An Albany Park native, Palak Desai, MD graduated from Lane Tech High School and became a member of the first class of Wentcher Scholars in 2002.
After graduating from Lane Tech, Palak attended the University of Chicago where he majored in Biology. Palak told us that students at his alma mater have a joke t-shirt about UChicago calling it “Where fun goes to die.” Although Palak did feel the effects of UChicago’s rigorous workload, he was determined to make sure that fun was in his story. At UChicago Palak played intramural volleyball, football, and basketball. He served as both the Vice President and President of the South Asian Students Association (SASA), danced in the annual shows for SASA and the Filipino Student’s Association, was a member of the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, and was the Teacher’s Assistant for several biology classes. Additionally, Palak worked in a viral oncology lab where he performed research on the Herpes Virus to study how doctors could potentially use viral vectors to treat different cancers.
After graduating from UChicago in 2006 Palak began medical school at Rush University. When he first entered medical school, Palak was unsure of what he wanted to do. Initially he thought of doing surgery. He completed a summer orthopedic surgery fellowship at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. However, he realized that life in the operating room wasn’t for him. Palak told us that he developed a preference for diagnosis and treatment and decided on Internal Medicine. In 2013 Palak completed his residency at Rush University in Internal Medicine where he had several rotations in Hematology and Oncology. These rotations led him to become an attending hospitalist in the Leukemia department at U Chicago for a year after his residency. After this year, Palak served as a fellow in Hematology and Oncology for three years at LSU Medical Center in New Orleans.
Palak has been working as a Hematologist and Oncologist for 4 years now. He is currently the Director of the AMITA Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center Cancer Institute. As a Hematologist and Oncologist, Palak is usually the first physician a patient sees once they receive a cancer diagnosis. From blood cancers like leukemias or lymphomas to solid cancers like breast cancer or lung Cancer, Palak treats every type of cancer that adults develop. He also treats benign hematology conditions such as anemia. In Palak’s clinic, he maintains a full schedule of very diverse cases. For example, on the day we spoke he had already seen a breast cancer patient, lung cancer patient, and two pregnant patients with anemia before our call.
As a Hematologist and Oncologist, Palak treats patients at both the clinic and hospital. Usually the clinic deals with newer cancer patients who need treatment as well as follow-up patients who are currently receiving treatment or have completed chemotherapy. In the hospital, Palak usually acts as a consultant. If there is a patient that needs help from an Oncologist or Hematologist he will see them and help them come up with a treatment plan. Hospital patients tend to be a bit sicker and things move faster. The goal there is usually to treat the patient so that they can go home. Since the pandemic started, Palak has seen a lot of COVID patients. COVID patients are found to be hypercoagulable, which means they are prone to blood clotting. Palak treats these COVID patients with anticoagulants.
We asked Palak what his favorite part of the job was, and he told us that it was making connections with patients. He said that he realized that instead of doing research he likes using his knowledge of science to physically help patients. In his work, Palak encounters different types of people, and one of the things he likes to do in order to get to know his patients is ask them their goals. Most of his patients set their goals around spending more time with loved ones, and they often meet their goals, which makes Palak happy. Palak told us that he enjoys working with the patient population in the surrounding community of St. Mary’s hospital. He loves forming connections with patients and their families which he finds enriching.
Similarly, Palak told us that the most challenging part of his job is mainly knowing that a patient with advanced cancer may not be cured. For him, giving his patients a prognosis is hard, but he is an optimist, so he always tries to deliver the news with hope while remaining rooted in reality. While Palak can generally estimate how long a patient may have, he is never quite one hundred percent certain. He has seen patients live both longer or shorter than their prognosis.
With quite a heavy workload, we asked Palak how he takes care of himself in his role, and his recipe for self care was pretty simple! He emphasizes the importance of maintaining a work- life balance and having fun. Making sure to unplug from his work and spend time with his wife is really important to him. Palak also likes spending time with his parents and sister, who live in Chicago. He enjoys watching and playing sports, he has an interest in music, and even unwinds with a game of chess from time to time. Also, like everyone during quarantine he enjoys doing mindless activities like watching television. Currently, Palak and his wife are watching HBO’s critically acclaimed series, Succession. Prior to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Palak was an avid traveler and most recently went to Egypt, Croatia, Serbia, and France.
To wrap up our interview with Palak, we asked Palak what it meant to him to be one of the first Wentcher Scholars. Growing up on the north side of Chicago, UChicago was always a dream for him. When he applied Early Decision and received admission he was excited, but the price tag was a bit of a burden. Palak says that the Wentcher Foundation took a lot of stress off of him financially. He continued to express gratitude stating that the Wentcher scholarship allowed him to make the most of his UChicago experience and take advantage of all that the campus had to offer.
Overall. Palak describes the Wentcher Foundation as a big investment in his future that is still paying dividends today.