Physician Spotlight: Dr. Shoa Clarke, MD PhD


My dear friends, you are in for a treat today. Today I’m spotlighting one of my close friends from Stanford Medical School who is always astounding me with his neverending talents. Dr. Clarke is as passionate about research as he is about medicine, and he is training to see BOTH adults and children with a combined medicine/pediatrics residency (very very few programs in the country!). Does his name sound familiar? You may have read his New York Times OpEd, titled “How Hospitals Coddle the Rich.” Cherry on top: he is also a very cool breakdancer, and he stole the dance floor at every medical school party and continues to rock out at every wedding. This is his story, and what he advice he has to offer you.

Dr. Shoa Clarke

Name: Shoa L. Clarke, MD, PhD
Hometown: Portland, Maine
College: Cornell University
Medical School: Stanford School of Medicine
Specialty: Internal Medicine and Pediatrics
Residency Training Program: Brigham & Women’s and Boston Children’s Hospitals
Year in Training: PGY4

What was your main motivation in becoming a doctor? When did you decide on this path?

I decided to become a physician in third grade after reading the story of Albert Schweitzer. He was a physician in the early 1900s who promoted the philosophy of humanism and “reverence for life.” I’ve written about the experience before, so if you want the long version,
you can find it here. As a physician, his simple message was that all people deserve to be respected, treated with dignity, and cared for when ill. It was a radical effort in a time when the practice of medicine was tainted with pervasive racism. What spoke to me about Dr. Schweitzer’s story was that it was tangible. My childhood heroes, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, they were out of reach. While I could admire them, I could never hope be them. Schweitzer offered a different example. Anyone who is willing to work
hard and who has “reverence for life” can become a great physician.

How did you decide on your particular specialty? Why adults AND kids?

As a medical student, I loved both internal medicine and pediatrics. I also felt that the separation of the two specialties was somewhat artificial. Pediatricians often recite the mantra that, “children are not just small adults.” This of course is true, and yet by focusing on the differences between treating children and adults, I think we lose out on grasping the common threads that make up the fabric of our health from birth to death. A person’s well being does not conveniently compartmentalize into the stages of life: infancy, childhood, adolescents, adulthood, retirement, etc. Risk of disease, disease itself, and the manifestations of disease are interconnected throughout each of these stages. For this reason, I wanted to gain experience diagnosing and treating illness across the full span of life.

Dr. Clarke and his proud family at Stanford's graduation

At Stanford graduation with two degrees, celebrating with his sisters and his mother

Why did you decide to do an MD/PhD and what advice do you have for people considering this track?

When I started college, I had no intentions of doing research or pursuing a PhD. Quite honestly, I had no idea what a PhD was. However, thanks to a good advisor and some serendipity, I discovered the field of genomics and the path of the physician-scientist. For anyone considering this path, realize that many great physician-scientists do not have PhDs, and many great scientists do extraordinary medical research but do not have MDs. Having both degrees is not necessary for most careers, and completing both degrees can be quite grueling. So, I recommend this path only for folks who love the process. Don’t do it just to get to a particular endpoint.

Best buds at Match Day 2013

What activities did you do in college and medical school?

My primary “activity” in college and med school was research. Weekends, vacations, holidays, etc. were spent in the lab. In med school, I also spent a huge amount of time working at a free clinic. During my PhD years, I had a lot more flexibility with my schedule,
and I used that extra time to run a hepatitis B screening and vaccination campaign. Outside of academics, I played on a club ultimate Frisbee team at Cornell, and I was very active in the Bay Area breakdancing scene when I was in California.

What is the best advice you can give to a college premed student? What about to a medical student?

For premeds:
I know a lot of folks will disagree with the advice I’m about to give, so take it with a grain of salt. If you don’t really like being a “premed,” if you hate organic chemistry and physics, if studying for the MCAT was the worst experience of your life, consider another profession.

I hear a lot of students say that they want to be doctors so that they can help people, but they see the process of getting there as torture to be endured. This doesn’t make sense to me. There are so many ways to help people and have a positive impact on the world. Why not choose a path that you can relish every step of the way?

Spend your college years studying what you love to study. No matter what career you choose, there is always a way to help others.

For med students:
1. Be professional. Always. From here on out, you represent something much greater than yourself.
2. Many of you have overcome major challenges in life and have worked your butt off to make it. Be proud of your achievement, but realize that somewhere out there, there is someone  ho is smarter than you, worked harder than you, but hit an obstacle that couldn’t be overcome. There is always someone more deserving of the success that you achieve. Never forget your privilege.
3. Study more.

Is there anything you would have done differently in your path to medicine?

I wish I was less selfish with my time and invested more in the relationships that are meaningful to me.

breakdancing doctor

Breakdancing the night away

How do you motivate yourself in this sometimes difficult field and prevent burnout?

I don’t think that burnout can be completely prevented, and that’s okay. We shouldn’t try to hide our vulnerability. I think the key to remaining resilient during times of burnout is seeking those experiences that are meaningful and empowering. There’s no escaping the stresses and frustrations of practicing medicine. The easiest way to remind yourself of the meaningfulness of your work is to do the one thing we’re never given time to do – spend time with your patients. This also helps with empowerment because the more time you spend with
a patient, the more you’re reminded of the impact you can have on a person’s life simply by being present.

As an intern, my strategy was to spend a little extra time in the hospital each day. It’s worth a try. After you’ve completed your work, signed out your list, and forwarded your pager, don’t rush home. Stay for ten minutes. It is refreshing to spend time with a patient without the constant interruption of pages and without a long list of unfinished check boxes hanging over your head. A simple conversation can make both you and your patient feel human again.

Do you have any tips on maintaining work-life balance?

This isn’t really something that I think about, so I can’t offer any real advice. Know your priorities, and be realistic.

What do you do in your spare time? Any hobbies?

Since becoming a resident, my main hobby has been writing, and I am also an avid reader. I still like to dance when I get the opportunity.

Thank you for your wisdom Dr. Clarke. For more insights and pearls, check out Dr. Clarke’s tumblr.

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