I’ve received many questions through my Path to MD series about how to prepare oneself to become a doctor, and I’ve blogged about several of these topics from how to get into medical school and choosing your specialty to how to match in the field of your dreams. And the thought struck me that instead of just hearing from me, you could hear from a group of the smartest, most ambitious, accomplished, and awesome physicians I know — my friends! So today, I’m kicking off a new blog series called “Physician Spotlight,” in which I will introduce some of my best buds in various fields of medicine so that you can learn from their inspiring stories and experiences. I hope you will find these profiles as interesting as I do; no two doctors arrived in this field the same way and it is fascinating to see how everyone’s stories unfolded. My first spotlight is on Dr. Carmel Mercado, my hip hop dancing, nonprofit founding, spunky, outgoing, anime-loving ophthalmology friend from intern year.
Name: Carmel Mercado
Hometown: Coral Springs, FL
College: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, aka MIT
Medical School: Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Residency Training Program: Stanford Health Care
Year of Training: PGY-2
What was your main motivation in becoming a doctor? When did you decide on this path?
My story to becoming a doctor is deeply intertwined with my parents’ story. My parents were both born and raised in the Philippines: my mom from the provinces, my dad from a then up-and-coming city. Both came from very medically-oriented families, and it was a source of pride for both families to be able to contribute to the growth and health of their respective communities. My mother’s side of the family started a nursing college and a community clinic/hospital in the village where they lived to help make their village more sustainable. On my father’s side of the family, my grandfather once upon a time traveled to a far away place called Boston to learn about pediatric infectious disease then later returned to establish one the major hospitals and medical schools in the city in which my father grew up. Since I was young, my family has long considered medicine a calling and a way of life, akin to how a monk or nun chooses to dedicate his or her life to a respective religion.
You go into it because you want to help others in your community and try to relieve human suffering. You go into it with the hope of having a positive impact on your community, using the talents and heart that you have been given. You go into it knowing that you will be faced with emotional hardships – facing death and illness on a possibly daily basis. You go into it knowing that your time will no longer be your own. There will always be others who need your help, but through giving, there is also great satisfaction and a sense of belonging into that community.
My parents brought this dedication to their professions with them when they moved to America. They came here to see what existed outside of the Philippines. They came here in the hopes of exploring and understanding the “American Dream” and to escape some of the policy changes under the Marcos dictatorship at the time (won’t go into this, but you can Wikipedia it if you are curious!).
Fast track to our present time and I can tell you that my parents do not practice medicine here. That is a long story in of itself that deserves its own piece. I can only imagine how hard it was to try to move to a new country, to a system unfamiliar to what you have grown up with, to try to find work quickly to provide for three children, all without much support. They sacrificed their careers and continued to live here when they saw how well their children were doing in school.
Throughout all my years of education, my parents never pushed me to become a doctor. However, it wasn’t uncommon that over dinner we might talk about the synthesis pathway for vitamin D or the differences between reno and corona viruses. I admit, my parents are cool, but also super nerdy. They always told me that my choice in career was a decision that I needed to come to answer for myself. But seriously, how can you not take an interest in science when you are in this kind of environment? More importantly, they instilled in me a deep respect for human life through their actions and words, an appreciation for sacrifice, and through example in how they interacted with neighbors and people outside our family, they showed me what it meant to be compassionate and kind and how rewarding it could be to be able to contribute to another’s health and happiness.
I went to college and initially resisted the idea of medicine. I didn’t want to become another “daughter who became a doctor because my parents were doctors” stereotype. Since I was here in America, I thought that I should take advantage of research opportunities here and learn as much as I can in science. I thought I was going to become a biomedical engineer who developed my own mass spectrometer and do research in prions. At some point, I thought I was going to become a neuroscientist exploring the chiasm between brain and mind. At another point in college, I thought I was going to become an organic chemist who created my own new compounds or a public health official who traveled the world in search of the perfect helminth. So many ideas and interests that I explored, but I remember distinctly one night near the end of sophomore year of college, as I was attempting to learn how to code a protein sequence for a project at 2 AM all alone, I questioned this path. “Why in the world am I doing this?” I thought to myself, “this is interesting, but it’s too far removed from the humanism and the sense of community that I want as part of my life. I would rather be interacting with people directly and helping them with my knowledge this way…” and so the switch to medicine.
I respect all who are in the basic sciences, who do public health and health policy, who do good work in engineering and tech, because we need such a multi-disciplinary group to solve the big problems in this world. For those who know me personally, with my skill set and personality, I think you can see why it made the most sense in the end for me to choose medicine from all these options
(And yes, my parents are now very proud and happy of my decision. I can see in my future that I will be going back here and there to help set up a basic eye care clinic in the parts of the Philippines where my parents are from and help continue the family legacy. It’s that Circle of Life.)
How did you decide on your particular specialty?
