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Conversations With Dr Barankin: Seemal Desai, MD

In this podcast series, Benjamin Barankin, MD, interviews leaders in dermatology about their lives, share their wisdom, and any easy, actionable tips for balancing life as a busy dermatologist. This first episode features Seemal Desai, MD.


Dr Barankin is a dermatologist in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is author-editor of 7 books in dermatology and is widely published in the dermatology and humanities literature.

Dr Desai is the president and medical director for Innovative Dermatology, PA in Dallas, Texas, and a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Texas, Southwestern. In addition, he is the Immediate Past President of the Skin of Color Society and serves on the American Academy of Dermatology Board of Directors.


Dr Barankin: Hello and welcome to the podcast “Conversations With Dr. Barankin.”

I’m Dr Ben, a dermatologist in Toronto, Canada, and these succinct interviews with doctors will ask these bright and talented minds their thoughts and pearls of wisdom that are both interesting and easily actionable. Now, let’s get started.

I’m very honored to have here Dr Seemal Desai, a dermatologist and President and Medical Director of Innovative Dermatology. He runs two private clinics and is on the academic faculty at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center as clinical assistant professor of dermatology.

He has held numerous leadership positions within medicine and serves on the board of directors of the American Academy of Dermatology, as immediate past president of the Skin of Color Society, and past president of the Texas Dermatological Society. In addition, he has served on the US Food and Drug Administration PCAC since 2017.

In his free time, he loves spending time with his wife, daughter, and son, as well as traveling, running, playing trivia games, and trying new restaurants.

Welcome, Dr Desai.

Dr Seemal Desai: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be with you.

Dr Barankin: I got a number of questions for you. I’m going to start out with asking about your favorite book and why?

Dr Desai: That’s an interesting question. I will admit that I love to read but reading for fun is more of a luxury nowadays, it seems like. I rarely get a chance to peel away from emails, and medical journals, and all the things we have to read in our practices, to actually read for fun.

I interestingly majored, in undergrad, I was a double major in chemistry and in French language. I’ve always had an interest for French literature, in particular some of the satire from ancient French lit, as well as more modern day.

One of the things I’m reading right now that I’m really loving to read, believe it or not for fun, are some of the comic‑like books based around the character Tintin. It’s interesting, because these interesting, really cool illustrations you think are more child‑oriented, but for those of you who know the history behind the different versions of Tintin, if you remember, there was a “Tintin au Congo,” there was a “Tintin aun Orient.”

There was lots of different version of this story from the Belgian author. They actually have a lot of meaningful relevance to things that were happening in society, both during the French colonial era, as well as things that now translate modern days. It’s more than a comic book, and I just really enjoy delving into those a little bit further and really dissecting some of the interesting nuances.

Dr Barankin: That’s terrific and certainly, as a Canadian, French culture and literature is an important part of our society. My girls are in a French school. I’ll let them know you enjoy your Tintin and the like.

What would you say is your favorite song? What kind of music do you like?

Dr Desai: It’s interesting. I was not a big music buff growing up, but I have learned to really like a lot of music more for relaxation and escaping purposes. I love classical music, especially Handel and Bach. I love listening to that, especially while exercising. I find it very, very relaxing.

I also like pop music. I think it’s a lot of fun. I’m really into dancing. My wife and I, before we had kids and get caught up in the daily chaos of living our lives, we used to love dancing. We still love dancing and love those fun things whenever we can.

I really have also developed an interest for listening to more fusion hybrid music that delineates different cultures. I love the European dance music that’s out there, the house music from the older times of my youth, but now combining those where you have actually mix of different genres together. I guess you could say I really like a potpourri.

Dr Barankin: That’s neat. I don’t know if you are a movie buff. Do you have any favorite movies, anything you’ve seen that’s great in the past year?

Dr Desai: I will tell you that I am probably not a huge movie buff, but I am a huge miniseries and a huge… have a really strong interest in medieval sci‑fi stories. I will tell you about probably my favorite show, which is not really a movie but more of a series over the past several years, and by far today it is my absolute favorite thing I ever watched, and would watch it over, and over, and over again. I’ve probably been through every season three times, is Game of Thrones. That is my all‑time favorite show. Anything digital TV, you name it, that’s my favorite thing.

