Paths to Pediatrics--Esther Chung, MD

Each individuals path to becoming a pediatrician is unique. Every month I will share one person's story about how they became a pediatrician. This month I feature Esther Chung, MD, MPH, Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington - School of Medicine.
Paths to Pediatrics--Esther Chung, MD
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What was your path to pediatrics?

I wanted to be a pediatrician from a young age. Like many people of my generation, I was raised by parents who had survived a major war and experienced quite a bit of trauma. Though their parenting style was authoritative, they loved their family and raised 5 children to be successful and productive adults. On the cusp of the boomer generation, as a child I was taught to speak only when spoken to, to work hard, be tough, and persevere. I was surrounded by childhood friends who grew up in so many different types of households, and I was curious about how this shaped who we became.

I loved learning, and academic work came easily for me.  With a math/science bent, I pursued a degree in biochemistry while in college. I had terrific teachers along the way who encouraged me and made me feel like I could go on to be anything that I wanted to be.  Medical school was loads of fun, and I was surrounded by likeminded friends and colleagues. Great role models to name a few included                Drs. Ken Pituch and Nicholas Cunningham.

Why pediatrics? 

Pediatrics appealed to me because it focuses on prevention, human development, and guiding parents to set up a nurturing and loving surrounding for their children. We also help to amplify children’s voices. Sometimes children reveal struggles at the doctor’s office for the first time, and parents may not know how to respond. Pediatricians sit with families and lend their experience and expertise. At other times pediatricians speak to policy makers on behalf of children as their advocates. Being a doctor to people at the start of their lives, and impacting them throughout their childhood, has been tremendously rewarding. Helping parents to raise healthy children or take care of sick children can be tough, but we do it together and learn from one another. Advocating for children is crucial. Pediatricians are amazing people – they are fun-loving and kind, and extremely strong. Afterall, they bear witness to so much adversity, hardship, and illness and yet they bounce back each day to help children and their families. I try early on to help parents build self-esteem, confidence, and independence in their children.

When pediatrics? 

As I was growing up, I cherished the nonjudgmental, carefree spirit of children. They showed natural compassion and kindness to one another and to strangers. Each smile offered was met with a smile in return. Commercials on our 5-channel television that showed children starving around the world made an impression on me. I hoped that I could fix childhood poverty and impact many children’s lives by teaching them how to stay healthy, and by caring for them when they were sick. 

Was it an event, a person, something else that inspired you to go into pediatrics? 

My late father encouraged me every step of the way saying, “You’d make a great pediatrician!” Both my parents held a very high bar; thanks to them, I was encouraged to aim high and never thought that what I wanted to pursue was beyond reach. My mother, a retired anesthesiologist, was a terrific role model. Apparently, she worked until the day she delivered each of her 5 children. Can you imagine giving anesthesia, finishing a case, and then heading to the labor and delivery unit to give birth? Of course,        I could not achieve my goals without great teachers and mentors who also believed I could do it!

Has it been what you expected?

No, it has been so much more!! Being a pediatrician comes with lots of joy - new parents and the birth of their first child, a teenager with anxiety who gets better on medication and has a great first year at college, a child who beats cancer and later shares photos of their prom. I never imagined that I would stay in academic medicine to teach future generations of pediatricians. Medicine has advanced in so many ways in the 30+ years since I graduated from medical school. Not only have we advanced in areas like genetics, technology, and treatments; we’ve advanced in being more patient-centered where shared decision-making has become the norm.

What should a young person considering pediatrics as a career know?

Pediatrics is such a rewarding field but not for the faint of heart. Some people think that working with children is fun and easy. I even had one doctor respond with, “Awww,” when I told her that I was a pediatrician, as if somehow my job was “cute.” Others wonder how we can take care of patients who aren’t able to speak to us. While there is a lot of joy in watching children achieve milestones and overcome adversity, it can be tough to see children succumb to illness or trauma, or to see children harmed emotionally and physically by the adults who are supposed to keep them safe and healthy.  As a pediatrician though, I see daily the amazing resilience and strength of so many children who have overcome adversity. I get to work with families whose love for their children is palpable. It is my honor to play a part, albeit small, in the lives of so many wonderful and diverse children.

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