Eyes are by far the coolest organs in the body. Yes, the heart and lungs are important for oxygenation. Yes you need your brain to be who you are, and okay, as a shout out to Joyce, yes you need your skin to protect you from infection and dehydration, but have you ever stopped to wonder how much you rely on vision to interact with your world? Have you ever wondered how your little jelly eyes are able to take light and somehow turn it into a pattern of electrical impulses that your brain can then recognize as a color or a shape or a movement? It’s amazing. I dabbled in neuroscience classes and did some vision science research while in college. I used to cut fly retinas and place mini-electrodes in their brains too. When I started medical school, I was already biased and was already thinking neurology, ophthalmology, or ENT. Ophthalmology ended up being the right mix of surgery and medicine that I wanted. Ophthalmologists are also really happy people. It was a good personality match.
Did you take any time off? If so, what did you do?
Yes I took 5 years to finish medical school with one year between my third and fourth year of medical school. I spent that year doing research in Japan. I was involved in a medical anthropology project looking into the different factors in Japanese culture and society that allowed for the re-integration of traditional herbal medicine (Kampo) into the current Japanese medical system. It was a fascinating experience to interview these doctors, see their clinical practice, and see how the herbal formulations are made. It so happened that my mentor for this project was also a consultant for the World Health Organization and I also was able to see health policy changes in action. I also had the opportunity through the help of a non-profit organization in Japan, called the International Chamber of Innovation, Commerce, and Enterprise (ICICE), to get a bird’s-eye view of the medical and biotech environment in Japan. I was able to visit various medical schools, hospitals, research institutions, and pharmaceutical companies all through their program. Outside of my project, I picked up the traditional Japanese art of Temari, helped set up an English curriculum for a language school, found my Zen, and took some time to travel to other parts of Asia from Japan.
What activities did you do in college and medical school?
I was all over the place, but the one underlying theme was that there was some form of self-expression in the activities that I chose to do. I love art and all forms of it. I used to paint, draw – comics especially, make pinatas and paper mache statues, set up installations, go to different shows and events, danced (mostly traditional Filipino dance in college but it became increasingly more varied as the years progressed). I spent two years as a part of an a capella group in medical school. I also continued my language studies – Japanese, Spanish, French- with the belief that to be a global citizen, you should truly try to know more than just English. I was also heavily involved with the Filipino Students Association in college and later on the Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association in medical school as a way to explore my identity as a Filipino American and to also learn about the specific medical issues that plague Asian communities. Oh yes, I also helped start up a non-profit organization based in Boston called PN2K (http://www.pn2k.org). If you live in Boston and are interested in bike safety education, check us out.
What is the best advice you can give to a college premed student? What about to a medical student?
To college students:
It is okay to take your time and explore your interests while in college. Get it out of your system and make sure you fully experience all the various interests you have. Travel, be young, be happy and free. You want to make sure you don’t have any regrets before choosing a life in medicine if indeed that is what you want to go into after exploring your options. It is a long and arduous road if you go into it for the wrong reasons.
To medical students:
Medical school is hard. There were many times when I felt sad because my schedule felt so limiting or I felt like I was at the bottom of the totem pole and not really a “member” of the medical team. That passes. As a resident, it is so much better. You have a more direct connection and responsibility over your patients. Surgery is also really awesome. I imagine it will be even more so as an attending. If you really feel like you are burning out, talk to someone, anyone, try to figure out why you are feeling that way. If you are feeling unhappy too many days in a row, something has to change. Remember, it is YOUR life. In the moment, you may feel like you have no control, but really you do and sometimes you just have to put down what you are doing and take a breather to realize this. Trust me on this one – this was a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
Is there anything you would have done differently in your path to medicine?
Probably not. I have lived my life to the fullest each step of the way.
How do you motivate yourself in this sometimes difficult field and prevent burnout?
Take time for yourself to regroup. Over the years, I’ve learned to meditate, write as part of my self-reflection, draw/paint, go out into nature on hikes to find myself again. I most recently left for a one week trip to Hawaii to just enjoy nature and write (cause spontaneous trips is how I roll). If I feel particularly stressed out during the work day, I have no hesitations to call up my co-residents or seniors or attendings even to figure out how to make the day work. We are all human and you are not in it alone.
Also, in the back of my mind, I always think back to my parents, their sacrifices, and their dedication to this field. I know I have a lot to contribute too and as long as I remind myself of that, the days don’t seem that bad at all.
Do you have any tips on maintaining work-life balance?
Alluded to it above. It’s easy to get sucked into the day to day of work. There is always work to be done. Make sure you carve out some time for yourself, even if it’s just 10-30 minutes everyday or half a day over the weekend. Do something completely outside of medicine to remember who you are as a person and human being.
What do you do in your spare time? Any hobbies?
Not surprisingly – I still gravitate to the arts in my spare time, still do a lot of meditative hobbies (hiking/traveling/nature), and still co-direct PN2K, a non-profit organization on bike safety (http://www.pn2k.org). I draw and paint here and there. I still find myself writing a lot. I still am attempting to get good at dance even after all of these years.
Recently I’ve started learning hip-hop and was in a really funky Star Wars hip-hop routine a few weeks ago. Hip-hop dancing eye surgeon, you say? WHY YES, THEY EXIST.
If anyone is interested in chatting with Dr. Carmel more, leave a comment below. She is also in the midst of working on a personal website (once her crazy consult months are over!), which will be up and running sometime next year here.
Thank you Carmel!