For years, Natasha Bagdasarian worked around the world, rolling with what life threw at her. Now, she’s back in Michigan as the state’s top doctor.
MICHIGAN—It was a Sunday stroll—a trip around the block she’d done dozens of times before with her family and her 30-pound Australian Labradoodle Inoki—when Natasha Bagdasarian received a call she wasn’t expecting.
As it would turn out, it was a call she’ll likely never forget.
“I got the call from the governor’s office and when you get a call like that, it’s not something that you decline,” Bagdasarian told The ‘Gander Monday during a Zoom interview.
The call involved the state asking Bagdasarian, who had been on a sabbatical and working with the World Health Organization, if she would come back to help the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services as its top doctor on an interim basis.
Her response? “Yes.”
“I would love to serve the state of Michigan in any way I can,” said Bagdasarian, who in addition to working with the state is a mother and a wife. “(I have) enjoyed serving the state of Michigan with the work I was doing on COVID and testing, so in any way that I’m able to serve my state, I will.”
A World of Experience
Being offered the job as Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive was something out of left field for Bagdasarian. But the Michigander is used to that. Her career has involved its fair share of last-second pivots, some of which have taken her all over the world.
“Things generally have a way of working out in the end,” she said. “That’s been my mantra. I’ve just sort of said, ‘Yes,’ and go along with things, but I have been blessed that my choices and my pivots have all been good things.”
She’s been to Indonesia, where she worked at National University Hospital, an experience she described as “fulfilling work.” And Bagdasarian’s responsibilities don’t end with serving Michiganders. She’s also a mother, and like many Michigan parents, she has had to deal with the challenges that being a working parent during the pandemic has presented.
“It’s a tricky time because many of us are working from home and many of us have had kids who were also Zooming into school from home,” she said. “Over the past year, kids are now back in school but many of us are still working from home.
“It’s difficult to manage work and at-home life,” she continued. “And then on top of that, as Michigan parents, for those of us who have kids under the age of 12, we have kids who are unvaccinated and rates are going up in kids and it’s a concerning time.”
‘This is What I Want to Do’
It’s often an idealistic thought for kids that they will grow up and help people or save the world. But for Bagdasarian, it was never outlandish. It was something she strived for. She became even more motivated in college after reading “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston, a book that portrays the consequences of the spread of Ebola.
“As soon as I read it I said, ‘This is what I want to do, this is what I want to prevent,’” she said.
Bagdasarian followed that mission as she continued to travel around the world, eventually finding herself moving to Dubai for a three-year stretch. But she kept her job in Singapore, one of the first countries hit by COVID-19.
“They have direct flights from Wuhan, China, and it was right around Chinese New Year of 2020, and we were expecting travelers coming from China and from Wuhan, so we were on high alert,” she said.
Bracing for an epidemic had a different feel in Singapore, where the country had previously experienced outbreaks of SARS.
“They actually lost a lot of people to SARS, and so they absolutely had a game plan of how to prepare and it was just wonderful to watch,” Bagdasarian explained.
Bagdasarian also got a front-row seat to watch how the COVID-19 response was managed in Dubai, offering yet another opportunity to learn and to see how things are done in other areas. The doctor said this is something that is always helpful.
“One of the things that I worked on before COVID even hit Michigan was a framework and toolkit to prepare countries and regions for pandemics, so everything that I’ve done has sort of fallen into place,” she said.
The Right Woman for the Job
“I’m one of the very few people who planned my career, and my goal was to work on preventing outbreaks, epidemics, pandemics,” said Bagdasarian, who would begin her education at Kalamazoo College before going to the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and then finally the Wayne State University School of Medicine.
Bagdasarian’s background is in internal medicine and infectious diseases, having previously worked with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization, and other health organizations around the world.
She has, for the last year, worked with the state as a senior public health physician with the MDHHS, where she oversaw the COVID-19 testing strategy for Michigan.
All of this has prepared Bagdasarian for the job she’s in now, she said.
“I went to medical school with that in mind,” Bagdasarian said. “I did internal medicine residency and infectious disease fellowship because I wanted to work on infectious disease, outbreaks, and pandemics, and then everything that I’ve done since then has been geared around that.
“I’ve worked for a long time for many years in the hospital setting, working on preventing infections from spreading in hospitals for managing outbreaks that happen in hospitals. And so this is an extension of that work.