Spotlight on Graduating Chief Resident Dr. Jonathan Yang

by Columbia Surgery on August 26, 2013

Jonathan Yang, MD, is a recently graduated member of the 2013 class at Columbia University Medical School’s Surgical Residency Program. Dr. Yang began his training in 2006, and is currently pursuing a fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery here at Columbia. We caught up with Dr. Yang to learn more about his time as a resident.

Dr. Yang at the 2013 Graduation Ceremony Dr. Yang at the 2013 Graduation Ceremony

Q: How long were you a resident at Columbia? What was the focus of your residency?

Dr. Yang: I was a resident at Columbia for seven years. I did three straight years in the general surgery residency program, then took two years off for research in the cardiac lab, and I just recently finished my final two years of residency.

Initially I knew I wanted to sub-specialize, but I wasn’t sure in what particular area. I wanted to go through the general surgery program to get the breadth of experience in all aspects of general surgery, but after the first two years I started to have more interest in cardiac surgery.

Q: During your time in the cardiac lab, what was the turning point that made you decide to pursue cardiac surgery?

Dr. Yang: There was no one moment that was a turning point, but the whole two years contributed to my interest in cardiac surgery. During my lab time, I was doing research almost full-time, working with the organ procurement team for the heart and lung transplant program, and pursuing my Masters in Public Health at the same time. So there were a lot of different aspects to my two years of research, and all of them strengthened my interest and passion for cardiac surgery.

Q: What was your role in the heart transplant program at Columbia? You mentioned that you did some work with the organ procurement team.

Dr. Yang: While working in the cardiac lab I was on call at various times as part of the procurement team. The procurement team is the group that is sent to the location of a donor organ to recover the organ for transplantation at their hospital. During this time, I was on call anywhere from once every six days to almost every day. It is not the norm for a lab fellow to be part of the procurement team, so this was a unique opportunity for me. It made my lab years a little more tiring, with such frequent call, but gave me an invaluable experience.

Q: You mentioned that you pursued your Masters in Public Health (MPH) during your research years. How do you see this degree impacting your medical career in the future?

Dr. Yang: The initial purpose of getting my MPH was to gain a better understanding of the other aspects of health care. I have some interest in policy and research, and this program let me pursue both of these things at the same time. I chose to focus in biostatistics and health care policy & management.

On the statistics side of things, the trend recently has been towards more outcomes based systems. The ability to follow this research on an institutional level and an individual level has been very helpful. Down the line, I see my comfort with biostatistics aiding in my future research endeavors, as well as better understanding my own outcomes and the statistics used to measure these outcomes. Increasingly, the government and insurance companies are going to be looking at physicians’ outcomes, so it was helpful for me to learn about these things.

In terms of health care and policy, it was helpful to understand the system that we are working in, especially with recent healthcare reform. We don’t receive much of this training as part of residency, so it was good experience to gain. It helped me to learn how I will be dealing with insurance companies, contracts, and things of that nature.

Q: I understand that you are going to be staying here at Columbia to pursue a fellowship. What are you looking forward to in your new role?

Dr. Yang: Yes, I am pursuing my cardiothoracic surgery fellowship here at Columbia, and I think that the main shift will be in the operating room. Managing complex ICU and floor patients will be a large part of fellowship, but these were also aspects of my general surgery training, just with different patient populations. What will be completely new, and what excites me the most, is learning the technical skills for open heart surgery. I foresee it being very challenging, requiring a lot of practice, repetition and focus, but also rewarding.

Q: What advice would you give to an incoming resident?

Dr. Yang: The most important thing is to ask questions. When you first arrive you are essentially treading water, trying to figure out everything from the hospital computer system to the patient management protocols, until you get comfortable enough to swim with the pack. While we expect residents to be self-sufficient eventually, it is more important for residents to utilize the resources they have at their disposal to get things done right and efficiently. The most important resource is the other residents. The senior residents are a great source of knowledge and insight, so it is smart to take advantage of their experience and ask questions. It will actually help you become self-sufficient more quickly and might also save you from making a mistake.

Q: What do you do to keep balance in your life? What would you suggest to other residents?

Dr. Yang: Residency is tough. At times, it can be very draining – mentally, physically, emotionally, and sometimes all three. I think it is important to have people you can rely on to sympathize with what you’re going through, even if they haven’t lived it themselves. Close friends and co-residents all fit the bill, but for me my family was the most important factor for keeping me balanced.

My parents live in Queens, so they have been a constant source of support, whether simply calling to check in, driving me out to Queens for a home-cooked meal, or sometimes driving the home-cooked meal to me when things were really busy.

More recently, since I met and married my wife (all during residency – yes, it is possible!), she has been a constant source of energy and support. She and our one-year-old son give me something cheerful to look forward to each day, no matter how tough the day was. Sometimes, it was via Skype from the call room, but cheerful nonetheless.

It is also essential to have a life outside of the program, and it helps to establish this early. Whatever your hobbies or life interests are, it’s important to hold onto them during residency. I have played the violin since grade school, and attending NY Philharmonic performances helped me relax and keep that part of my brain functioning. To stay active, it was pretty easy to find pick-up soccer games on off-weekends in the summer, and I even joined a hockey league one year. I also know some residents who picked up new hobbies during residency, but the key is to have some outlet outside of the hospital. It keeps you balanced, and can make you a better clinician when you are in the hospital.

Q: What aspects of your time as a resident will you miss?

Dr. Yang: I will definitely miss the people, hands down. The general surgery program is small enough that it feels like a family, yet big enough to have many different personalities, teaching styles, and interests, not to mention an impressive and storied history. I will miss how helpful and supportive the attendings, office staff, and my fellow residents have been. That has always been the biggest plus of the program.

Be sure to also read our previous article in this interview series: Spotlight on Graduating Chief Resident Dr. Stephen Oh


Spotlight on Graduating Chief Resident Dr. Stephen Oh

by Columbia Surgery on August 22, 2013

Stephen Oh, MD, a recently graduated member of the 2013 class at Columbia University’s Surgical Residency Program, is now continuing his medical education with a fellowship in pediatric surgery here. We caught up with him shortly after graduation to discuss his experience as a resident.

Dr. Oh at the 2013 Graduation Ceremony

Dr. Oh at the 2013 Graduation Ceremony

How long have you been at Columbia? What was your clinical focus during your residency?

This will be my fourth year at Columbia. I went to medical school at New York Medical College and recently completed my residency in general surgery here at Columbia. I ended up focusing on pediatric surgery as a resident, and I am continuing my studies here as a fellow in pediatric surgery.

What does the pediatric surgery fellowship entail?

The pediatric surgery fellowship is a two-year program that focuses on treating pediatric surgical diseases including congenital disorders, cancers, abdominal deformities, thoracic cases, and much more.
It is a specialty whose scope of diseases is as wide as its modes of treatment.

What are your plans once you have completed the fellowship program?

I would like to stay in an academic setting so I can be involved in both treating cases and in training residents and students. My hope is to not only be a practicing surgeon, but to be involved in training the next generation of surgeons as well.

Why did you choose pediatric surgery?

What really attracted me to this field was seeing how the pediatric surgeons conducted themselves professionally and their approach to patient care. They paid attention to every detail and considered every aspect of the patient’s health during care. Being directly involved with every facet and taking care of the patient at a very critical time in their life was something that I wanted to do.

What is both interesting and challenging about pediatric surgery is that you really have to deal with two sets of patients. You have to try to explain the disease or procedure to a child who doesn’t even really understand it, and then you have to explain it to the parents, who are much more aware of what is going on. It is challenging, but also really rewarding, because you are not only treating and helping a patient, you are helping that patient’s family.

You are staying at Columbia, but what aspects of your residency do you think that you will miss?

The residents. I already miss my classmates. I was very lucky to be part of a class in which people were very supportive and very dedicated to their jobs, and it was nice to be in a situation where you can draw inspiration from your co-workers. They were not only kind-hearted people, but they shared information and knowledge with one another. There was a collective effort to do the best possible job for the patient, and for each other as well.

In addition, the attending surgeons were great. They really took the time to teach us, and that was not always an easy thing to do. Their dedication to our progress and our development was amazing, and they helped us evolve from being their students to becoming colleagues and surgeons.

I feel that this program is not just about teaching and training doctors, but teaching and training leaders. The expectation wasn’t that we were just going to go out and practice medicine, but that we would be involved in leading the field and leaving it better than we found it. They taught us that there was a higher purpose to what we were doing.

What advice would you give to a new resident entering the program today?

I would tell new residents that they should embrace the experiences that they might not think will be too pleasant, because those are the things that you really learn from. Your residency is a learning process and you learn from what you do well, but you also learn from what you don’t do well. They should be grateful for the people who are there to help them grow, even if the message they give isn’t always a pleasant one.

The people who care about the residents and want to see them succeed are usually the ones who take the time to help them get better. This sometimes means criticizing your technique or questioning your judgment, but you should embrace this learning environment. Although you may not always feel good about this process, the people here truly want you to do well.

How do you maintain work-life balance in such a demanding career? How would you advise other residents to strike this balance?

I would advise a new resident to not neglect their support network. Make time for your family and friends. As important as work is, you need to make time for the important people in your life as well. You need to have the same level of dedication to your life outside of work as you do to your job. You have to prioritize family time, just like you prioritize study time.

Aside from time spent with family, I personally am grateful for any time I get to be active. Whether that is going outside for a run or playing a round of golf, being active is my relief from the pressure.

Be sure to also read our previous article in this interview series: Spotlight on Graduating Chief Resident Dr. Beth Hochman  

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