Editor’s note: Academic medicine has been challenged in recent years by staff shortages, a pandemic, and increasing vitriol against health care workers, leading to unprecedented levels of burnout and attrition. In this series, AAMCNews speaks with physicians and trainees to share stories of why they stay in medicine despite these challenges.
Suet Kam Lam, MD, MPH, MS, IBCLC
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine
Assistant Medical Director, Cleveland Clinic Breastfeeding Medicine
Despite the darkness of the early December morning, Kam Lam, MD, could tell from the door of the hospital room that her newborn patient was desperately ill. The baby was severely dehydrated and had lost 20% of his birth weight. His mom’s worry was etched on her face. Lam, who was a pediatric hospitalist at the time, worked quickly to transfer the baby to the pediatric ICU, where he was diagnosed with a rare medical condition. Without quick intervention, the baby’s condition might have been fatal, but now, Lam receives a holiday card from the family every year, showing a thriving toddler along with his two siblings. It’s a reminder to Lam that this child is able to grow up because of her work.
For Lam, medicine — and specifically pediatrics — has been a calling she’s felt since she was 10 years old. Though her parents were Chinese immigrants who worked in a restaurant in New Jersey without time off, and she had no close examples of physicians in her life growing up, she always felt drawn to healing and helping keep children healthy. Lam became the first person in her family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. She then went on to receive a master’s in public health and her medical degree from The George Washington University in the District of Columbia. Throughout her decade-long career, Lam has cherished the moments she’s shared with new parents and their babies — from the big ones like helping save a sick newborn’s life to the small, everyday joys and struggles that come with new parenthood.
But it hasn’t come without its challenges. Lam’s husband, Jason, is an orthopedic surgeon, and they have two young children: Natalie, almost 4, and Brandon, almost 2. Lam continued to work on various research, education, and administrative projects during her maternity leaves and had to juggle the demanding schedule of working in the hospital with her parenting, including breastfeeding and significant perinatal and newborn health challenges.
Though Lam never questioned her decision to go into medicine, she did wonder how long she would be able to stay in the profession with continued gender and racial disparities, glass ceilings, and decreasing resources and support for increasing work demands. It’s an issue that is prevalent throughout the field, Lam says. Research shows that nearly 40% of women doctors go part-time or leave medicine altogether within six years of completing their training, primarily because of a lack of systemic support for new parents, such as adequate paid leave, reliable childcare resources, and other considerations for working parents. Lam wanted to continue to show up for her patients and trainees, but also needed to be there for her family more consistently. So, she expanded her breastfeeding medicine practice at the Cleveland Clinic, where she supports breastfeeding parents and infants through their challenging times. It was a way for her to continue the work she loves while being able to spend more time with her family.
Being a doctor has required Lam to sacrifice much, but she says that looking at the pictures of the healthy, chubby babies and toddlers that she helped usher into the world, sharing moments like a baby’s first time latching to their mother’s breast, and impacting community policies and outreach that remind Lam that her work matters.
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