Vanessa, Hollywood Executive Turned Pediatrician

Editor's Note: I have always been completely inspired by people who decide to do a complete career change midway through their existing career.  I think it takes major "chutzpah", particularly when you've decided to throw yourself into debt to pursue additional education.  Vanessa clearly excelled at many things in life, but this jump from Hollywood Executive to pursuing medicine was scary and admirable.  It's certainly a decision I know she'll never regret, but can you imagine?  Vanessa is kick-ass and for so many reasons-- her zest for life, laugh that fills up a room and empathetic heart...but her passionate spirit takes the cake.

Dressed In a “Bunny Suit”, Preparing For Her First Spinal Tap / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

Dressed In a “Bunny Suit”, Preparing For Her First Spinal Tap / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

Like many careers, Vanessa’s first exposure into medicine came at a personal expense.

At age 15, Vanessa underwent serious back surgery to correct her scoliosis, which in medical jargon is described as an abnormal curvature of the spine.  Most people don’t need surgery unless the curvature is fairly advanced and could cause health risks-- decreased lung space, weakness of the bones and chronic pain to name a few.

For Vanessa, a titanium-aluminum rod with a few bolts and hooks was the only option to straighten her spine and prevent these problems from plaguing her down the road.  This invasive procedure provided her a very intimate, firsthand look into the field of medicine. 

She was hooked.

Vanessa as a Film and Art student at Harvard University / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

Vanessa as a Film and Art student at Harvard University / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

Fast forward to her first year at Harvard University, Vanessa and her classmates were starting the process of “shopping” for classes to help determine their majors.  Amidst a sea of equally driven, successful students, Vanessa figured she’d give the Pre-Med curriculum a try.

When I first started looking, I went to a chemistry class and there were so many brilliant people talking passionately about studying for chemistry class and biology class and it was just so intense that I began to question, was I really cut out for this? Is this really what I want? I wasn’t sure- there were so many other things to explore,” she says. “A few mentors told me, ‘study what you’re drawn to in college, and you can always go back to pre-med later, but once you are on this path, it is a long road.
With Her Parents / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

With Her Parents / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

 A natural-born traveler and self-proclaimed people lover, Vanessa took this advice and shifted gears, deciding instead to major in something entirely different than Pre-Med; Social Anthropology and Documentary Film.

She studied “art and film” for four years and when she graduated, went straight to Hollywood. 

It almost felt like I was selling my soul, but I knew how hard it was to make money as a documentary filmmaker unless you had someone financially backing you. I had to be realistic.

With richly deserved credentials at her back, Vanessa was swooped up by a production company, where 15 hour long days (oftentimes longer, she says, than her shifts as a doctor) became the norm.  In just two years, Vanessa was promoted from assistant to creative executive.

I was hearing from all of my friends and family that the world was my oyster, and then three months after being promoted, I quit.
With Patients In A Rural Ugandan Hospital / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

With Patients In A Rural Ugandan Hospital / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

Vanessa calls it a “crisis of conscience.”  She knew in her gut she’d always regret it if she didn’t give medicine a try, but walking away from a job where she was a rising star, to starting from scratch, was unnerving at best.

The first step she took was to call the surgeon who had performed her spinal surgery 10 years earlier.  She worked with him and his team for about a month at Children’s Hospital, LA and through his support and encouragement, decided to apply to Columbia University’s post-baccalaureate program.  Here, she’d tackle the Pre-Med courses she didn’t fulfill the first time around in undergrad.

Consider this for a second.  Imagine going back to what was essentially undergrad again, but this time being several years out of school.  Vanessa was taking a huge risk—there were no guarantees that even after completing this program at Columbia she’d get accepted into med school.  But still, she was willing to try, saying she just knew this was something she had to do.

At HFiT, A Resident-Run Pediatric Clinic In Tijuana, Mexico / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

At HFiT, A Resident-Run Pediatric Clinic In Tijuana, Mexico / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

After two years of studying at Columbia, Vanessa had completed the requirements needed to apply to med school.  She was accepted to her first choice school at the age of 28.  By comparison, most med students that start right out of school are 22.  Not a huge difference by any stretch, but for a med student that’s just starting out, this age-gap can linger.

One of the hardest things was that I was an older med student, which in some ways limited my career choices and life milestones. Now, peers my age are already done with all their training and have their lives together and many have started families and have their own property. For me, I’m still in training and I’m just now getting married and starting to build my career. In a way there has been a sacrifice to my personal life in making the effort and time to focus on it.

Now in her final year of residency, Vanessa has chosen the specialty of pediatrics and has recently married the “man of her dreams”, also a fellow doctor. 

On Her Wedding Day / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

On Her Wedding Day / Photo Courtesy Of Vanessa

How did you end up settling on the specialty of pediatrics?

I always knew I wanted to work with kids no matter what the capacity, and it was confirmed in med school when I had to work with adults. {laughs} Adults are just really difficult to change, I found that frustrating. Kids are honest, they see the world in such a truthful, refreshing way, and they’re malleable. The same thing goes for parents, parents are willing to try something new or be more receptive to change when it’s about their children’s health, more so than when it’s about their own health.

How do you emotionally handle caring for children who are battling life altering or life threatening diseases?

Dealing with a sick child is one of the hardest experiences, especially when you know they’re going to die. I definitely cry about it and grieve for the loss of too young a life. Everyone has their own coping mechanisms. Being a part of the process with that family , a listener, an advocate or a scapegoat- whatever they need- have been some of the most rewarding experiences in my training thus far. A parent thanked me once for “walking along their side through the scariest journey of their life.” There’s a gratifying sense of purpose and duty, and a subsequent pull to want to do more for the next patient. I’ve learned to embrace that sort of ‘high’ from these meaningful interactions, because it’s the only way it will keep you going. You have to have ultimate optimism.

Where there ever dark moments where you felt like throwing in the towel?

{Laughs} I love that the question is in the past tense. There are still dark moments. I feel so fortunate most days, getting to do something that I love and believe in, and hold someone’s hand in their toughest moments. I love my job…most of the time. But there are some days when I wonder ‘what am I doing? Why am I spending so much of my time and energy and emotional self on others? Am I sacrificing too much? What happens when I have my own family?’ And then I snap out of it because I realize there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing with my life. It’s a privilege.

Who inspires you?

My Grandfather, who passed away several years ago, used to share this quote with me about curiosity: ‘Some (wo)men see things as they are and ask why. Some dream things as they never were and ask why not.’ Every single time we would talk he would ask me, ‘what is going to be your contribution to this world? What is your mark? How are you going to leave this world a better place?’ It’s still inspiring to me.

Tell me about the clinic you started in Africa?

The EcoMed Project (EMP) emerged after an adventure to rural Zambia when I was at Columbia completing my premed courses. That trip forever changed my life and dictated the course of my medical career. I knew I wanted to return Zambia and I wanted others to have this experience. With help I started the EMP, a non-profit in affiliation with another program called ZEEC. I would take groups of pre-med students down to Sioma to volunteer in local clinics, donate supplies, and learn about the local medical culture. The roads are dirt, almost no one has cars or bikes, and most don’t have shoes (don’t melt in the hot sun). In one of the more distant villages, pregnant woman in labor would have to walk 4 hours before arriving at the main clinic in Sioma. Many didn’t make it and would give birth in a mud hut with no medical help. We eventually raised enough money to build a small clinic in this underserved region with the agreement that the Zambian government would provide staff and monthly supplies. Today it’s in full operation...and sadly I haven’t been down there to see it since 2011! But I hope to go back in the near future.

Do you think there is a way, as a woman, to feel fully satisfied in your personal life and your professional life at the same time?

I’ve always wanted it all— the career, the family and friends, to be a wonderful wife and mother, a caring and fun friend, a supportive sister and daughter. And I think it’s possible, but perhaps not all at the same time, or to the unrealistic expectation I naively formed in my mind a decade ago. There has to be give and take. One day will be a career high, but it may mean I’m not the best friend or spouse because my energy is focused elsewhere. There are two options here- punish myself and feel guilty about it, which starts a downward spiral going nowhere (been there!). Or accept it, and tilt the “balance of life” scale back in the other direction. This year I’m focusing on setting realistic goals, feeling gratitude in the moment, and celebrating the little things.

What does the future hold for you?

There’s usually a reason for everything. I was genetically pre-dispositioned to have scoliosis which inspired me to become a doctor. I chickened out in college but discovered my love for studying anthropology, film & photography. My interest in cultures around the world led to traveling to Zambia to establish my passion for global health. Directing the EcoMed Project propelled me to help found a resident-run pediatric clinic in Tijuana in affiliation with UCSD. In the future I hope to obtain an MPH with the goal of researching effective health-delivery systems for underserved pediatric patients. Who knows...maybe I’ll bring filmmaking back into the mix!? We’ll see.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Find humor and/or humility in your trials (mistakes!). I am constantly working on this...especially as a doctor in training. Whether it’s not knowing the perfect way to manage a patient or speaking before thinking during a conversation with my husband...mistakes happen. The depth of their repercussions is a reflection of how well (or not well) I react. Forgive & laugh it off, try again or apologize. Some of my greatest epiphanies about how I interact with my environment have come when I’m sitting in the rock-bottom hole of humility. As long as I can learn something there, then climb up the rope of resilience to try again, it becomes more than just a mistake- it’s an opportunity to be just a little bit wiser.

***Note:  Children and Patients featured in photographs have signed releases for photographs featured***

Up Next on DRIVEN for Women, Liz Miele, Stand-Up Comic Extraordinaire

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