I used to also really like an HBO show back when I was still in my days of residency in 2006 and ‘07 called Rome, which was based on ancient Rome. I really have this passion for these ancient medieval‑based plots. You give me any movie like that, if I had to pick, any movie in that genre would be an all‑time favorite. Something like Braveheart. I can watch that 20 times and still feel like I watched it the first time. Amazing movie. Again, Game of Thrones cinches it for me all time on all levels.

Dr Barankin: I haven’t watched Game of Thrones. Many people have talked about it, and that’s something that’s on my to‑do list. I am a huge, huge fan of Braveheart. Nice to know that you share similar interests.

Dr Desai: Yeah, we’ll have to, the next Derm meeting, we’ll have to get together and maybe pull out a DVD. That’d be fun.

Dr Barankin: Absolutely. Love that movie.

Do you have any morning rituals? Anything that you do every morning at a certain time, whether it’s meditation, or journaling, or exercise?

Dr Desai: I’m not a morning exercise person. I know many of my friends are. I’m more of an evening, after work exercise person where I use it to decompress, and take stock of the day, and frankly, just to escape.

One of my favorite things to do for working out and exercise is actually going on a run. Right now, during the COVID‑19 era, when you can’t do a lot more types of exercise, at least being outdoors and running is just a great way for me clear my head.

I also really enjoy boxing. That’s been a great three‑times‑a‑week ritual that I was doing prior to gyms and all the lockdowns happening that I know you are well versed in.

In terms of actual rituals, I don’t really have one. I’ll give you an anti‑ritual, which is that I never eat breakfast during the week. Monday through Friday, I’m just not a breakfast person. I know it’s the most important meal of the day. I tell my kids to eat breakfast. I just don’t follow the same advice.

I think that waking up first thing in the morning, I’m just not hungry. I’m not able to eat. It’s just I want to get up and go, and maximize my sleep as much as I can, I would say, because I’m not a morning person.

My weekend ritual, ironically, is I always cook breakfast for my family on Saturdays and Sundays. That’s my weekend ritual. I’m not a cook. I’m not a chef, but the one thing I do is make a pretty decent, good breakfast and brunch. If you are ever in the mood for a good omelet, head my way.

Dr Barankin: I have to visit you on a weekend, yes, absolutely. What advice, Seemal, would you give yourself when you were 18?

Dr Desai: Oh, boy. That’s a good one. I guess the question, what advice would I not give myself when I was 18. The biggest thing that I can take away looking back now is that I probably should have told myself to not be in such a rush to grow up.

I remember being in middle school or high school always thinking I can’t wait to get to college. I can’t wait to move on to the next step and start working and start my life. I don’t have any regrets about the paths I’ve taken, but one of the things that I probably do regret is always feeling the need to move on to the next step and not necessarily living in the moment of my youth and really enjoying that in a really relaxed, carefree way.

I was always very much goal‑oriented and always wanted to move on to adulthood and move on to getting my life started. The biggest piece of advice I’d give an 18‑year‑old version of myself would be to slow down and not be in such a rush to grow up.

Dr Barankin: That’s a great answer. Now that I think about it, that would really be the same thing I think for me. I wonder if that’s a very common thing for a lot of physicians, where you just keep going for the next goal, and the next goal, and you don’t live the moment, enjoy the moment. That’s terrific.

If you weren’t a physician, what do you think you’d love or be good at doing instead?

Dr Desai: That’s an easy one, and I will tell you that I would want to be a pilot. My dream was to actually be an airline pilot traveling the world. I love aviation. I love traveling. I love flying. When I was in high school, I had even applied to go to the US Air Force Academy, because at that time, that was the only way to...not the only way, but the most common and certainly the most accepted way to become a pilot was to go through the Air Force.

