a lot of overlap between some of the projects I’m pursuing now and the lessons I learned when I was part of the Psychiatric Intake Response Center and Crisis Clinic project in Birmingham,” Rahul says.

One lesson Cindy taught him was to lead by doing. When he wanted nurses in the emergency psychiatric departments to distribute informational handouts, Cindy encouraged him to show up and help pass out the documents. He saw how this increased buy-in from the nurses.

He now uses this same rule of teaching or leading by doing in his work at Duke.

What Makes a Good Mentor

When Cindy was asked to serve as Rahul’s site mentor, she says it was an easy yes.

Located in the Emergency Department at Children’s of Alabama, the Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) is a free, confidential phone response center designed to help adult callers and community providers find the appropriate level of mental health care. Services are provided via telephone by licensed mental health clinicians who are trained to assess a child or teen’s mental, emotional, and behavioral needs and recommend the best treatment options.

“I always feel like we should be in the community letting people know about this service and also educating about children’s behavioral health,” Cindy says. And she felt that being a part of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship was an opportunity to do both.

So what does it take to be mentor of the year? Cindy believes that mentors should, first and foremost, “remember that you’re looking at the whole person — mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.”

She says mentors should also be good listeners and be open to their mentees’ ideas.

“I may be someone who has more life experience, more professional experience, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not open to ideas from other younger people with less experience,” Cindy says. “I have learned, as I’ve gotten older, how much new fresh stuff comes from people who are younger, people who have learned things that I didn’t learn when I was in college because the world has changed so much.”

How to Be a Good Mentee

No matter how caring, compassionate, and competent a mentor may be, the mentor-mentee relationship won’t work unless it’s a two-way street.

There must be mutual trust and respect, Cindy says. And she adds that the best mentees – whether in a fellowship or in the workplace – are those who, like Rahul, are committed, invested, and highly engaged in their work and willing to take initiative.

Rahul believes humility is a key ingredient too.

“Be humble and understand that when your mentor is telling you to do something a different way, it’s not meant to be demeaning, it’s to help you get on the right path,” he says.

For Albert Schweitzer Fellows specifically, Rahul recommends starting projects with a broad framework rather than a very specific idea.

“The moment you anchor onto something, it’s much harder to change it when your mentor recommends doing something differently,” he says.

That said, when your mentor suggests a change, never hesitate to ask why, Rahul says. This is a great way to learn.

“Cindy having had so much experience was really helpful in guiding me and helping accelerate the process a lot,” Rahul says. “Without her, I think I would have hit a lot more obstacles and I would have learned a lot less throughout the project. Mentors are everything.”