Faculty Spotlight: To Learn Grace Under Pressure, Study Dr. Taison Bell, Master of Flow

March 7, 2023 By Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu

“Why don’t we just plan our drama ahead of time?”

Anyone who has worked for Dr. Taison Bell in the intensive care unit he runs at UVA Medical Center has likely heard some variation of those words.

The medical ICU requires the ability to move fluidly from step to step. One way to accomplish that, Bell said, is to reduce stress prior to encountering it.

“If the patient starts to breathe poorly, let’s have a plan for what we’re going to do,” he tells his team. “If their blood pressure goes down, let’s work out what we’re going to do. And let’s do it now, while our heart rates are normal, we’re not stressed out, we’re drinking our coffee.”

Inevitably, some patients crash. Some require mechanical ventilation. By then, he said, “You’ve rehearsed it hundreds of times before you actually go in to do it.”

That’s just one of the ways Bell, an assistant professor in the University of Virginia School of Medicine and a specialist in infectious diseases and critical care, has become a master of flow.

He moves seamlessly from bedside to courtside, to coach his son’s basketball games – from a recruiting session for the Summer Medical Leadership Program he directs to an elementary school career talk – and ever-faithfully on.

He’s vice chair of faculty affairs for the School of Medicine, and he produces his department’s podcast. He associate-edits an infectious diseases journal and co-directs fourth-year medical student rotations in the medical ICU. He’s co-founder of a medical startup aiming to provide early colon cancer detection using infrared imaging.

For Bell, this is 40. Like that famous painting of “The Great Wave,” his career has been a boat pointing toward an oncoming tsunami, and that’s intentional. The bigger the wave, the more movement and change created.

“I’m an ‘intensivist,’” he said. “So ‘intense’ is literally in the name of my job. I got into intensive care medicine knowing that there probably should be some expiration date on it. It can be stressful and taxing, emotionally and physically. But I don’t know when that point is going to be.”

Don’t expect it to be tomorrow or the next day. The hectic, expansive nature of his work suits him. By combining his medical practice with teaching and mentorship, he facilitates progress in others as well.

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Dr. Taison Bell sitting on a patio outside talking with a student
Bell offers some advice to a resident on the third-floor balcony of the new hospital wing. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“I like having conversations with people and trying to help them figure out, ‘Are you getting what you need?’” he said. “And if you’re not, ‘How do we pull the levers to get you to a point where you are?’”

He reflected on the irony involved in his ability to pull a lever for anyone.

He’s not supposed to be here, he said.

The Sick Kid They Called ‘Doctor’

It’s not that Bell thinks he shouldn’t be in medicine or working at UVA, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in African American and African studies in 2005, and a master’s degree from the Darden School of Business in 2020.

Rather, as a young Black male from a disadvantaged background, “the stars had to line up exactly perfectly,” he said.

In Bell’s experience, the ability to achieve flow involves recognizing one’s potential, having access to opportunities and being able to persevere long enough to build confidence and maintain focus.

But from that first trickling interest he had in medicine, on to matriculation, higher education was never a given. A recent trip to attend the graduation ceremony of a family member in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where he might have grown up, reinforced this reality.

“There were students who had been shot and killed,” he said. “They held a special ceremony for them. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘This would have been the high school I’d have gone to.’”

Fate intervened, however. At the age of 2, Bell’s parents sent him to live with his great-grandmother, Christine Taylor, in Lynchburg.

In conversation, he sometimes just refers to her as “Grandma.”

Dr. Taison Bell looking over an electronic chart with a nurse practioner
During morning rounds, Bell confers on an electronic chart with a nurse practitioner. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“I don’t fully know the circumstances of why I stayed with my grandmother,” he said. “But instead of growing up in a major urban disadvantaged area, I lived in a smaller city, where I had more access to resources and more of the chance to have success.”

The move didn’t solve all his problems, of course. Bell also struggled with asthma. The severe episodes landed him in his local emergency room on multiple occasions. He had to receive immunotherapy, which required weekly visits to a Lynchburg pediatric clinic.

In an unexpected way, his ill health turned out to be fortuitous.

“I remember telling the staff at a young age that I wanted to be a doctor, and they started calling me ‘Dr. Bell,’” he said. “When I showed up, they even wrote it on the chart. They are the ones who kind of normalized the dream of being a doctor for me.”

