Prior to starting medical school, I had no desire to work as a psychiatrist. I had a plan: I’d become an infectious disease physician[1. I studied microbiology and molecular genetics in college. My fondness for bacteria persists.] or an oncologist.
During my psychiatry rotation as a medical student I spent four weeks on a consult-liaison service. I worked with an attending who was smart and excellent with patients. Though everyone agreed he wasn’t warm, he was genuinely kind. (He also wore bow ties and suspenders. His clothes never had wrinkles in them. Was this due to his military background?) My plans started to change.[2. It wasn’t a single moment that made me abandon my original intention to go into internal medicine. I still remember the case, though, that tipped me to go into psychiatry: One of my patients on the medicine service was a firefighter who had suffered a significant bleed in his stomach. I was able to talk about the cells and chemistries in his blood, the risk factors that contributed to his condition, and what he could do in the future to prevent this from happening again. Yet, I couldn’t tell anyone anything about him as a person, how he came to have those risk factors, how he perceived those risk factors, and if he had any desire or intentions to change his behaviors so that he could prevent this form happening again.]
Before starting my psychiatry residency, I had no particular interest in working with people experiencing psychotic symptoms (e.g., hearing voices, holding firm beliefs that are not rooted in reality, etc.). I had a plan: I’d become a consult-liaison psychiatrist and spend my days in hospitals spanning the boundary between acute medical care and psychiatry. There was a little of everything in consult-liaison psychiatry: the full spectrum of psychiatric conditions; brief psychotherapy; teaching patients, families, and, often, the staff of the primary medical service; starting and stopping medications to reduce distressing symptoms.
During my residency I found myself finding the most meaning when providing care to people with limited means: refugees from Southeast Asian countries; military veterans with few supports upon their return from wars ranging from World War II to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; people living in homeless shelters or on the streets. Medications were not always useful or indicated. The senior residents and attendings in these settings were astute, unpretentious, compassionate, and just good with people. My plans started to change.
Now, as an attending, my interests are a mix of all those things: I like working with people with significant psychiatric symptoms who often have limited means. I like working in teams to help people get better and out of the system, whether that is the hospital, the jail, or the mental health system entirely.
I spent over eight years of medical training under the supervision of “attendings”. It took me a few years to get used to people calling me “Dr. Yang”.[3. I still find it jarring when colleagues who routinely call me “Maria” suddenly address me as “Dr. Yang”.] I guess I’m not yet used to the idea that I am now an attending and people expect me to “know”:
- a high school student who wants to interview me to ask about my work as a psychiatrist
- college students who want to learn more about non-traditional work in psychiatry[4. Thanks for helping to inspire this post, Anna!]
- medical students who want to know which psychiatry residencies they should apply to if they want specific training in working with indigent populations
- residents who want to know which fellowships they should apply to if they are interested in public sector clinical and administrative duties
- fellows who want to know where they should apply for work in non-traditional settings
It’s weird. Impostor syndrome persists: These people think I’m qualified to tell them?
When I think about all the people who guided me—intentionally or not—to where I am today, I find that the second best way to thank them is to pay it forward.[5. The first best way to thank people, of course, is to directly thank them for the specific things they said or did.] We need people who have the will and energy to serve the community, who are willing to think about and do things differently. Yes, interests change, plans change, people change. However, we never know how our words and actions may inspire those around us.