July 22, 2021
Interventional radiologist: Expanding my comfort zone made me a better doctor
BY Stephen McRae, M.D.
I came to the field of medicine in a roundabout way. I always had an affinity for science. But while I made good grades in both high school and college, I spent most of my undergraduate years playing football and just having fun. It wasn’t until it was over that I realized I needed to find a career and actually do something with my biology degree.
Luckily, a couple of researchers saw something in me while I was in St. Louis, and they took me under their wings to nurture it. They helped me line up some observation times in emergency rooms, identify the pre-med courses I still needed to take, and get some journal articles published before applying to medical school. So, I owe them a lot. They’re a big part of the reason I believe today that with enough support and exposure to positive role models, you can do anything you want to do.
I almost became a farmer
I was born in a small town in Arkansas called Dumas. I lived on my family’s farm there until I was 10. Then, my mom married my stepdad and we moved out to California. That was a huge culture shock. Because back then, Dumas only had a population of about 7,000 people. And Los Angeles had around 10 million.
If we’d stayed in Arkansas, I have no doubt I would’ve ended up being a farmer. Because people tend to emulate those around them and only consider the professions they’ve been exposed to. But in a large city like L.A., and with my mom being a schoolteacher and my stepdad being a pastor, I was surrounded by successful Black people from many walks of life. So, I knew other options were available.
What I learned about getting comfortable with people of different cultures
Looking back now, I think my family’s big move was what really opened doors for me. Because it helped me get comfortable with the prospect of being a little out of sorts and the idea of having to regroup and start over. Those skills have served me well not only in my personal life, but also in my professional life.
When we first moved to L.A., my mom enrolled me in a private school in North Hollywood. And I was one of maybe three Black kids there, in a class of 150. So, I had to get comfortable with those kinds of situations pretty quickly.
That turned out to be very useful, because a key part of dispelling the concept of “other” is exposure. If you haven’t shared time or fun or laughter — or any the other commonalities of life — with someone who doesn’t look like you or have all the same cultural touchpoints, it’s hard not to see them as “other,” because you can’t identify with them. But once you've actually had those experiences, it’s easy to feel the sense of sameness between you.
That’s why I feel minority medical students owe it to themselves to reach out to people outside their own communities, and to get comfortable with people from different ethnicities and cultures. It won’t just make them better doctors. It will also give them a comfort level in dealing with challenges that might otherwise seem insurmountable.
Keeping teachable moments positive
In my own career, I’ve definitely been caught off-guard by other people’s lack of exposure to Black people. But instead of getting upset about it, I’ve tried to use those moments as opportunities to lift their expectations, whatever they might’ve been before that. So, if I encountered, say, a patient who was obviously uncomfortable with having a Black doctor, I took that as a challenge to be the best doctor they’d ever had.
Similarly, when people made assumptions that I was an orderly or something, and I was actually someplace to interview a patient or conduct a meeting, I just corrected them matter-of-factly and moved on. I didn’t want to dwell on the negative, and I looked at it as their problem. I also didn’t want to take any of it on, because that’s not the world I want to live in. This approach has worked out pretty well for me so far.
How I want to be remembered
As an interventional radiologist, I use CT scans, ultrasounds, MRIs and other imaging techniques to guide needles and other surgical instruments during diagnostic procedures, surgeries and other treatments. I pride myself on my ability to obtain tissue samples from patients who’ve been turned away by other facilities, due to the difficulty of their biopsies. Giving patients the peace of mind that comes from knowing therapy can now begin — because we have the answers they need — is incredibly gratifying.
Procedures of any kind can be nerve-wracking for patients. But educated patients are better able to remain calm during those procedures, and they’re also more likely to recognize potential complications once they leave our facility. So, I try to reassure them by giving them a little insight into our techniques and safety precautions.
At the end of the day, I’d like to be remembered as someone who brought comfort to people during a really difficult time of their lives. Many of the patients I see have pretty serious diseases, and — at least in their minds — we’re doing some pretty scary things to them. So, a really great day for me is when I can take a patient who is really fearful and make their procedure both easy and painless.
Stephen McRae, M.D., is an interventional radiologist at MD Anderson.
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With enough support, you can do anything.
Stephen McRae, M.D.