Bell circulated among the children being seen, telling them things like, “I know this shot’s going to hurt, but it’s good for you.”

His age was still in the single digits, yet he was serving as a cultural ambassador for healthcare – a role he would embrace later in life, too.

Mediocrity Was Not an Option

Though being a doctor had been his dream for as long as he could remember, the would-be physician became distracted during high school. He needed to buckle down.

For his speech to graduating students in UVA’s professional schools last year, Bell talked about the concept of flow, and how it involves just the right amount of pressure.

He spoke lovingly of his 11th and 12th grade civics teacher, Holly Frazier, who “pulled me aside one day and turned up the pressure. She told me I needed to get my act together, and from then on, I was going to take advanced courses and make A’s in them.”

She didn’t present the situation as a challenge to accept or decline. What she expected wasn’t optional.

UVA Today checked in with Frazier about her persistence with Bell. She confirmed the story, and she said she told his other teachers not to let up on him either. She didn’t know he had been identified in elementary school as gifted. All she knew was that he was smart enough to do more.

In response, Bell stepped up in his academics, including taking multiple advanced placement classes offered his senior year.

Frazier to this day refers to Bell as her “greatest success story.”

“The next year she encouraged me to apply to UVA and I was accepted with the help of her letter of recommendation and some late-breaking all-A report cards,” Bell said in his speech. “So a little pressure definitely benefited me. And what’s interesting is this concept of pressure for performance is true in human physiology as well. For example, if a patient is placed on a ventilator, we have to apply a minimal level of pressure to the lungs to prevent them from collapsing.”

But, he cautioned graduates, overdoing it is something to be mindful of as well.

“In the ICU, we know that if the lungs receive too much pressure, we can actually cause damage,” he said.

As an undergraduate Bell first learned to strike a balance in the pressure that he allowed on himself. Here, he met his future wife, Kristen, and began to say “yes” to a lot of opportunities – but not every opportunity.

After all, he had started out as a chemistry major.

“I wasn’t doing well in my biochemistry course, so I went to see my professor about withdrawing,” Bell said in his speech. “We sat down, and he told me, ‘Look, I’m going to sign this withdrawal form for you, and you can do what you want with it. But I believe in you, and I know you can do this. I hope you throw it away.’

“And I have to tell you, it was a good pep talk. I was inspired … I was inspired to walk even quicker to the registrar’s office and withdraw. It was too much pressure!”

Bell examines a patient during rounds. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The audience of graduates chuckled; they could relate.

Removing pressure is something he not only did for himself, but for his great-grandmother.

When he knew that his tuition invoices would be mailed, even though they would eventually be covered by scholarships and grants, he routed them to his dorm, so as not to worry her.

An Emerging Leader in Critical Care

Bell said he has gotten so many good breaks in life that if he were to be born again, he probably wouldn’t be a doctor. So much had to go just right.

His big opportunity after UVA was studying medicine at Columbia University, from 2005 to 2009.

“I first met Taison when he was an undergraduate student in one of our summer pipeline programs,” said Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, his medical school dean for diversity. “At that time, I was impressed with his determination and grit. He took every bit of advice and put it into practice. He voiced, even then, a commitment to helping disadvantaged communities. As a medical student, he proved to be a natural, calm and gifted leader. It was obvious that Taison was special.”

Bell performed his residency at Harvard University’s Massachusetts General Hospital, which he completed in 2012. He was chief resident for a year, then completed an infectious disease fellowship in the Massachusetts General Brigham program.

A critical care fellowship at the National Institutes of Health and other opportunities followed.

“You could see that he was an emerging leader,” said Dr. Nitin Seam, director of fellowship in the Critical Care Medicine Department at NIH. “He has an openness to questioning the status quo and the curiosity to look at all the options. He would love to tackle a clinical problem that was getting in the way of patient care, figure out the impediments to progress, bring the relevant stakeholders together, and find ways to collaborate on solutions.”

Dr. Taison Bell consulting with two MICU team members
Bell consults with MICU team members regarding patient care options. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The stars indeed had aligned for Bell. It’s clear that the astrological straight line, though, was as much the result of hard work and tenacity as it was fate for the young doctor, who always planned to return to Virginia to give back.