Because of my astigmatism and my vision at the time, I wasn’t considered a candidate and so that path quickly stopped, and I moved on to medicine, which I love and adore. One of my interest is to still go back some day and finish my hours to get my pilot’s license.

I’ve got a couple of hours under my belt. The biggest block to doing that is finding the time to really get the training to do it. That would be my career of choice if I wasn’t a dermatologist.

Dr Barankin: You mentioned your love of medicine. Certainly, things have gotten more complicated for physicians in North America. There’s a lot of people that are disgruntled. There is a lot of frustration, lack of appreciation. Would you tell your children to go into medicine today?

Dr Desai: That’s a great question, and the answer is I would. I would tell them that they would have to come to that decision based on the fact that they truly want to serve and take care of patients. I think medicine is always going to be rewarding from the aspect of taking care of others and healing and curing disease.

That’s actually one of the things I love about being a board‑certified dermatologist, is that we get to see the results of what we do in treatment. We get to make the rash better and the skin looks better. We get to remove the skin cancer and we see the results. I think I find dermatology in particular so rewarding.

I would tell my kids to go into medicine. I would tell them don’t do it for the prestige. Don’t do it for money. Do it because you truly care.

Dr Barankin: Any favorite quotes?

Dr Desai: I have so many. I can’t give you one in particular. The old adage of do unto others as you’d want done unto yourself, I think applies to so many aspects of my life. I find myself always looking back and thinking about how will this affect me, how will this affect my family?

I think everything I try to do, I do try to keep that in mind. I’m not great at it all the time, I’ll admit. I’ve got my flaws for sure, but I think before I make a decision, I really try to remove myself from the situation, and it’s hard to do. I’ve certainly had missteps along the way.

I think reminding myself to be aware of everyone else’s feelings in a situation, how my action affects others, is my biggest piece of advice I try to give students I’m working with, residents that I’m working, and certainly my children.

Dr Barankin: If we go back to Braveheart, there is that quote from William Wallace that “every man dies, but not every man really lives.”

Dr Desai: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s probably a quote that I’m not very good at, either, because I’m so busy in our lives that you know, are we truly taking the time to enjoy ourselves? Sometimes I do question and wonder that.

Certainly, this COVID‑19 time has been a time for spending more time with family, which has been great, but it’s been challenging in a lot of other ways. I feel my heart being pulled in multiple directions all the time. I’m sure you know the feeling.

Dr Barankin: Absolutely. Do you find that you’re able to balance your medical career with your family, with your personal interests?

Dr Desai: I definitely do. I think part of that is because my wife is so supportive. She allows me the space and the room to grow professionally and do all the other things.

If it’s… everything from going to Dubai for two days to give a lecture, coming back in time for my son’s soccer practice if I can make it happen, or being on conference calls every night and still having time to at least spend a little bit of time for either dinner, or a quick game, or bath time, or bedtime with the family.

I have tried to balance. It’s a constant work in progress and it’s a constant challenge. One of my things that I have a hard time doing sometimes is saying no. I’m very much a ‘yes’ person. I don’t like disappointing others. Sometimes, I think my flaw is that I need to learn when it’s OK to say no and feel OK with that.

Dr Barankin: I do appreciate you saying yes to this podcast.

Dr Desai: Well, this is fun.

Dr Barankin: Your habit of saying yes is helpful for people like myself, so thank you for that.

Dr Desai: Thanks for having me.

Dr Barankin: Yeah. Seemal, on that note, I really do appreciate your time. I know you’re a very busy man, and very accomplished, and still yet so balanced. It’s been a real honor and a privilege speaking with you today.

Dr Desai: Ben, thank you so much for having me and thanks for the opportunity to share some of this. Actually, while we are talking, it’s refreshing to be able to talk through some of these other fun things and not always talk dermatology and medicine. This is great and thanks for the invite.

Dr Barankin: Absolutely. Thank you.

I hope you enjoyed a peek into the mind of a medical colleague and picked up some useful and actionable ideas from this podcast. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and share it or tell a friend about it. Thank you for listening. Until next time.

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