The Med Sisters Series is a series of interviews of women in various stages of their careers in medicine: pre-med, medical school, residency, fellowship and attending physicians. As women, I believe we face unique challenges within any field, medicine included. As I’ve moved along on this journey, I truly believe one of the biggest support systems we have is each other. Society works so hard to pit women against each other in every situation you can think of but, as feminists, I think it’s so important to combat that urge to try to ‘beat each other out.’ There’s room for all of us on the other side of the glass ceiling. The goal of this series is to shed light on the challenges women face in the field of medicine and how they achieve a work-life balance that works for them. This blog has always been a place for me to share the realities of this journey, both the highs and lows. I thought of this series as a way to share the perspectives of the other extraordinary women on this journey too.
Q: Why did you decide to pursue medicine as a career?
A: Growing up, I always felt the familial pressures to become a physician. My grandfather was my role model – he raised 11 successful children and sent them all to college (several of them became doctors) on his small salary as a teacher in the Philippines. As the oldest grandchild of greater than 30 grandchildren, he invested a lot of his attention on my education ever since I was in elementary school to ensure that I’d fulfill his wish for me to become a doctor. I approached my education with the mindset of pursuing a career in medicine, though deep down I truly wanted to be a broadcast journalist. I was set on informing my family that I didn’t want to attend medical school, but it wasn’t until the day I found out that my grandfather passed away from cancer, which was also the day I took my MCAT exam, that I confirmed my decision to become a doctor. My grandfather taught me the importance of providing help for people in need and I finally recognized my true purpose was to carry out this practice as a doctor.
Q: How do you stay motivated on the difficult days?
A: I had many difficult days during medical school, especially when I performed poorly on exams, in addition to the days that I felt so overwhelmed that I wanted to quit. To be honest, at one point I wished that I’d fail out of medical school so that I’d have no choice but to quit. However, I’m one who always puts 100% into anything I do, so I continued to put my best effort and figured that if my best still wasn’t good enough to get me through school, then so be it. However, I made it through! What helped me get through was the motivation of my close group of friends in medical school, whom I always confided in and studied with, in addition to the support of my family. I’m also religious, so I prayed and attended church as often as I could.
Q: What has been the most emotionally difficult aspect of your medical career thus far? How did you cope?
A: I’ve written several blogposts on this subject because many physicians are afraid to open up about their struggles, but I believe it’s important for physicians to seek support when needed. As difficult as the physical toll of medical school and residency can have, it was no comparison to the emotional toll of losing a patient to suicide. I coped by seeking support through numerous outlets such as talking to my peers (therapists and other psychiatrists) who have also experienced the loss of a patient, my sister (who is a therapist), my own therapist, and group therapy members (I participate in weekly group therapy). I also requested vacation because taking care of yourself is so important for avoiding burnout. However, after a series of additional stressors, I eventually did burn out and it has taken me almost a year to fully recover. As someone who is extremely resilient, I never imagined that I’d experience real burnout, but I did. Doctors are not exempt from burnout, in fact, they’re high risk for issues such as burnout, substance abuse, and suicide. I made the decision to prioritize my own self-care after this experience and am fortunate to have made career decisions that put me more in control of my schedule and as a result, I am able to live a more balanced lifestyle.
Q: If you could go back and do undergrad and medical school again, what would you do differently?
A: I’d practice developing better study habits such as less procrastination. I’m a huge procrastinator and got through college pulling multiple all-nighters, but this mode of studying does not work so much in medical school. I also would’ve traveled more. I took one year off to work as a post-graduate researcher, but looking back, I would’ve liked to have taken an extra year off to experience different cultures and travel the world. A career in medicine requires much time and dedication and also hinders personal development since school becomes the primary focus rather than self-growth. If there’s any opportunity to take time off in order to engage in your interests outside of medicine, I say “go for it!”
Q: You’re so open about mental health topics, which are usually associated with a great deal of stigma. How do you find the courage to be so open? How did you become so passionate about mental health?
A: I started blogging about the ups and downs of pursuing a career in medicine during residency and received positive feedback from those who read it. The pivotal moment was receiving the support from my residency program director, who told me that he learned far more about me from my blog than he did from our interactions. Blogging/writing became my outlet, but I eventually experienced the need to be more open about verbalizing my issues once I saw how much my own “stuff” can impact my interactions with patients. Being in psychotherapy during residency definitely helped me feel more open. The isolation that several of my patients experience further motivated me to open up. Physicians are often perceived to be people who live perfect lives and don’t have issues, but this is far from the truth. Acknowledging our issues can make us more empathetic to our patients. I believe that part of my purpose as a physician is to educate the public about mental illness and one way to reduce stigma is to discuss issues in the context of my own experiences.
Q: Who is a woman in medicine you look up to and why?
A: Dr. Ann Mckee. With her acclaimed research as the lead authority examining the brains of deceased athletes with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), she changed the public’s perspective of football by going public with her findings and testifying to congress and the NFL. She signifies how passion, commitment, and staying true to her ethical responsibilities as a neuroscientist amidst backlash of a male-dominated organization can create change and command trust and respect.
Q: As a woman in medicine, specifically a woman of color, have you faced any discrimination (either blatant or more subtle)? What advice do you have for women who go through similar challenges?
A: During a job interview, the head of psychiatry of a specific program belittled me and minimized my passion to treat those with autistic spectrum disorders and especially when I tried to convey how I’d like to contribute to the practice of psychiatry as a whole. Even if it wasn’t his intention, the fact is that I felt judged right off the bat, which was apparent when I looked away for a second and saw him make a gesture to his staff that I wasn’t going to get the job.
Fortunately, my training has allowed me not to take such acts personally because I recognized that the way he treated me was more his own issue rather than mine. I’ve had far more positive experiences where my peers and mentors have given me positive feedback for being a young, minority, female physician who’s both passionate and confident in her work. Working on myself in therapy has helped me feel more confident and secure in myself, which makes most types of criticism more tolerable. My way of coping with any type of sexism is to focus my efforts on ways that can create change, show what I’m capable of, and subsequently command the respect of those around me.
Thanks for stopping by our corner of the internet Vania! Thank you for your openness and for always keeping it real about the struggles in this journey we have chosen. We wish you the best with your career!