HERStory Highlight: Dr. Christine Ahn
Dr. Christine Ahn joined our Emergency Medicine department in 2007. She graduated from USC Keck School of Medicine in 2007 and completed a residency in Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook. Since becoming part of the faculty in 2010, Dr. Ahn has been involved with resident education and is one of our assistant program directors. In addition to being an APD, Dr. Ahn has been the ED Wellness chair and most recently was honored with the Stony Brook Physician of the Year Award! Aside from her clinical duties, she has an amazing family that she enjoys spending her free time with. We had the opportunity sit down and learn more about her life.
You have so many different responsibilities – working clinically, being an APD, organizing departmental wellness events, and spending time with your family. How do you do it all?
It’s definitely not easy. When it comes to time management, you handle things as they come at you. One of the things that I try to tell people, especially women in medicine, is that when we’re young and starting off we don’t realize that not everything happens at the same time. We grow up thinking that we can do everything that we want, at the time we want, but there’s this ebb and flow as we prioritize different aspects of our lives and set out to accomplish our goals.
Was there a time when you felt as though life didn’t happen the way you wanted to?
Coming out of residency, I had a singular idea of how my career would progress and thought that raising a family would fit into that. Once the reality of having children and a family presented itself, I realized that I had to take time to focus on them, especially when my children were younger, and shift my priorities temporarily.
You spent time in California and now you’re in New York – what was that journey like?
I did my medical school training in California. My entire family – my parents, my brother - live in California. I did my undergrad and medical school at USC. Then I came out here for residency and I started working here right after graduating residency. When I originally left California, I never thought that I would be staying in Long Island permanently. It was one of those things where, at the time, I just took things as they came and figured I would eventually make my way back west. I didn’t know it would be the last time I would call California my home.
Did you ever feel like you needed to take a break during your medical career?
I went straight from undergrad into medical school, but I think taking a break between undergrad and medical school would have been beneficial for me. I ended up actually taking a break during medical school. I was having second thoughts on whether or not I wanted to finish medical school. I wasn’t sure if medicine was for me. I had to do some introspective reflection, then ended up doing my Emergency Medicine rotation which reinvigorated me to finish.
Wow, I never knew you took a break from medical school. What were you doing during that time?
A lot of my family members are physicians, so I grew up thinking that I was supposed to be a physician. I didn’t really question it at the time because it made sense. It wasn’t difficult going through undergrad but in medical school you realize that the path to medicine requires great sacrifice. During my time off I picked up rock climbing, mountain biking, and other outdoor activities. I was out on a climbing trip when I witnessed someone have a serious climbing accident. I was a medical student and as a medical student you don’t have the tools to deal with a situation like that, but that was when I had that ‘AHA’! moment. I realized that I would love to be able to help people whenever something happens. That was when I realized that I was willing to make the sacrifice and wanted to be a physician for me, and not for my family.
Was your mom a physician too?
No, actually she was a stay-at-home mother, which was great because my dad is a cardiologist and it was nice to have her home because my dad was busy all of the time.
Your mom was a stay-at-home mother and you’re a working mother – do you see differences in the way you grew up and how you’re raising your kids?
God bless stay at home mothers – it is such a difficult job and I have the utmost respect for them. It’s hard because stay-at-home mothers dedicate their lives to their children, but children all grow up and eventually leave home. There are ideals of a stay-at-home mom that I feel as though I’m not living up to as a parent - there’s only so much I can do. I had my mother cooking my meals, driving me everywhere, and being there from morning to night. Although I have more time with my family than some other physician mothers, I can’t always be there for every single thing. There are going to be times when my kids will be upset about something or they’ll come home from school and I won’t be there. There’s some degree of reconciliation with that reality.
How do you prevent yourself from feeling guilty?
There has been many times where I’ve felt guilty for not being there – whether they fall or hurt themselves, or come home upset about something, there are times when I can’t be there, and I feel guilty. But… I look at my kids and overall see that they happy so whatever I’m doing so far can’t be that terrible [laughs]. Just realizing that I’m doing the best that I can makes it easier, and I’m learning to give myself grace.
What do you think has been one of the most difficult situations that you’ve gone through in your life?
Different things come to mind, but the one that sticks out is when I was leaving for residency and moving across the country. During that time, my mom just had a double mastectomy so I felt really guilty about leaving home. I was moving across the country, and I didn’t know anyone in New York either. Even though I was moving to NY, my heart was in California, and it was a lot of emotions to deal with.
How is your mom doing now?
She’s been in remission ever since, so we’ve been very blessed.
What do you think has been the happiest or proudest moment of your life?
My children make me unbelievably happy. Watching them grow, things that they accomplish, and small little things that they do make me happy. [Laughs] You know, actually, I was also really honored to receive the Physician of the Year award!
