Spotlight on Graduating Chief Resident Dr. Jonathan Yang

Dr. Yang at the 2013 Graduation CeremonyJonathan Yang, MD, is a recently graduated member of the 2013 class at Columbia University Medical School’s Surgical Residency Program. Dr. Yang began his training in 2006, and is currently pursuing a fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery here at Columbia. We caught up with Dr. Yang to learn more about his time as a resident.

Q: How long were you a resident at Columbia? What was the focus of your residency?

Dr. Yang: I was a resident at Columbia for seven years. I did three straight years in the general surgery residency program, then took two years off for research in the cardiac lab, and I just recently finished my final two years of residency.

Initially I knew I wanted to sub-specialize, but I wasn’t sure in what particular area. I wanted to go through the general surgery program to get the breadth of experience in all aspects of general surgery, but after the first two years I started to have more interest in cardiac surgery.

Q: During your time in the cardiac lab, what was the turning point that made you decide to pursue cardiac surgery?

Dr. Yang: There was no one moment that was a turning point, but the whole two years contributed to my interest in cardiac surgery. During my lab time, I was doing research almost full-time, working with the organ procurement team for the heart and lung transplant program, and pursuing my Masters in Public Health at the same time. So there were a lot of different aspects to my two years of research, and all of them strengthened my interest and passion for cardiac surgery.

Q: What was your role in the heart transplant program at Columbia? You mentioned that you did some work with the organ procurement team.

Dr. Yang: While working in the cardiac lab I was on call at various times as part of the procurement team. The procurement team is the group that is sent to the location of a donor organ to recover the organ for transplantation at their hospital. During this time, I was on call anywhere from once every six days to almost every day. It is not the norm for a lab fellow to be part of the procurement team, so this was a unique opportunity for me. It made my lab years a little more tiring, with such frequent call, but gave me an invaluable experience.

Q: You mentioned that you pursued your Masters in Public Health (MPH) during your research years. How do you see this degree impacting your medical career in the future?

Dr. Yang: The initial purpose of getting my MPH was to gain a better understanding of the other aspects of health care. I have some interest in policy and research, and this program let me pursue both of these things at the same time. I chose to focus in biostatistics and health care policy & management.

On the statistics side of things, the trend recently has been towards more outcomes based systems. The ability to follow this research on an institutional level and an individual level has been very helpful. Down the line, I see my comfort with biostatistics aiding in my future research endeavors, as well as better understanding my own outcomes and the statistics used to measure these outcomes. Increasingly, the government and insurance companies are going to be looking at physicians’ outcomes, so it was helpful for me to learn about these things.

In terms of health care and policy, it was helpful to understand the system that we are working in, especially with recent healthcare reform. We don’t receive much of this training as part of residency, so it was good experience to gain. It helped me to learn how I will be dealing with insurance companies, contracts, and things of that nature.

Q: I understand that you are going to be staying here at Columbia to pursue a fellowship. What are you looking forward to in your new role?

Dr. Yang: Yes, I am pursuing my cardiothoracic surgery fellowship here at Columbia, and I think that the main shift will be in the operating room. Managing complex ICU and floor patients will be a large part of fellowship, but these were also aspects of my general surgery training, just with different patient populations. What will be completely new, and what excites me the most, is learning the technical skills for open heart surgery. I foresee it being very challenging, requiring a lot of practice, repetition and focus, but also rewarding.

Q: What advice would you give to an incoming resident?

Dr. Yang: The most important thing is to ask questions. When you first arrive you are essentially treading water, trying to figure out everything from the hospital computer system to the patient management protocols, until you get comfortable enough to swim with the pack. While we expect residents to be self-sufficient eventually, it is more important for residents to utilize the resources they have at their disposal to get things done right and efficiently. The most important resource is the other residents. The senior residents are a great source of knowledge and insight, so it is smart to take advantage of their experience and ask questions. It will actually help you become self-sufficient more quickly and might also save you from making a mistake.

Q: What do you do to keep balance in your life? What would you suggest to other residents?

Dr. Yang: Residency is tough. At times, it can be very draining – mentally, physically, emotionally, and sometimes all three. I think it is important to have people you can rely on to sympathize with what you’re going through, even if they haven’t lived it themselves. Close friends and co-residents all fit the bill, but for me my family was the most important factor for keeping me balanced.

My parents live in Queens, so they have been a constant source of support, whether simply calling to check in, driving me out to Queens for a home-cooked meal, or sometimes driving the home-cooked meal to me when things were really busy.

More recently, since I met and married my wife (all during residency – yes, it is possible!), she has been a constant source of energy and support. She and our one-year-old son give me something cheerful to look forward to each day, no matter how tough the day was. Sometimes, it was via Skype from the call room, but cheerful nonetheless.

It is also essential to have a life outside of the program, and it helps to establish this early. Whatever your hobbies or life interests are, it’s important to hold onto them during residency. I have played the violin since grade school, and attending NY Philharmonic performances helped me relax and keep that part of my brain functioning. To stay active, it was pretty easy to find pick-up soccer games on off-weekends in the summer, and I even joined a hockey league one year. I also know some residents who picked up new hobbies during residency, but the key is to have some outlet outside of the hospital. It keeps you balanced, and can make you a better clinician when you are in the hospital.

Q: What aspects of your time as a resident will you miss?

Dr. Yang: I will definitely miss the people, hands down. The general surgery program is small enough that it feels like a family, yet big enough to have many different personalities, teaching styles, and interests, not to mention an impressive and storied history. I will miss how helpful and supportive the attendings, office staff, and my fellow residents have been. That has always been the biggest plus of the program.

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