Progress Notes

Transplants and teaching: An interview with Dr. Thao Galvan


Dr. Thao Galvan is an abdominal transplant surgeon practicing at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center and Texas Children’s Hospital. She is also an assistant professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. While on my surgical rotation, I had the privilege of working with her and seeing firsthand the impact a transplant can have on a patient’s life.

Dr. Galvan is dedicated not only to her patients, but also to her family, colleagues, residents, and medical students. In the following Q&A, she shares why she decided to become a transplant surgeon and discusses her career journey in medicine.

Q: What drew you to transplant surgery?
A: I think every person has a particular rhythm. Mine is a little bit fast paced and results oriented. It makes sense that I would go into surgery, which is also fast paced with instant gratification. When I was a medical student, an eight-hour day in another field was so much slower than a 30-hour shift on surgery.

Primary care calls for dutiful patience in waiting on lab results to determine next steps, diet modifications to help lower blood pressure, or medication adjustments to elicit the desired clinical impact. I’m grateful that other people have that rhythm. But my rhythm translates best in surgery, which for me leads to better outcomes and enjoyment of the day-to-day rigors.

As far as transplant surgery, I tried everything in my power to pull myself away from it because I was intimidated by the schedule. I knew the draw was there, and it was calling me like a siren’s song. But I was nervous about what I would be able to give to my family and if I’d be successful. I was drawn to its multidisciplinary and acute nature. I love seeing sick patients get better quickly. That’s rewarding.

Dr. Thao Galvan

Mentors are important in influencing which specialty you choose. My case was no different. I have an incredible division chief who is such a supportive sponsor.

Q: How would you describe your career now?
A: Things are good. I am finishing my third year as faculty, and I am now hitting my stride. Projects that I’ve been working on for years are finally coming to fruition. I make goals for myself – like when I’d like to publish a project or get a grant — that I re-evaluate every year. I like the idea of excellence. Right now, I feel like I’m growing towards that.

Q: What are some non-technical skills that you think every surgeon should cultivate?
A:  Surgeons need to take the time to manage themselves, learn who they are, and learn about their strengths and weaknesses. Part of managing yourself is knowing your ambitions. I like results, and I like to create situations that allow me to realize them. I mind-map projects that excite me and align with my personal ambitions. If they fulfill the values that I deem important, then they contribute to a professional roadmap that I follow and re-evaluate every year.

Also, and I can’t emphasize this enough –truly take the time to understand who you are. I took the time to find a mission. I realized, with the help of others, that I very much value technical ability and excellence. I am into expanding on potential. I have also learned I can be hot-headed. However, I have also realized that I can control myself and my ego. I can manage my surroundings and behavior to provide the best care to my patients and achieve my goals. This truth also applies to the outside world, where you have to publish and climb the promotion ladder, answer consult questions, discipline your children, and everything in between.

Q: What are some unexpected challenges that you have faced in your career?
A: The greatest challenge was learning to handle both my opponents and my allies. I don’t mean to say that once you finish training, they thrust you into a gladiator stadium. However, the workplace can sometimes feel that way — especially in medicine. You should spend little time with the people who would take things away from you or make you feel small or inadequate. You have to be healthy enough to realize when someone is not healthy for you, and I think moving away from those types of people is critically important. And so that was an unexpected challenge.

The other unexpected thing, though, is that there were so strong allies. You would be surprised how people see you and identify with you. People with whom you didn’t think you’d ever be friends with are actually very much on your side. Recognize that support comes in various ways.

Q: Knowing what you know now, what would you say to yourself when you started training?
A: In school, I had this idea that I could be perfect. That’s not a healthy way of trying to pursue progress. It’s best to appreciate failure for what it is, acknowledging deficits where you can become better. This is particularly applicable to surgery because, when you have complications, it is heart-wrenching and frustrating.

What’s most important is acknowledging your limitations and considering them as opportunities for growth. How can I be better? How can I never, ever make this mistake again? You grow into that and then find other ways to grow after that. Failure is just one step away from getting better

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: My absolute favorite moment of every single day is unscrubbing after a transplant and sitting down to look at my iPhone. Then, I scroll through the videos and pictures my spouse sends me of our children throughout the day. You’ve just accomplished something wonderful. You’ve finished and done a good job. Now? You have all this joy to go home to. You’ve contributed to the universe, and now you can go home to enjoy the spoils.

-By Rachel Ortega, second-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine

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