Maithili’s Intro in her own words:
“Tell me about yourself “. This is always the hardest question to answer, be it for a job interview or a blog or even for your Facebook profile. Describing in a sentence, what the past three decades have shaped you into. I grew up in a middle-class South Indian family in Mumbai, and my mother used to tutor students, so our household was immersed in Education. I went to a school run by nuns which was attended by Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike, and hence I was exposed to discipline and diversity early on. After finishing school and pre-university, I went to a medical school and finished my degree in medicine from Nair Hospital and T.N Medical College, Mumbai University (the medical degree course is called MBBS in India). I had grown to be a humble but fiercely independent young girl who loved to stay busy, be it with studying at the library or hanging out with friends in the area between neighboring buildings fondly called the ‘compound’ in India. Studying medicine at Nair was one of the best decisions I made. It was a municipal inner city hospital with plenty of pathologies, and we also had plenty of cultural and social activities. I met some of my closest friends and my husband there. During my internship, I liked interacting with people from different walks of life. During my medical training and now as a practicing Cardiologist, I see sickness and death closely often times. This has given me a renewed perspective towards life, how much we take it for granted and how much we bicker over the little things. I can hence find humor in most situations. When I was invited to write this article, I was more than happy to share my story here on AapkiSpace. I believe each and every one of us has the potential to achieve something great and make the world a better place.
On a personal note, I am an extrovert, I love traveling, hanging out with friends, eating out, cooking exotic dishes, exercising and having an occasional heart-healthy glass of red wine, not necessarily in that order! We try to vacation at least twice a year and I have tried my hand at snorkeling, scuba-diving, sky-diving, jet-skiing, zip-lining, white water rafting and I am a roller coaster junkie. I LOVE cruises and find it a great way to unwind with my wonderful husband, who has supported me every step of the way in my career and is an integral part of who I am today. My 2 most memorable moments are watching the magical northern lights in Alaska and watching the humpback whales swimming in close quarters with our ship in Hawaii.
How did you come to the US? For studies or as a dependent?
Towards the end of my MBBS course in Mumbai, some of my close buddies had decided to pursue higher studies in the States. Being all of 22 years, a lot of decisions at that time were dependent on what my peers were doing. The fact that there was a lot of hardship in India with a career in Medicine such as seats reserved for certain castes, very limited seats in each specialty, corruption and illegal ‘paid seats’, endless bonds to serve in underserved areas with no medical technology to speak of, violence against doctors, the negative publicity towards the entire medical community arising from a quack selling a kidney or an episode on Satyamev Jayate- certainly helped provide that last boost for me to look for other geographic avenues to pursue my field. I had never traveled out of the country, in fact, I did not possess a passport when I decided that I would move permanently to the US! I came here in 2008 on a student visa to pursue my Masters in Public Health at University of Texas, Houston. This was a stop-gap while I wrote tests to validate my MBBS degree from India in the US. My ultimate career goal was to pursue a career in Medicine here. I eventually completed my residency in Internal Medicine in Michigan, and a fellowship in Cardiovascular Diseases in California and currently work as an academic cardiologist in Florida.
What were the challenges you faced during/after your transition from India to here? How did you overcome those challenges?
