Reconnecting with the creative within: why being a world-class pediatric radiologist wasn’t enough. | by Sobia Mirza, MD | Nov, 2021

Take-aways: An origin story. How medicine stole my creativity, how I ended up practicing pediatric radiology for three years before opening a weight management and lifestyle medicine clinic, and how I’m getting my groove back.

Sobia Mirza, MD

m learning how to write again.

I used to be a good writer. Writing is something that I feel medicine has taken from me. As I spent so many years cramming my brain with medical information- facts, figures, formulae, anatomy, names of obscure diseases, lab values, medications- the creative parts of me were crowded out. What I like to think of as the good parts, the interesting parts, the “feminine,” the “left side” of the body if you believe in that. Everything that is gentle. Replaced by what is hard and cold, science, facts. No room for art or expression. I even feel like my vocabulary has been supplanted with medical jargon. The 25 cent words don’t come to mind so readily these days.

I don’t think this loss of creativity makes me a better doctor. In some ways I fear I did this to myself. Suppressed a part of myself in order to make room for another part. In order to survive. Well, she’s back.

Or trying to get back.

Maybe not drawing and painting (I was an AP art student in high school), but writing and social media will do. Designing the website was fun.

Part of the blog is an opportunity to reconnect with who I am, that part of me that I feel was “lost” or at the very least buried for over 10 years.

So who am I and what do I do? I am a physician in transition. I have practiced as a pediatric radiologist at a top-ranked children’s hospital in Washington, DC for the past 4+ years. I launched my concierge weight management and lifestyle medicine clinic, Planted Health, in the DC metro area in November 2020 and continue to expand services beyond the DMV through telemedicine. As I build my practice I am also balancing academic, hospital-based radiology with teleradiology.

Why the change?

Because my interests shifted over time. And I chose radiology at a time when I simply wasn’t feeling my best. In medical school I was depressed. I pursued my MD to fulfill familial expectations and upholding these meant in a sense betraying myself. So instead of being a lawyer or a journalist or a filmmaker, I went to medical school. I retreated into solitude while trying to maintain a social exterior, but I don’t think I fooled many people. I quickly became disillusioned with the practice of medicine. I lost interest in hearing people’s stories because there was so much charting and tracking and busywork to keep up with in the hospital. I was overwhelmed. Connecting with patients took time and meant staying late to work because there was always a task to catch up on. I lost sight of patients as people.

And then I found radiology. Here was a world removed from the chaos of the hospital inpatient units and the bustle of the outpatient clinics. Here was sleek, sexy technology and the ability to see inside of someone without an incision. It was fascinating and beautiful and, I thought, albeit incorrectly, insular. Much like how I felt at the time. I identified with it rather quickly and decided I would become a radiologist. Pediatrics eventually drew my attention as I found the staff at children’s hospitals on the whole friendlier, more engaging and a better personality fit.

During my internship in internal medicine in Boston, I was told over and over again, after getting over the rough parts of adjusting to the role I didn’t feel adequately prepared for, that I was “too good” at clinical medicine and “wasn’t meant to be a radiologist.” I particularly remember Dr. Flora Sam, a cardiologist specializing in heart failure, sitting me down and having a long conversation about my career path. I insisted over and over again that I disliked the clinical and wanted to retreat into my reading room cave where I could just read studies and go home, unscathed by patient interaction.

Not only was this a gross mischaracterization of the practice of radiology, but it was a complete misreading of myself. It showed a complete lack of self-awareness. The heavy blanket I was under? In retrospect my true nature was suppressed and too scared and exhausted to show her face.

So I stuck with it. I managed to survive residency and earn a fellowship spot at one of our country’s finest children’s hospitals. There I worked incredibly hard, but felt I was finally in the right environment, and I landed my current academic hospital-based radiology position in DC.

It was during one of many lonely nights during residency, however, that I watched the documentary “Forks Over Knives” and first learned about plant-based nutrition and the field of lifestyle medicine. A door opened for me then that I didn’t know existed heretofore. Yes, there were times when I questioned whether all those concerned mentors had been right- was I in the wrong field? Was I supposed to practice lifestyle medicine and not radiology?

During these moments I was reminded how unhappy I was in the hospital and the clinics and how radiology was a perceived way out for me. Again, the true culprit remained hidden. Instead of recognizing my mental health struggles as the cause of my struggles with clinical medicine, it was the “patients’ fault.” So I trudged along, torn between this galvanizing new field of lifestyle medicine and the path I was already on.

“It will be better when you’re an attending.” “Training is hard for everyone.” “It’s just because you’re a resident.” “You’re just far from family.” I believed it all, not trusting that it didn’t have to be so bad because for so long that was all I knew.

Not to mention what changing fields mid-training would look like. Would I be perceived as a failure? Would I be able to go back to Boston? Would I survive more years like the one I had completed there, working 80 hours a week, barely sleeping or exercising, just managing to keep up with cleaning, errands and laundry on days off. I even missed my friend’s wedding during that intern year because I had mis-read the wedding invitation in my post-call haze and traveled to upstate NY instead of Long Island.

With training complete and my move to DC, life in the real world began. I quickly connected with the lifestyle medicine organization in town, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and attended the International Conference for Nutrition in Medicine (ICNM), where I networked with lifestyle medicine providers. And I was hooked. I realized with time that I wanted to learn more and it was my calling to practice lifestyle medicine.

I began to learn more on my own, pursuing a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. When I learned of the weight management clinic at my hospital I thought here was my path to being both a radiologist and a lifestyle medicine practitioner. So I told my boss of my plans and that I was going to decrease my work hours so I could study obesity medicine. And she was incredibly supportive.

I attended meetings and studied on my own time, this time becoming board-certified in obesity medicine in February 2020, just as the coronavirus global pandemic was hitting our shores in the US.

I decided somewhere along the way that if I was going to do this, I was going to do this. In order to fully commit, I would quit the hospital job and get a teleradiology position so I could work from home part-time while establishing my own practice. The way I wanted to run it. With my branding and my work hours.

I found a position that worked for me and, naive to what was coming, I gave my 90-day notice while on vacation in Vail at the end of February 2020 just before the lockdowns hit, where we would later discover there had been superspreader events.

Not only was the future uncertain, but the company I had planned to work for declared bankruptcy and it would be several months before I would sign with another company that absorbed many of the radiologists from the former group. With my new radiology job on hold, I ended up staying on at the hospital. It’s been more than a year now. And for this opportunity I am grateful.

I re-negotiated a part-time contract with the hospital allowing me to pursue my own practice and practice teleradiology. I went on to attain my board certification in lifestyle medicine in November 2020 and established my weight management and lifestyle medicine clinic, Planted Health, shortly thereafter.

What I’ve come to realize since starting the clinic is how much I missed connecting with people, hearing their stories, and developing a doctor-patient relationship. How the pain that I was experiencing at the critical moment of deciding my career path obscured that human connection which I valued most. And through this renewal also regaining my creativity, my voice.

So it begins. The next chapter.

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