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Interview with Ashok Mahendra Patel



Ashok Mahendra Patel was born in 1962 Kampala, Uganda. His parents were immigrants from Indore, India. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Early life and family - living in Uganda, India, and Canada - home life, doing chores, and being a kid - education, medical school, and coming to work for the Mayo Clinic - being involved in the community - calling Minnesota his home.





World Region



Asian American & Pacific Islander
Oral History Project
Narrator: Ashok Mahendra Patel Interviewer: Pa Yang



Cover design: Kim Jackson Copyright © 2012 by Minnesota Historical Society All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy and recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Oral History Office, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55102.

The Asian population of Minnesota has grown dramatically since 1980, and in particular during the period from 1990 to the present. The Asian community is one of the largest and most diverse in the state, and is particularly noteworthy because its growth has been spread across such a wide spectrum of ethnic groups. The Minnesota Historical Society and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans formed a partnership to create a series of projects of oral history interviews with Asian community leaders. The projects are intended to help chronicle the history, successes, challenges, and contributions of this diverse and highly important group of Minnesotans. During the past twenty years the Minnesota Historical Society has successfully worked with many immigrant communities in the state to ensure that the stories of their arrival, settlement, and adjustment to life in Minnesota becomes part of the historical record. While the Society has worked with the Asian Indian, Tibetan, Cambodian and Hmong communities in the recent past, the current project includes interviews with members of the Vietnamese, Filipino, Lao and Korean communities, with more planned for the future. These new projects have created an expanded record that that better represents the Asian community and its importance to the state. The project could not have succeeded without the efforts of a remarkable group of advisors who helped frame the topics for discussion, and the narrators who shared their inspiring stories in each interview. We are deeply grateful for their interest and their commitment to the cause of history.

James E. Fogerty Minnesota Historical Society

Kao Ly Ilean Her Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans


Christy and Ashok Patel.



Family photo: From left to right: Back Row: Angela, Christy, and Ashok. Front Row: Meghan, and Catherine.


The family at Christmas 2009. From left to right: Back Row: Ashok. Christy, and Angela. Front Row: Catherine, and Meghan.



At the Arboretum, 2011. From left to right: Angela, Christy, Meghan, and Catherine.


From left to right: Ashok’s sister Anjana, Bhavesh his youngest brother, Dipak the second oldest brother, and Ashok the oldest brother.



Dear Angela, Meghan, and Catherine, I write this note in case you ever wondered what I really thought about, stood for, and hoped for. You all are my/our greatest miracles!! I believe every person has a right to life, the opportunity to do good for others and our world, and to explore and choose their vocation(s). I have been very lucky to have met many wonderful friends, teachers, students, patients, and ‘zealots’ of humanity, health care, technology as well as social change. I have found inspiration from reading about great people, practicing medicine, caring for you and many others, teaching, travelling, exploring nature, and most of all, being alongside you and our family. I have loved watching you learn and meet the many challenges of growing up with courage, resilience, and creativity. You have all done amazing things and adapted well to the wide range of projects, places, and people that we have put in your path. My work and our life are very entangled as you’ve seen and heard the many ways that a positive attitude, flexible lifestyle, and hard work need to be combined as we cheer each other onwards in our journey of life. It is said that ‘you reap what you sow” … may I remind you how wonderful you have been as little seedlings that are blossoming. You have show me how easily you can absorb the inspiring wisdom from others, the deep and broad roots you establish in the fertile soil around you, and the very charming personalities that blossom from within you. Never give up fighting for what you feel is in the best interest of humanity and your divine family! As for my values, I have constantly strived for more clarity in understanding the special needs of others, doing small things with great love/care, and learning from anyone and everything that I encounter. I believe that health and education offers the golden bridge to peace and sustainable development…. Personally, professionally, and globally. I also believe that a nation’s greatest asset is the health of its people and that self-care as well as teamwork is essential for sustainable health care. My biggest hope and dream is that you will all be happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise … living to learn and serve using your time, talent, and treasures for the betterment of mankind and the world that we are so divinely privileged to be a part of. Peace, health, and happiness….with love always, Dad (Feb. 1, 2012)