UVA hired him in 2017. Charlottesville was where he would make his home and raise his family.

After Opportunity, the Wave Hits

As he rose to medical ICU director in 2020, however, the stars unfortunately crossed. COVID-19 held the world in its grip.

Early that year, Bell thought a lot about his family and what was unknown about the new, highly contagious virus. His father, Clarence Bell, was a bus driver, and his mother, Deborah Bell, worked in retail – both high risk jobs.

“Those concerns about frontline workers were forefront of my mind, because I always worried about getting that phone call,” he said.

He worried about the future of the local community, too, and his own small children.

This was an inflection point in Bell’s life. He couldn’t say yes or no to the amount of incoming pressure that the virus was exerting. But what he could do was feel more in control, and that, too, helps with flow.

Rather than just bracing for the worst, he decided to share information as a science communicator, to help even people he had never met achieve their best health outcomes.

“This was when we were having waves in New York,” he said. “We were seeing what we were worried about was going to happen here. The requests for information from the public and then from the media were very overwhelming. And our experts here, Dr. [William] Petri, Dr. [Costi] Sifri, were just working overtime-plus to try to keep up with all the requests.”

Bell was still a relatively young faculty member. He knew he had a relevant skill set, but he wondered if he should leave the talking to others.

Dr. Taison Bell with the full MICU team gathered for rounds in the hospital
As the entire team gathers for rounds, Bell asks rhetorical questions that help move the problem-solving forward. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“I fell into this trap of, ‘I’m not the perfect person to do this, so therefore, I should take a backseat,’” he said. “And there was a moment – I can point to my degree at Darden because I was in the midst of the executive MBA program there. They talked a lot about leadership training and stepping up to the moment, and how it’s rare that you feel that you’re right, or that you’re worthy. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”

Bell didn’t wait for his shoulder to be tapped. He tapped the shoulder of UVA Health’s public information officer, Eric Swensen, and volunteered to take media requests if other doctors couldn’t.

Reporting from the Frontline

He soon became an in-demand communicator who could speak not only from the frontline, but also to the concerns of the African American community, which included early hesitance to the vaccine.

In 2021, Bell addressed the vaccine debate in a soft-sell manner – within the context of his own family – in an interview with The New York Times. The article was titled, “Dad Got the Vaccine, but No One Else Did – Yet.”

He keeps a framed copy on his office wall.

The year before, however, he was still feeling like an inadequate messenger. He recalled preparing for a live remote interview with the BBC for the first time: “They had you on this long wait. You’re staring at a blank screen that has these instructions about, ‘Look at the camera, don’t look down, make sure your lighting is good.’ I remember thinking to myself, ‘I am not the person for this.’

“But I had a little conversation with myself, and I said, ‘Actually, I am the right person to talk about this. Because of what I’ve been through and what I worry about and what I know about this, I am prepared for this moment. And once you believe that you have value and worth, then the mistakes you make are just things you learn from and not things that you use to beat yourself up. That’s when I felt like I was truly walking the path that was set out for me.”

For the better part of two years, the path was fraught. The ICU intermittently filled with COVID patients. Among the stricken was the grandmother of a nurse he worked with in the same unit. The older woman was so sick she would have to go on a ventilator, but while she could still speak, Bell asked how she was feeling.

She responded, “I’m doing okay, but how are you doing? This must be really stressful taking care of all these patients.”

He would write about the encounter and the pandemic’s toll on healthcare professionals for a MedPage article titled, “I Can’t Do This Again.”

“It was really the first time that a patient had actually shown concern for me, even while she was on the brink of having to be intubated,” he said.

The Art of Flow and Family

These days, variants of COVID-19 ebb and flow, as do the media’s requests for Bell’s time. That gives the doctor opportunities to keep the flow going in other areas.

During a recent span of a little over a week, planning for his summer leadership program bled into an overnight clinical shift and meetings with medical students to go over rotation feedback.

Dr. Taison Bell sitting on the sidelines coaching an elementary school basketball team
Bell coaches his son’s basketball team during a tournament at Woodbrook Elementary School. The doctor emphasized having fun, building confidence and teamwork. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Somehow, he also worked in podcast production, toured public housing redevelopment sites with leaders of UVA’s Equity Center and made a trip to Greer Elementary School with his 9-year-old son, Alain.

