Life lessons inspire excellence in medical education

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of Progress Notes posts featuring Baylor College of Medicine students interviewing physicians and faculty members in recognition of Women’s History Month.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with someone who has been a mentor and inspiration to me for almost four years now – Dr. Thao Galván.

Dr. Galván is an abdominal transplant surgeon who completed her fellowship and residency training at Baylor College of Medicine, and whose care and commitment to excellence and her patients is something that I aspire to embody one day.  In the following Q&A, she reflects on her experiences as both a physician and educator at Baylor.

What advice would you give yourself back in medical school if you could?

I remember my anatomy professor, whose first precept of medicine was, “Get up.” As an intern on call overnight, you might get a call about a patient who doesn’t seem too acute. You question whether to order a quick fix and go back to sleep. That’s when you get up. That’s when you go see the patient. Because the time it takes you to go see if he or she is okay buys you real rest when you come back. The time you least want to get up and check the patient is the time you need to the most.

My professor’s second precept was “Decide who you are going to be before you start.” We are bound to fail sometimes, but by reminding ourselves who we resolve to be and having high expectations, we will get it right a lot more often.

How do you handle failure?

Failure is a part of what makes us grow. Your mind should be busy creating and becoming. Failure shouldn’t be taken as an indictment of who we are. Internalize the fact that failure, and multiple failures, are a part of success. We can be too hard on ourselves.

What should students think about as they go into residency and perhaps into fellowships or academic positions?

Sometimes work is like a nine-year interview. You are building your referral base and the world in which you are going to work. The people I met in residency are the same people who refer transplants to me now or who consult on my patients.

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Dr. Thao Galván
What are the forks in the road in your training, so to speak, that have shaped your career and your life?

Choosing surgery was easy. I had gone into my surgery clerkship expecting to hate it, and quickly found that it was completely different than what I’d expected.

Choosing transplant specifically was a more difficult decision. The training is time consuming and difficult, making it a significant investment for me and my family – but I was drawn to it by how technically demanding it was and how my mentors in transplant exemplified the pursuit of excellence. I advocate that everyone seek training that maximally prepares you for the future, even if it may be more difficult at the time. If your knowledge fails you, you fall back on your training. The incredibly intense training I had was a leap, but I don’t regret it at all.

What do you find the most rewarding about your work? Most challenging?

My greatest passion is maximizing potential. Something is so intrinsically fulfilling about knowing you got someone off dialysis so they can go to work. And there is something rewarding about giving a new use to something that otherwise would have been lost.

But there is a flip side to that coin: People who try to fulfill that potential also risk the pain of when it is, nevertheless, lost. Because no matter how hard you try, sometimes the patient still doesn’t do well. Sometimes they don’t recover – no matter how many late nights you spend caring for them. This is a reminder of both their human limitations and ours. We sometimes get into a God-like space because we can do so much crazy stuff, but we have to maintain our humility.

As an educator and a mentor to medical students, what do you hope to instill in the next generation of physicians?

I have to be aware of what I’m good at and what I’m bad at. I try to instill the things I am good at. Some of the values I convey are good technique, but also developing a work philosophy, which for me comprises excellence in care and working hard. There is a quote that shapes my teaching: “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.” Educators, especially physicians, should remember to push their residents and students harder to try to achieve excellence – but to encourage someone is also a critical step.

What causes are you most passionate about?

This sounds like a pipe dream, but I would really like to print an organ! I work with bioengineers at Rice University who design and test materials and structures that could become the foundation of lab-grown or printed livers and kidneys. Bioengineering inspires outside curiosity and interest in my field, and invigorates my own love for transplant by allowing me to see perspectives outside of my clinical experience.

Have you had memorable instances in which being a female physician has opened doors, or been a barrier?

Of course there have been hard days and bad moments. But I don’t want to focus on those. By and large, many women are being celebrated for what has always been true: we are incredibly capable creatures.

A patient once asked in a surprised voice if I was going to be her doctor. I said yes, and the patient smiled. She was thrilled to have a surgeon who was a woman, because it meant all of her doctors, from her gynecologist to her internist to her surgeon, were women.

For some, the idea of work-life balance is going to work so that we can go home sooner and achieve other things. For you, work is something that you love and seem to enjoy doing.

We build what we want. There aren’t many people who can love their job, help people, make enough money to support their family, and see their family enough. It’s a privilege to be able to step back and ask if what you’re doing is making you happy. I don’t always know what the next 24 hours will hold, but I know there will be time with my husband and baby, and there will be work. I don’t have to know when.

-By Elizabeth Godfrey, second-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine

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