Doctor Ashok Mahendra Patel Narrator Pa Yang Interviewer Feb 4, 2012 Rochester, MN

Ashok Patel Pa Yang-

- AP - PY

PY: Good morning. Today is Saturday, February 4, 2012. I am in Rochester, Minnesota. I will be conducting my interview this morning with Doctor Ashok Mahendra Patel. PY: Can I, please, just have you state your name? AP: I’m Ashok Mahendra Patel. PY: Doctor Patel, when and where were you born? AP: I was born on December 8, 1962, in Kampala, Uganda. PY: What are your parents’ names and where were they born? AP: My father is Mahendra Somabhai[sounds like Suh-mah-pie] Patel. He was born in Kampala, Uganda, as well. My mother is Niruben[sounds like New-gan] Patel and she was born in Indore, India. PY: Do you remember your parents’ occupations? AP: Yes. My father is an applied chemist and worked at the Alberta Research Council in Alberta, Canada. My mother was a great mom. PY: How many brothers and sisters do you have? AP: I have two brothers and one sister. I’m the oldest. My next brother in line is Dipak Patel. My sister who comes after is Anjana Patel initially, now is Anjana Sharma. My youngest brother is Bhavesh Patel. PY: Can you describe your childhood home and where it was? AP: We moved around early on. I was born in Kampala, Uganda and then moved to Gujarat in NW India (1963-1966) before moving to Edmonton, Alberta (Canada), in

April 1967. In Edmonton, we initially lived in an apartment complex that was in the Holyrood District of SE Edmonton. My main childhood home from ~ 1975- 1987 was a traditional, small one story home with 3 bedrooms and a basement. It was located just a few blocks away from the Holyrood Apartments and was where I stayed until after I graduated from medical school. PY: What dialect did you speak at home? AP: I was initially speaking Hindi and, then -English after age 5. PY: What did you enjoy doing most as a child? AP: A good question. I did a lot of things. I enjoyed being with my family. We went on trips to the mountains. Jasper [Alberta] was about four hours away. Every summer, Dad would take us there. We enjoyed learning. We went to Dad’s office and helped him with chemistry experiments that he felt were safe as he was working on the oil sands projects for northern Alberta. I enjoyed playing soccer and sports. I had my first pair of skates when I was there in 1967. They were two-edged blades. We spent time studying. Education, travel, and sports were really critical to the way we were growing up. PY: Do you remember your grandparents? Do you know where they were born? AP: I met them a few times. My maternal grandfather and grandmother lived in Indore. I only visited them twice. They did come to Alberta and visited us once. They were both very nurturing and enjoyed the adventures of travel and sharing their stories of their youth. - I didn’t get to meet my paternal grandfather. My paternal grandmother stayed with us for many years, a couple of years before she moved to London where she passed away. PY: Can you describe one of your most important friendships that you had when you were a child? AP: I remember a couple very fondly. One was with a fellow named John Bowman. He was a classmate. I met him in tenth grade. He and I worked with math league. We keep in touch. His dad worked with my dad, so we met outside of school, as well. He’s now a professor of mathematics at the University of Alberta. Actually, I just saw him last week with his family of two kids and his wife. Another childhood friend was Ellie Stein. She was also interested in biology. Her dad also was one of our teachers in medical school. My earliest childhood friend was in second grade and was also a person I can’t forget, Susan Mann. She was probably my earliest friend, as I think of it. Her mom helped my mom as we were new immigrants to Canada, learning English. She took us around when my dad was busy, rescued me a couple times when I got lost on the way home from school in elementary. We were only about three blocks away, but, even then, I was