At the school talk, Alain lay on the floor, simulating a patient, as the doctor showed his son's heart beating with a portable ultrasound machine and introduced the rapt young audience to his profession.

Bell has developed a few tricks over the years to keep up with his challenging schedule. The ICU, of course, has gotten him used to interruptions and continuing his lines of thought later. But he also uses a notetaking and task management app to “brain dump.” He relies on his trusted assistant, Emily Wells, to ensure his day stays on track.

“I never feel like I’m on top of everything,” Bell said. “But I kind of feel like no one really does. So I try to learn how to normalize that feeling.”

No matter how busy he is, the doctor finds ways to meaningfully incorporate his family into his day.

The obvious example is coaching Alain’s basketball team, but he also makes sure he’s fully present when he shares a meal with Kristen, Alain and daughter Ruby, who is about to turn 5, or when he attends one of his wife’s singing gigs around town.

Ever present in his thoughts is Julian, his oldest child, who was stillborn in 2012 – a subject he is not afraid to talk about. Bell is mindful of honoring the past in his daily life. His children were named for three Black leaders who inspired him and his wife (civil rights leaders Ruby Bridges and Julian Bond, who was also a UVA professor, and writer-educator Dr. Alain Locke).

When he travels for work, he often takes the family with him.

Bell cringes at the expression “work-life balance,” though. To him, “balance” implies that one’s profession and the rest of one’s existence are at odds. He prefers to think of it as “work-life integration.” The two should naturally blend as much as possible.

Pulling the Levers for Others

Pulmonary Critical Care Medicine fellow Claire Davis said she has been fortunate to return to UVA, where she performed her residency, and to have Bell as a key adviser.

“When I was coming back, a lot of the fellows said, ‘Get ready, you’re going to love working with Taison,’” Davis said. “He’s now become a centerpiece for my fellowship program, and he has inspired a lot of people to say they’re interested in critical care, even if they haven’t done the pulmonary side.”

One of her projects has been improving the treatment of sepsis, a potentially deadly blood infection. Although Bell wasn’t her direct supervisor on the effort, he was all-in to help.

“He invited me to participate on UVA’s Sepsis Mortality Coalition, and he was a mentor on developing an order set to improve antibiotic delivery times,” she said. “He would meet with me sometimes three times a week on the project, providing encouragement consultations. Overall, he’s a huge presence in the process of quality improvement. His work has been enduring despite whatever project I am on.”

Dr. Taison Bell with his son sitting in front of an elementary school class
Father and son discuss medicine at a Greer Elementary School talk. (Photo by Hannah Handrich)

Among the reasons she enjoys interacting with Bell is his “safe delivery” of critiques.

“His feedback never feels like it’s a personal failing,” she said. “It feels like an opportunity for growth. He brings it like, ‘I’m on your team.’”

She also appreciates that he’s transparent about life outside of the hospital.

“He invited our whole program to one of his wife’s performances, and I know his son is in a basketball tournament tomorrow,” Davis said. “That level of sharing makes him accessible to trainees.”

No matter how busy Bell gets, in giving back, it seems he has found his own perpetual energy machine.

When he’s not teaching his mechanical ventilation course, for example, he’s thinking about how he can bring his lifesaving skill set to the community. He’s currently working with the UVA Health Office of Diversity and Community Engagement to plan a series of free CPR courses at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Virginia.

Investing in others doesn’t just enhance community efficacy and the sense of collective flow, it also provides Bell endless joy.

“I’m involved in so many things,” he said. “But I think the core at the middle of all of it is education and mentorship. That’s what drives me, having those sorts of interactions. I help people get to wherever the point B is for them.

“I’m 40 years old at this point. So I know, whatever that next step is going to be for me, it’s going to have to involve that, or I don’t think I will get as much enjoyment out of it. Because if you can think about the impact that you can have on people, that’s how you exponentially multiply your influence in what you can do for the world.”

Again, he knows someday he’ll have to slow down. But it won’t be today, tomorrow or the next day.

He can’t. He is a wave now, and the crest is still yet to be realized.

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications