You were an environmental sciences major at Syracuse University. What prompted you to transition to a career in pediatrics?
“One summer, I started volunteering at a local children’s hospital. I saw how the nurses and doctors interacted with the children, and at times, I felt there was a minimal to no interaction at all with the actual patients but solely with the parents. I understand that children may be too young to fully understand what is happening and do not even have choice in the matter, but it doesn’t mean they should be left out of the loop. They are the ones that everything is happening to. It made a big difference once you explained in simple terms to the children what is happening and what will happen. I decided I wanted to change that mentality, that children should be part of the discussion.
“In pediatrics especially, it is incredibly rewarding to know that your hard work is going to change a person’s life, to see a child who’s knocking on death’s door recuperate and grow into a normal child that no one would even know the troubles they went through. I don’t know if there is a greater sense of personal satisfaction. The beauty of pediatrics is that you get to see your patient grow through life. You may have started to see them when they were just born and continue to see them until they are 18 or even over 21. You create a much stronger bond with the child and family.”
You became a mother recently. How did having a child of your own change your perspective?
“It has changed everything. It’s really been a total 180 for me. In the NICU, you know a woman has been preparing this child for 40 weeks, and if they end up in my unit we all know this wasn’t the way it was supposed to unfold. The version that has been building up for months is not in shambles. Fortunately for me, I never experienced what it was like for my daughter to be in the NICU, but I can only imagine how I would feel. The most joyous time in someone’s life becomes one of the worst. As a mother, it’s very difficult to be able to compare these women and what they are going through to yourself. You now can empathize with them, thinking of your little one in the position that theirs is in.
“It can be difficult to disengage at the end of the day, constantly thinking about the babies and parents. I feel a very deep connection now that I am a parent. It changes your perspective on the entire world, not just medicine.”
Can you elaborate further on the kind of relationships that you form with the families you see?
“Since I work in the NICU, you develop a very personal and deep connection with the families, and especially mothers. You are in the trenches with them, helping them through possibly the worst moments of their lives. Here in Hawaii the word ‘Ohana’ means family and togetherness, and ‘Aloha’ means love and unity, both words run very deep here. The Hawaiian culture is very family centered, which can make your job easier or more difficult. But once you have entered that sacred bond with the families, you become Ohana, a part of their family. I know this is very different when compared to other parts of the United States.
“Truthfully, everything you learn in medical school or during residency doesn’t adequately prepare you for the personal connection you need to make with families and patients. You learn how to read people very quickly and well, and that something that might work for one patient could be considered offensive to the next.
“My job is to help these babies come out of the NICU and live the most normal life they can, but also to give the family hope, patience, and love.”
Do you have a story from your time in the NICU that stands out in your mind?
“There was one scenario where we had a full-term baby who had hypoxic ischemic encelopathy (HIE). The directors of the NICU, PICU, and all of our specialists had thought it was a lost cause, that damage was too severe to continue on. After multiple discussions with the parents to withdraw care, they persisted to fight. Since Ohana and Aloha are big components of life here, this isn’t that uncommon. We all were convinced this was a lost cause and the child would never leave the hospital alive. That was a year and a half ago. After a few months of intense treatment, ECMO, dialysis, she was finally discharged at eight months. That same baby came back two months ago, and you would never have guessed the complications that she went through. There were delayed milestones and some other issues with vision, but otherwise as healthy as can be. You never would have guessed that this is the child that everyone almost gave up on. This situation showed us the true miracle of medicine and that we, even though we think we do, don’t know how the human body can respond. I see the miracle of modern medicine every day.”
Hawaii’s only your latest stop. You were born in Poland, and grew up in Canada and Syracuse, NY. How would you describe your experience as a student in Grenada?
“I loved it. I’m pretty adventurous and love to travel, so I had a great time exploring the island and the surrounding islands. Weekend getaways to different parts of the island were the norm, Fish Friday in Gouyave every other Friday, snorkeling, sailing, hiking, and the hashes. Grenada holds a very special place in my heart. I even met my husband there (Gautham Kanagaraj, MD SGU ’12), who recently finished up his cardiovascular disease fellowship at the University of Hawaii. I hope to take my daughter there one day and show her where it all began.”