navigationally challenged. She stayed close friends and has become a nurse. We touch base periodically. Her mom and my mom were really close friends. They did a lot to welcome us into Edmonton and socialize us. PY: That’s nice. Did you attend any religious service when you were younger? AP: Yes, we did. My preschool was in Strathearn United Church [in Edmonton] and that’s where my friends were. My parents are Hindu and we have a temple in our home. We spent most of our time in the early years, since there weren’t many Indian families at the time, doing our religious service in our home. Nowadays, there’s more regular services, usually on Sundays, at the temples in the Edmonton area. So when I go back home, I get prayer at home and, then, we would go visit the temples. PY: Did you help with chores at home? Describe your chores. AP: Yes. We were expected; first, to study and take care of our health, I guess the chore of making sure we were clean and health, keeping our rooms in order. My dad and mom had an acre of garden plot that we spent in the summers…were expected to go and do garden work. I remember fondly eating the fresh vegetables, peas especially, when they were getting ready. So we’d probably only bring home half the produce that was on the acre plot. [chuckles] We were pretty vegetarian at the time and [unclear]. My mom actually spoiled us in our upbringing in that we weren’t expected to do a lot of extra things around the house. But we would help in the kitchen with cleaning up after meals and with the gardening at our home, as well as this acreage area in the summertime. My dad liked to tinker with tools in the garage and work on his Acadian Beaumont, which he still has from 1965 or so. So we learned a lot about auto parts and tools, industrial arts type of activities in the garage, woodworking and repairing things. I wish I had more of those skills still. [chuckles] PY: Did you get punished for not doing your chores? AP: We did get disciplined for not being attentive to our studies first. It was expected that we study every day and we did times tables and we had to recite things. My dad was the enforcer. My mother was much more nurturing and forgiving and would come to our rescue when we had to seek forgiveness. PY: What were you like as a child? We you nice and obedient or were you mischievous and disobedient? AP: You’ll have to ask my parents. [laughter] They live in Edmonton. Do you want their phone number? PY and AP: [laughter]


AP: I would say, as the first child, I was expected and responsible and more cautious in venturing out than my siblings. I did take risks. I did many firsts for our family. I probably had a little bit of performance anxiety, but, also, great joy. My other expectation was to teach my younger siblings and help them with their homework. I was fairly sheltered, I’d say. We had our social network with more of the Indian community. We didn’t go out very much for meals outside the home or on a lot of vacations. We just couldn’t afford that. My parents were very conservative in those regards. My mom would sew some of our clothes. We were just getting adjusted to the culture. PY: Did you ever play sports with your siblings? AP: Yes, I did. We played hockey. In the wintertime, it’s cold in Alberta and there’s lots of snow. So you have to get along, because it’s cold if you’re on the streets alone. PY: Where are your siblings located now? AP: Dipak and Anjana are in Edmonton. My youngest brother is in Arizona. He’s an intensive care physician at Mayo [Clinic] in Arizona. PY: Where did you go to school during your elementary years? AP: In Edmonton, Alberta. The Holyrood Elementary School was about eight houses away from our home. That was the same route that Susan Mann and I went to take to school. Stathearn Junior High School was where I did seventh through ninth grade and, then, Old Scona Academic High School was something I took a bus to and that’s where I did tenth through twelfth grade. PY: Can you tell me the environment of the schools? Were they more similar to schools here or were the hours for class time different? AP: I think they were pretty similar in elementary and junior high. Our Old Scona High School was a little different than most typical high schools in that it was a small school. It was three-story with a carpeted gym. It was part of a longer-term experiment to prepare select students from different parts of the city for university, higher education. The teachers were some of the most amazing, creative, and challenging zealots of education that I can remember. I still go back. I went back last week when I was in Edmonton to visit with Doctor Lou Yaniw, the principle. We talked about leadership, about challenges of preparing students these days for careers in health care and globalization. It was quite a diverse population. Some schools would think we were nerds. But we did have table tennis. We did have access to a church down the street where we could do other sports and an ice arena where we could carry on the tradition of hockey. [chuckles] PY: What was your favorite class and why?