I always explain to my American friends that Mumbai is like New York on steroids. (On a side note, I also tell them that Mumbai is very different from what is projected to be on Slumdog Millionaire and yeah, lions do not roam the streets- but elephants yes, on some occasions) 🙂 Growing up in Mumbai made me resilient, worldly wise, with a diverse cosmopolitan outlook. As I grew up in a city like Mumbai, I did not really feel that there were any major challenges while transitioning. It was really the small things such as slowing your speech down so the locals can understand you, trying to minimize the Indian cooking smells from permanently entering your clothes (yes, some people find the constant smell of Butter Chicken annoying at work), learning to call capsicums ‘bell peppers’, the lift an ‘elevator’ and coriander ‘cilantro’, pronouncing words differently e.g. schedule as skedule instead of schhhedule, holding the door open for the person behind you (versus climb over the person in front of you at Dadar station :)), realizing that it was not safe to be out on the streets at 11 am (unlike Mumbai, when it’s prime kulfi time). Growing up in Mumbai also made me very afraid of driving. In Mumbai, as some of you know, people routinely drive over pedestrians’ toes and fingers. A few scratches on the car and spewing trashy abuses in Hindi, is a daily affair while driving there. Learning to drive was a daunting task after years of the resultant PTSD, but now I can drive probably better than most people out there (parallel parking is a different story though..just kidding!). The weather was another one, not necessarily challenging, but certainly different from the perennial ambient weather in Mumbai. Texas and Florida were hot like crazy, and then Michigan was cold like mad! But the good news (or the bad news, depending on how you look at it) is, you stay indoors for the most part and when you go out, you pretty much are confined to a temperature-regulated car. Also, the traditionally hot places do get cold in the winter and vice versa. My first winter in Houston it snowed, it was my first time seeing snow and ironically was for many of the Houstonians too. So yes, weather can be unpredictable here.
What did you do your Masters in? How do you think this education has helped you in your career?
My Masters was in Public Health, and I have completed my residency in Internal Medicine (Indian MD equivalent) and fellowship in Cardiology (Indian DM equivalent). This education has not only helped me in my career but really, is my career and my life. I spent 13.5 years in medical education and value every day of this training. It is a blessing to be able to displace sickness with health.
What do you attribute your success to?
Perseverance, the people I met along the way, encouragement from family and friends, being able to strike a good relationship with my patients, and a dash of luck.
What were your initial days as a student in the US like?
I vividly remember my first night after landing in Houston, Texas. I entered an old, run-down apartment with an equally intimidated friend (we were FOB- fresh off the boat). We were armed with 3 suitcases, which suddenly started to feel pretty meager for an intercontinental move (Damn you, Delta- but you are better than United). Luckily, my friend knew someone else at that apartment complex, who lent us two items- an old mattress (no sheets/box spring) and a glass of milk. These, coupled with sheer exhaustion and jet-lag, helped us fall asleep. The next day, I got myself a bank account and deposited my no-longer-hefty sum of money (after converting from Indian rupees to dollars). I walked to the nearest grocery store and purchased bell peppers and cilantro successfully. Life was tough without a car. I was used to walking long distances in India, but it was different here. After some friends got mugged within a couple of weeks of moving there, I realized I would have to find a different mode of transport or learn karate. ‘Commute’ during the Master’s program was pretty much limited to using the university shuttle between the apartment complex and the School of Public Health. I was also burning the midnight oil during that period, reading for my USMLE (these are computer based tests required to enter into a residency program in the States), and juggling 3 research assistantships. When I was not busy with this Herculean task, I used to go to the university fitness facility with my friends. We used to work out over 2 hours daily! This was the first time I was exposed to structured exercise, and it is a habit that has stayed with me (although life happened and it is more like a realistic 45 minutes now).
What were your initial days in your first job like? What challenges did you face to be where you are now? How did you overcome them?
My first job was as a Research Assistant at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, which is arguably the best cancer center in the world. I knew I would eventually pursue Cardiology, but this was a project in Radiation Oncology. So quite honestly, I was there for the money. Never did I expect, how much I would learn at this job. I learned how to be professional, interact with stalwarts in basic science research, write manuscripts. I started off with no background or understanding of the subject, but by the end, I was well versed in the science. It was also my single most cited paper which eventually helped me effortlessly attain a Green Card in the “Alien of Extraordinary Ability” category. Moral of the story- You may hit pay dirt when you least expect it.
