• Shonekaa Suthaaharan

An Interview With Ophthalmologist, Vicki Chan

Tell me about yourself.

My name is Vicki, I live in Los Angeles. I am an ophthalmologist, actually Glaucoma trained. I am also a mother to two little kids and a wife to another doctor who is an anesthesiologist.

What inspired you to become an ophthalmologist?

I knew I always wanted to be a doctor, so I went to an 8-year straight medical program, and went to medical school. My dad is actually an anesthesiologist and this was back in the 80s: He would tell me all these stories about the operating room, surgeons this and surgeons that. [The stories] weren’t necessarily good, for any of you who get my gist. When I got to medical school, I had already decided in my mind that I was not going to be a surgeon, and that I wanted to be a medical doctor. So someone in internal medicine, seeing patients in clinics, maybe working at a hospital, but definitely not in an operating room. But the beauty of medical school is that you have to rotate, you have to shadow and rotate, you have to go through all the different subspecialties. And when I did surgery, I ended up loving it. And so I had to sit down and make a decision what specialty I wanted; I liked surgery and I liked medicine, and so I basically made a list of all the specialties that combined both. And ophthalmology was one of them; I did a rotation and I loved it, and the rest is history.

What are some of the biggest challenges about being an ophthalmologist? Have these challenges worsened during this pandemic?

I think the difficulties of being an ophthalmologist, in my mind, probably extend to all aspects of medicine. I mean there’s a lot of issues, I mean we can get into insurance and this and that. I think that one of the things that I noticed, even before the pandemic, and just worsened since, is how doctors and medicine are viewed right now. And I think that’s kind of across the board in America. I think we’re trained to help people and that’s why go we into medicine, but I think a lot of people think that we are a service industry, meaning our patients have to be happy with everything. This is a big struggle because I will see a patient, and I’ll do what I think is best for the patient, but I might get a bad review because I didn’t give the certain medication they wanted, even though that is not how you treat that person’s condition.

I remember a case where a patient came in complaining of something with the eyes and then asked for a back-dated work note because they didn’t go to work for the past few days, and they wanted an excuse even though there was nothing wrong with their eyes. I got written up for it, and called into my supervisor’s office. Those sorts of things are very frustrating because again we’re in this practice to help people, and you know it’s difficult because I think our roles have changed a lot, and it’s hard to navigate. We all have to make a living and want to make our patients happy, but at the same time, you have to do what’s right. So it’s getting harder and harder.

What do you like best about being an ophthalmologist?

So I love一and this is the reason I went into it一the variety. As an ophthalmologist, on any given week, one day I’m in the clinic and helping patients and prescribing medications. I’m counselling them, we’re talking about their eyes and general help. And the next day, I could be doing lasers, and then the next day I could be doing a surgery. It’s kind of cool that every day is a little bit different, and it is a really good combination of medicine and working with patients in the clinic, and doing surgery and working with my hands. I love the variety.

You have TikTok and Instagram accounts that educate and advocate. Tell me a little bit about these accounts.

It’s kind of funny because I never expected these to blow up. You know, when I started social media, it was like a lot of other people: it was for fun, to network, and connect with old friends. And, as a physician and as a mother, I kind of have my own take on life, and people really resonated with that. And so you know I started getting followers and messages on Instagram of just you know [people asking] “how do you juggle it,” or thanking me for showing them how to be a mom and a doctor and that kind of viewpoint.

And you know I feel like TikTok happened and then the pandemic hit, those [two things] kind of happened at the same time. And again, I started doing TikTok just for fun and if you look at my earlier videos, it was just me and my daughters doing fun dances. But the same thing, people started messaging me [things like]: “thanks for this video you posted on ophthalmology,” or “thanks for this video you posted about masking.” And it kind of went from there. Again, I was still posting about being a mom and a doctor, but it’s real life, so I was also posting about masking and gloves and COVID, and now I’m doing more about the vaccines. It’s interesting because as a doctor I’m used to seeing patients in person, you have that one-on-one conversation, but especially during the pandemic, people were not coming into the clinic (because everyone was home).

Vicki mentions how there is a lot of misinformation out there, and so she makes these videos to combat this misinformation and educate. She states, “Now, clinics have reopened and I’m busier than ever because everyone is catching up but I still do these videos because I really do feel like there’s a responsibility there to educate and get all the right information out there.”

Are there any challenges you face specifically as a woman in STEM, and any advice for women pursuing a career in this field?

Yeah, 100%. I think in STEM, in medicine, in engineering, it’s very male-dominated. Because of that, if you are a woman who wants to start a family for example and you have to take maternity leave and time off, there just aren’t programs set up for that, and so you have to kind of pave your way. At the beginning of my career, I tried to play you know “I graduated, and I’m married but I don’t have kids. I’m going to work for 5 years so that I can prove myself before I have kids.” So I tried to play the game, in this male-dominated clinic, where my clinic was all guys. But when I did have my daughter, I needed to take maternity leave and it literally was like “okay Vicki, you’re going to be out for a month, we’re going to need to hire someone to take your place in the meanwhile,” because there was nothing set up there! “It’s business, it’s patients, and we need to bring someone in to cover your shifts while you’re gone.” Obviously (for those of you in the workforce) I knew that if they hire someone, that person is not going to leave when I come back. So my job was kind of on the line, so I had to rush back. And it’s hard as a woman because you balance that.

What I came to realize was that you have to do things for yourself. Because by doing that, by rushing back and cutting my maternity leave short and doing this for my practice, I felt very burnt out. I didn’t feel valued, and I didn’t feel like they appreciated me, when in the end, it was really just about the patients and business. It was nothing against me. So by the time I had my second child, I realized that I just needed to do what I needed to do. You have to pave your own way … I had to build my own life in that way. I’m not saying this is the right way for everybody; it’s a mindset shift, you can either try to fit yourself into this expectation and mould, or you can be the best that you can be and make it work for you, whatever that might look like.

Connect with Vicki!

Instagram and TikTok: @vickichanmd

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