[laughs] I was going to bring that up if you didn’t!
[Laughs] I was absolutely shocked! I had no idea that was going to happen. It was overwhelming but it was such a nice surprise. I love our department – It’s a big department with a lot of people and a lot of different personalities but everyone comes together to take care of patients. It just feels like one big happy family.
It’s nice that you were recognized in part of the effort that you put into our department, especially facilitating wellness activities. What made you want to take on this role?
The residency has always been a big deal for me – I enjoy talking to the residents, especially on a one-to-one basis. I’ve always enjoyed those relationships. As a department, I felt that there was always this potential for us to come together and develop this sense of wellness together. I actually went to a wellness symposium in NYC and I came to the realization that while there was the GME resident wellness program that already existed, there was this need for departmental wellness that we weren’t addressing. I believe that we have a great group of people that we work with and there shouldn’t be a reason why we can’t have this robust program, which is what prompted me to get into it.
I know that you were a resident at Stony Brook – have you noticed any changes in the residency since you were a resident?
Things have definitely changed in so many ways. We have so many divisions now and experts in so many different areas that we didn’t have when I was a resident. One of the things that didn’t change is the type of people we have at Stony Brook– we’re all supportive and help each other and that has stayed true since I’ve been here.
Was there ever a period in your life where you wanted to leave Stony Brook and leave to work somewhere else?
Before I met my husband during residency, my plan was to move back west. I was still focused on my outdoor activities and potentially moving to New Mexico or somewhere in the southwest so I could pursue my outdoor activities, but then I met my husband in the middle of my second year in residency. My husband’s family was all out here and so it made much more sense to stay.
Tell me about your husband!
My husband is a marine biologist – I love that he is a marine biologist because I learn things that I would have never learned about. I've learned a lot about shellfish and horseshoe crabs! [Laughs] It also makes him more sympathetic to my day because he doesn’t know the ins and outs of medicine and what we experience, so he is more sympathetic to our situation.
So I know you have some fur babies, I believe you had three dogs?
We did have three dogs but Lucy passed away so now we have Bodi and Daisy. Daisy is getting pretty senior too. I love dogs - I think at some point I wanted to be a veterinarian. I really wanted a dog when I was a child but my parents refused, so when I got into college I got a dog…my poor college roommates [laughs]! But having senior dogs isn’t easy on the dog or the family. It’s sad watching your dog struggle, so for right now I don’t think I’ll have more dogs especially when Bodi is already so rambunctious [laughs].
Have you ever experienced any disrespect because you were a female in the medical profession?
There are always the daily assumptions that we aren’t the doctor and that we’re someone else. Of course, it gets frustrating when you’ve already introduced yourself as the supervising doctor and yet it’s ignored. Aside from that, I have also had instances where the disrespect was race related too. It’s definitely upsetting and never nice to be called names, but it just bothers me for a day or two and then I remind myself how lucky I am to have this career, surrounded by people I love and care about at home and at work, and it helps me get over these instances.
How do you de-stress from an emotional or stressful day?
Days where I’ve had a difficult case or things didn’t go as planned are days where I probably feel the most emotional or stressed out, but I open up to my family members and my colleagues. They usually give me advice, a listening ear, or tell me supportive things so I don’t feel so bad. It is nice just talking things out.
Tell me about your kids!
So my son Brandon is 14. I was fortunate to become a part his life when he was 1. I had Emma when Brandon was five years old, and Abby, who is 5, is the youngest.
I had no idea Brandon was your step-son! How is it being a step-mother?
Aww, thanks – it’s nice knowing that you didn’t realize that he was my stepson because that to me means that I’m doing a good job raising him as my son. He spends the majority of his time we us, but his biological mom lives locally, so we work together to help raise him. We’ve gotten along very well and work together to create the best environment for Brandon as possible. There’s differences and challenges when it comes to living in two different households. No matter how hard we try, there are different expectations and rules of what he can and can’t do at either household, so it makes it more difficult. But at least we’re able to communicate well and do the best we can for Brandon.
Where were you in your life when you became pregnant?
I was three years into my attending years at Stony Brook and right about that time they were looking for a new APD for the program. I was obviously concerned about what the job was going to entail and how much time I was going to need for my family. Fortunately, Scott Johnson was incredibly understanding and supportive, and made it easier for me to not only become an APD but also expand my family.
Thank you so much for answering! Any last-minute advice?
There are phases in life and you’re going to prioritize different things at different points in your life. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do everything all at once - if it is important to you, you will make it happen in due time!
Elizabeth Dalchand, MD is a PGY-2 Resident at Stony Brook Emergency Medicine. She can be found on Twitter @lizdalchand