AP: Good question. I think math and physics, because my friend John Bowman was also in the class and we had lots of good work. I would also say biology. Mr. Williamson in tenth and eleventh grade was the reason I was really enjoying applied sciences and got the bug early about how we could understand the living system. I also really enjoyed social studies, learning about history and being challenged to think about United Nations kinds of concepts. That was Mr. Demaine, who was also our principal, at the time. They had dual roles. My subjects that had to put more energy and focus on, and I think I still need to continue understand better, would be English and the arts. I played the recorder for a little while, but I didn’t have any specific musical inclination. I think it was just that we were so busy that we didn’t afford a lot of other music lessons or other things at the time—but no excuse. [chuckles] PY: What were your teachers like in elementary and high school? Were they strict? AP: I think they were enabling. They were disciplined. I had two teachers that I remember from elementary. Mrs. Sembaluk lived across the street and would reinforce our behavior even off school hours. [chuckles] My sixth grade teacher, I remember. She recruited some of us—her name was Mrs. Ponich — to go to her house to rake her yard and she’d pay us. But after seeing the initial job that we did—we thought we did a pretty good job raking—she would come back over and have us comb it again. It just taught us due diligence and a little more meticulousness in our work. I think all of my teachers really inspired us to take pride in education and responsibility. We had to understand and explore. Then, from middle schools, I had two teachers that I really remember fondly. One was Doctor Roger Palmer. He actually transferred over to our Old Scona and carried on as our math teacher. He’s just a wonderful example of servant leadership and for students exemplifies what I would want all our teachers to kind of be. He challenged us. He gave us opportunities that were out of the box. One assignment I remember he gave us was to go to the Edmonton Public School Board and create the first program of accounting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, on the basic computer at that time, which was like Apple Basic, or something. We actually did it initially in code with FORTRAN, using the punch cards. He would encourage those sorts of experiments with us. We kept in touch through our early university years, as he went to on to explore technology for the Province of Alberta and its incorporation into the current, amazing teleducation strategies that we have. PY: Great. Very innovative. AP: Yes. PY: Did anyone at home help you with your homework assignments? AP: My dad encouraged us. He would watch over us and he would give us assignments beyond. My mom would mostly help by making sure we were well fed and slept well


and were safe and, also, just connected us with people that offered us the spiritual and the moral development that I think my kids get now through their Catholic school system. PY: Did you participate in any sport activities at school or outside of school? AP: We were very involved with soccer, hockey, and track and field. I would say those were the three. I would compete with like short distance races for high school. We played badminton, table tennis. Teamwork was really important. I did a lot of individual kind of sports. The other thing that consumed a lot of our time right after school was our paper routes. I was a paperboy since seventh grade and I stayed managing routes and recruited both my siblings to help us. We had some of the biggest routes in our part of town, all the way through second year university. I would say in terms of money management, customer service, and some of those skills, we learned that through papers, including the fact that not everyone has money to pay their bill on time. I became route manager. I learned a lot about other paper routes and just the physical labor of carrying the sack with all the heavy papers, especially on the weekend editions. That’s probably why I’m not so tall either. [laughter] PY: What college did you attend after high school? AP: I went to the University of Alberta in Edmonton. I had the fortune of being sponsored or getting grants from the Alberta Heritage Foundation and did two years of pre-med and, then, four years. At that time, you could go straight into medicine after two years. PY: Is that where you went for medical school, as well? AP: Yes, the University of Alberta from 1982 to 1986. Actually, I just met with some of my alumni last week, too. PY: Where did you practice as a physician before joining the Mayo Clinic? AP: After medical school, I spent one year in Edmonton as a rotating intern. Then, I was recruited here to get my residency and fellowship—or I interviewed and I came here to do that. So from 1987 to 1993, I did my residency in internal medicine and, then, my fellowship in critical care. PY: What brought you to Mayo Clinic? AP: Fate. [chuckles] One of my first physicians that I worked with as a rotating intern was Doctor Fred McDonald. He was a pulmonologist. He loved his job. The other person was Doctor T.K. Lee who was an internist, but, also, just a wonderful cardiologist.