My first real job began last year as a cardiologist. Being in training for over a decade (a blessing in disguise?), I did not find any new challenges really. In Medicine, communication is very important. The ‘thank-you’s’ and ‘sorry’s’ now roll off the tongue easily, but back home the use of formal language was pretty minimal, so it took some getting used to. Also, being accepted by the patient despite your racial and cultural differences takes some delicacy as well. Even in 2017, some patients are not happy to see a female cardiologist (especially a young-looking one 🙂 who knew that would be a disadvantage!)- this requires some coaxing and convincing, but also accepting when you have given it a good try and knowing when to call it quits. Lastly, medicine is an ever changing science especially here in the western world and being constantly up-to-date is vital.
What do you value most in your job/profession?
If I had to choose one value, it would be the constant lessons that you get from life and your patients. From an economic standpoint (as doctors, we receive unspoken training to never talk economics, doctors are probably the worst at negotiating salaries and contracts!), there is no recession in this job market. As long as humans exist, there will be a need for doctors.
What does work-life balance mean to you?
Four words. Work hard, party harder! Life is too short to be serious and uptight. Have fun. Work at a place where you look forward to going first thing in the morning. Don’t be married to your work, but when you are at work, make it your only priority. Learn to compartmentalize. I would like to recount an incident of a chronically ill heart failure patient who had trudged up to the lab where we do heart ultrasounds (echocardiograms), with her husband. As we scanned her, her husband stood quietly by her side hanging on to her purse. To lighten the mood, I remarked about how only a good man would agree to hold a woman’s hand bag. The woman joked that after 25 years of marriage and countless appointments, her husband had agreed to hold a jazzy female accessory. She was admitted to the ICU since the echo revealed a significant amount of fluid retention. A few days later, she, unfortunately, passed away. Her husband came to thank us for the care we had provided. As he left, I saw him walk out with the pink floral purse carefully tucked in his palm. The lesson I learned was- spend time with your loved ones (even if it’s for a boring appointment), make memories when you can.
What is your advice to the younger folks who aspire to pursue their education and careers in Medicine?
Unfortunately, in India, we are fairly young when we decide whether to choose medicine as a career or not. I encourage young aspirants to observe in the clinic or hospital with your friendly doctor next door- e.g. your general practitioner. If you like it, go for it! It is a long journey, but it is totally worth it. It is a noble profession. Pursue it only if you can give it your best. Don’t do it for the money. Make sure you like interacting with people, a lot of medicine is hand-holding, half your job is done if you can comfort your patient.
Start reading early for the tests since the tests are very competitive, as most of you know. Have a back-up. I know a lot of folks keep dentistry as a back-up, in fact when I was taking my tests it was my back-up too- but did I really like working with teeth? Not my cup of tea! Don’t choose a backup since the fields seem similar- smelly teeth are a lot different from a heart attack, so unless you have a burning passion for a field, don’t choose it for the sake of it- you will not do justice to yourself or to the patient. Lastly, remember if you don’t get into your field of choice, there are always other doors that will open for you. A career is only a small part of your life, do not get disheartened.
I wish to recount one last incident which is probably reminiscent for many NRI’s, who look forward to that annual or biennial trip back home. I was at the hospital when we had a patient come in with an ST elevation myocardial infarction which is basically a hyper-acute heart attack. He was a middle aged Indian who was on the way to Los Angeles airport for his flight to visit his family in Mumbai, en route he started to experience some chest pain. While taking his history, he stated ‘Doc, my flight is in couple hours, please fix me soon so I can see my family’. Couple minutes later, he was signing the consent forms and conversing with me- I casually looked up at his continuous heart monitor (telemetry) and I saw his heart rhythm change from normal to a fatal rhythm called Ventricular Tachycardia. He was still mid-sentence when his eyes rolled back and he started frothing profusely and despite our best efforts, we lost him. The incident gives me goose bumps till date, it has made me realize that when we wake up each morning, we may have planned something; but fate could have other plans in store for us. Lesson learned – Plan as much as you can, and then leave the rest to fate.
Author: Maithili Shenoy.
Dr. Maithili Shenoy is originally from Mumbai, India. She studied Medicine in India and the US. She works as a academic cardiologist in Florida. She is passionate about her career and believes that she is lucky and blessed to be in a profession where she has the ability to displace sickness with health.