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Challenge

June 3, 2019

It’s a concept physicians are well acquainted with. Something implored us, over the course of many years, to take on the mammoth commitment of time and money needed to learn about the inner workings of this amazing human machine, what can go wrong with it, and how to help.

Likewise, pursuing a career in interventional radiology is a huge undertaking, from learning the pathophysiology of the disease states we work with, to the techniques, tools, and culture of the specialty. Not everyone can rise to such a challenge, making those that can special. In my field, the tougher the challenge, sometimes the harder, longer, or more repeatedly you try. Almost never giving up was a value ingrained in me by my mentors at the University of California, Los Angeles.

At my fellowship graduation, my head instructor described me as “dogged.” At the time, I shrunk before my peers, all male. For years, I felt the implication of that comment was that I had to compensate for something I lacked, whether in brains or talent, with pure grit. But grinding through challenge is probably the most consistent characteristic that has led me to success so far. Maybe ‘dogged’ was a sincere compliment. I love a challenge. And looking back, the cases on which my experience was built that year were among the most demanding I will ever experience.  

A Little Backstory

Training at a transplant center, seeing some of the toughest medical problems the nation has to offer, perhaps I ended up in just the right place. This is because challenge is a theme that runs through my family’s history since long before I came on the scene. In World War II, my grandfather lost his entire family, save his little brother. Each was a child under 10 years old at the time. They fled the violence, subsisting on odd jobs in the Polish countryside.

After marrying, having four little girls, and deciding to start a new life in the United States, my grandfather left the family farm to begin life in the United States. My grandmother stayed behind, raising the girls on her own, until he called for them to join him years later. My mother arrived stateside at the age of six. The second oldest of what would become five sisters, she was also a de facto childcare provider. Coming of age, she struggled with her identity, and rebelled against her conservative religious background through her teen years.

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A Stint in the Slammer

In 1969, my dad fled communism in Czechoslovakia, leaving his own family behind. Chased down by dogs, he was jailed for illegally crossing the German border. A month later, he made his way through Austria, before arriving in New York a 19 year old immigrant. He enrolled at Queens College, and supported himself by working in a machine shop, and driving an ice cream truck on the side. When I was a kid, he told me about how he’d been assaulted with a cinder block in a rough neighborhood. When he regained consciousness, his earnings were gone. In his way, taught me about some of the harsher realities of our world, even early on.    

Challenges are part of my ancestry and part of my bones.

My parents married and had a child, because that was the script at the time. However, they were very different people, and their marriage didn’t last. In the eighties, divorce was not yet a social norm. Shifts in our finances and my mom’s relationship status meant we moved three times between the divorce and my leaving for college. Every time we moved, it was a challenge to fit in to the social structure of a new school. With each relocation, I fumbled through the new culture and managed to make some new alliances. Sometimes, I felt unworthy when other parents showed up to our soccer games, and mine were working or elsewhere. Because I faced these challenges from an early age, it was easier to fit in as a relative outsider, later in life.

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Seeking Stability

A child of divorce, I chose my career in part because of the stability it would provide me. I didn’t want my circumstances to depend on the fickle ways of others. I didn’t want to be forced to move back in with my parents, as we were forced to do the year my parents split. My mom and I moved to my grandparents house in Northern New Jersey for a year, and I attended elementary school in their now upper middle class suburb. I knew we were less well-off than those around us. For the first time, I felt inferior, coming from a broken home of modest means. The challenge to rise up against our setbacks drove me to get straight A’s through grade school and high school. I couldn’t take any chances.

This childhood priming and motivation got me accolades in school, until I found myself an early entrant to medical school. I fought my way through the challenging medical curriculum while still matriculated in undergraduate studies. I felt a palpable lack of sophistication relative to my older classmates, some of whom were already true ‘adults,’ having graduated from college. Some had even had careers before medical school, like pharmacy, finance, or law. I drank more burnt coffee and got to work alongside my classmates, doing my best.  

Finding Radiology

During our second year pathophysiology class, the Chair of Radiology, a future mentor, showed us how to locate airspace disease on a chest x-ray. This visuospatial skill intrigued me, and I was inspired to take a dedicated radiology elective. During the elective, I encountered interventional radiology (IR) for the first time. The IRs I encountered were towering figures; over six feet tall, sporting lead suits and fighter pilot goggles. One was friendly and welcoming, while others were varying degrees of intimidating.

I was so engaged. One day, a question arose, and I followed up by e-mail after I’d found the answer. Impressed, the Chief IR asked about my application status. Standing tall among these huge men was a challenge I was probably prepared to meet at least in part because of the way I was treated by my parents growing up. They never expected less, or limited me in any way because I was female. 

Like many interventionalists I know, sometimes, I am downright scrappy. My family taught me to do what is needed, not what the crowd does or expects. When I was told there are better fields for women to pursue, I paused, considered the advice, and kept heading in the direction of my own true north. Maybe by trying to steer me away from my field of choice, those advisors unwittingly encouraged me. Like my ancestors, my heart wants a challenge.

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The Thrill of a Challenge

Apart from my life’s work, I like a challenge just for a thrill, like completing an Ironman. This long time dream involved swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running a marathon, 26.2 miles.  I wanted to know I could swim across a lake, if I needed to. From the time I was a toddler, my dad modeled this kind of behavior. He’d swim across a lake, as I watched from shore, or bike to a distant amusement park, with me perched in a molded seat behind him.

Physical striving was part of my upbringing and part of our time together. Through my tween and teen years, when visiting my Dad on the weekends, we would time how long it took us to run to and from the local library. We did this in all weather, whether in the heat, ice, or snow. Sometimes my ears burned with the strain of running in frigid temperatures as fast as I could, and I’m sure the challenge serves me to this day.

Life is Hard Enough

Some may wonder, when life is hard enough, who needs any added challenge? Striving and struggling provide the richest flavor to my life. Striving took my family across the Atlantic Ocean, from dirt floors, to a land where they could seize unlimited opportunities. Following their example has led me to a gratifying career as a physician leader in my community.

Despite the societal debate that rages on, on whether it will ever be possible to balance work and family, I became a mother, and still find the time to enjoy it. Despite the time restrictions I face, I want to share my experiences with other would-be IRs, other physicians, and working parents, so I started this blog. I want to foster a feeling of community for like-minded people who doggedly pursue their own goals and challenges. I’m proud to be part of my family’s arc, chasing each next challenge, and beating the ancestral drum.

What have you overcome to get to the place you are today? Share your story by clicking “leave a comment” near the beginning of the post. 

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