They planted the seed, thought, about coming, exploring other places outside of Canada. Doctor McDonald did his training here at Mayo and suggested I come to interview. The other person was my first roommate, [Doctor] Willie [Jay] Pewarchuk who happened to be my senior intern during my rotating internship year. When I was asking him what he was doing later, he said he was applying to come to Mayo for his internal medicine residency. He was my host when I came for my interview and, then, became my roommate for the time he was here in 1987 and 1988 to finish out his internal medicine training. PY: Can you tell me about your position as a consultant for the Department of Internal Medicine within the Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Division at Mayo Clinic? AP: When would you like me to start my role? I was recruited and came in U.S. with a J-1 Visa when I came in. So at the end of my fellowship, I was back to Canada from 1993 till 1995. So I came back on the staff as a senior associate consultant in November 1995. My role back then was just to reorient and understand asthma guidelines in primarily clinical practice and, also, worked closely with the [Mayo] Medical School in education, where I started as an instructor and I’m now an associate professor. PY: Beside your work at the Mayo Clinic, you are deeply involved with the community in Rochester. What other communities or organizations are you affiliated with and what positions do you hold with these groups? AP: My current spectrum of community obligations includes the Zumbro Valley Medical Society where I serve on the Executive Committee, as well as the chair of the Environmental Medicine Committee. The main goals there are to raise awareness of environmental health issues, to promote a safe and healthy environment, both the built environment, the future environment, and the virtual environment, and to raise potential policy discussions that we can have, such as disaster preparedness and emergency preparedness, which is what we spent last year doing. We’re really eager to think about sustainable development and the responsibility of incorporating environmental health into human health and animal health. Actually, there’s a larger initiative globally, the One Health Initiative, where leading scientists in those three domains are putting the needs assessments together. I understand the National League of Cities has adopted that One Health Initiative as one of their partnerships or shared agendas last year. It’s trying to think about how the environment impacts human behavior and human health and, then, my interest with lung disease, especially air quality and pollution and climate change. The other committee aside from the Zumbro Valley…the Diversity Council [Rochester, Minnesota]. I’ve been privileged to be part of this amazing organization that promotes diversity as an asset [Doctor Patel is currently President of the Diversity Council]. It’s really transforming the way we collaborate across cultures, across organizations to promote innovation and new solutions for the challenges ahead. PY: What brings you the most joy about going to work everyday?


AP: Well, when you’re doing your vocation or your calling, it’s not really work in the same way. I think the thing is really learning more about myself through listening and caring and trying to understand people and the amazing cooperative spirit within our organization at Mayo and actually imbedded in this community that has even more tremendous potential through its service organizations and its creativity. PY: You have received many outstanding awards. Some of the most recent include Teacher of the Year, Hall of Fame with the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine in 1999, and Recognition of the Excellence in Teaching with Mayo Medical School and [unclear] in 1993, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2008, and 2009. Can you tell me about these awards and how they have influenced the work you are doing at the Mayo Clinic and with the community in Rochester? AP: First of all, I’m really humbled and honored to have received the recognition from my peers and the people that I love to serve. The awards themselves serve to remind me that validation of what I hope is an inner drive to get up and help and transcend conflicts, have the courage to dig deeper into the nuances of human nature. My most recent gift was a recognition by the Zumbro Valley Medical Society on the community service work that we did with the Boy Scouts and the medical students in preparing for disasters. I think the awards simply fuel my inner passion for teaching and, hopefully, make a greater difference not so much the hearts of people but in just the professionalism that’s required to collaborate in global leadership. So I hope they are just stepping stones and not the ends in themselves to what I really aspire for my kids and the future generations. There’s a lot of work yet to be done and I just make a little dip in the ocean or ripple in this ocean of need and duty. PY: Doctor Patel, are you married? AP: I am. PY: When and where did you meet your wife? AP: Christy Chua. I met her in Saint Mary’s Hospital in June 1987. I had finished my rotating internship, was accepted to my residency, and my first rotation was on Third Francis in the internal medicine service under the supervision of Doctor Nina [M.] Schwenk. I met Christy that first week. She had graduated from Saint Catherine’s College up in Saint Paul and had started her job that same month. She and I crossed paths caring for a patient. I really enjoyed her caring approach and her fun nature and her poise. PY: Do you have any children together? If so, how many?


