Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in psychiatry?
A: There were several things that propelled me into the field of psychiatry. First, when much younger, I would notice disheveled old men who sat by themselves at the bus stop, or in restaurants, or on the street corner. I would worry about them — were they lonely? Did they wish they were more healthy looking?- etc. Early on I wished I could take them home with me, or just help. Who knows if they were actually struggling? That was my projection! Much later, I learned about schizophrenia and homelessness, and then I had a word and a concept of mental illness as something that robbed a person of the most important faculty a human has — their mind. The second thing that led me to psychiatry was an intense desire to understand the nature of man — how good are we? How evil are we? What are we born with and what happens to us? This desire hit me about the time I started college, and it led to my study of political philosophy and to ask questions about what the best way to govern (hu)man is, given the idiosyncrasies of human nature. Unfortunately, I did not find the answer in political science, so I decided to find more out about human nature by studying medicine. I figured if I understood as much as I could about our cells and organs, I could get closer. Ultimately, that led me to psychiatry. Once a psychiatrist, I realized I didn’t want to abandon medicine, which I liked practicing. This led me to the field of psychosomatic medicine, and a refined interest in patients with serious chronic illness, including organ failure and cancer, and how to help them live better by working with them on addressing their specific physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual vulnerabilities, which were usually exacerbated by their illness or medical treatment. This was a highly satisfying career.
Q: How did you transition into education, and what made you come to ICOM?
A: I find myself naturally sharing what I know about a topic with others that have an interest in said topic. Sometimes a person learns from me, and often I learn from that other person. I find that sharing a curiosity about a subject — what is known and what is not known and what do we think we know that we really don’t get right? — is enjoyable. If that is teaching, then that is what I enjoy. In my practice as a psychiatrist, I incorporated that into my clinical time with my patients. Often, as a psychiatrist in a cancer hospital, I might be the only qualified person to speak about a certain subject (such as how to handle the ethical, legal and practical issues involved with a difficult family member), so I would end up leading a discussion on such a topic with the physicians, residents or nurses on a particular unit. Coming to ICOM to teach psychiatry was a natural fit for me and I feel lucky to be here.
Q: Do you have any advice for ICOM’s inaugural class?
A: Hold onto your North Star. Whatever drove you to become a doctor, hold onto it. You will need all your passion and love for your profession, as well as all your love and compassion for humans in general, in order to stay grounded. If you don’t figure out how to love humanity, you risk being overcome with pessimism or burned out. What does it mean to love humans? Part of it has to do with learning to love yourself, including your vulnerabilities and flaws. This results in being a whole lot less arrogant. In my experience, it means to remember your place as a physician in the universe. You are the instrument for healing, but you are not god. You have been trained in a science that taps into the physical mystery of human growth and healing, and as a physician, you may understand some of this phenomenon, but you don’t know everything. Be mindful of that, and stay in awe of the human capacity for learning, changing and healing that you assist but don’t control. Also, even if you can’t physically heal or cure a person of disease, you can still facilitate a patient’s spiritual or emotional growth or acceptance, and that alleviates suffering, too.