AP: Christy and I have three children. Catherine is now ten. Megan is fourteen. Angela is fifteen. PY: How have your children influenced your view on humanity and the interaction between the various communities in Rochester? AP: My children have clarified for me what it means to be a parent, what responsibility we have as committing and engaging the next generation in social change and duties, values. They, in essence, have really exploded my concept of love, unconditional love. I thought I had a good idea when I married Christy and only indirectly understood the sacrifice that it takes to be a good parent from my mom and dad, who, as I mentioned, were first generation to Canada. My kids also have fueled my desire to understand emotions and sit with the creative tension when there’s uncertainty and ambiguity. They’ve taught me a lot about the courage it takes to play a game of basketball, to get up after you fall down and have an “owie.” They’ve also taught me grace with death, because the fourth baby we had, Rose, we had a miscarriage at eight months. In those moments where I really was lost, my kids were there along with our community to help us through. They’ve gone through a lot. We have learned a lot about life through them and it’s just, I think, a microcosm, the macrocosm, and the mystery that we continue to enjoy and celebrate together. PY: Very touching. Where do you find your inspiration to continue the work you do every day at the Mayo Clinic and with the Rochester community? AP: I get two inspirations, one within. I spend reflective time exploring the nuances of the spirit of life, and, then, just this deep curiosity of how I can make a difference to the people around me. Everyone has something to give, so I’m convinced through my early years of teamwork that if you put at least two human hearts together and focus on the things that matter, you can make the seemingly impossible possible. Words can’t describe what it is to work at Mayo or be in this wonderful faith environment of Minnesota, but it is a constant awareness of our humanity, accepting the limits of what we have, as we see extremes of disease or extremes of hope and despair and also the grace of helping people through the dying process and their families accept reality, accept the transitions to different types of relationships. I think the other thing that inspires me is just the relationships, the relationship with our world—I have big dreams. [chuckles]—the relationship with people, this One Health Initiative concept of our environment, our fellow travelers on this journey. PY: Doctor Patel, can you tell me something that you are really proud of and why? AP: [pause]


PY: If you can say you’re really proud. [chuckles] AP: Pride is fraught with ego, so I think it’s a tough one. I’m proud of my kids and I’m proud of my parents. I’m proud of the fact that we can live in this place and be aware of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I am very proud and grateful for all the people who have mentored me in the past and given me ideas of how to be a good human being. I’m really proud of the Rotarians that I’m a part of, which is another community group that I participate in. They really embody what it is to serve humanity and build bridges, connect people, connect ideals, and just get the work done, almost incognito. PY: Do you consider Minnesota your home? AP: Yes, for now and for the past 25 years. PY: Do you plan to stay here until you return? AP: [chuckles] Great question. I am going to turn fifty in December. When you mention that question, the penny at Lincoln’s Memorial [unclear] has a Latin phrase in there, “E Pluribus Unum.” This really intimate relationship between me and we is something that I think is really, really portable. [chuckles] Home, for me, is becoming more of being the best human being wherever I am. In our global world with access, this is home but so is the rest of the world. That’s a long answer. Yes, I feel at home, but it’s a state of mind more than the physical structure or location. I would hope when people come to my house that they feel that same welcome as a family would when we go to your home. We’re striving to do that through the Diversity Council and other organizations to make Rochester that same welcoming, open, inclusive, and hospitable place that you would want to bring your family to. PY: Doctor Patel, I’m now going to conclude the interview. Is there any final statement you’d like to make? AP: If I wrote in a letter to my children, I really think people are the greatest miracle. My kids are certainly very important, as my wife is, and my family. I would like to leave them with the thought that if we’re really truly committed and noble and authentic, we can use health and education as a bridge, as a golden bridge, to peace and sustainable development, not only for the individual but for the society at large. PY: I want to thank you, Doctor Patel, for being such a wonderful narrator. I had an amazing time interviewing you this morning. Thank you so much. AP: Thank you, Pa.