Dr. Angela Holliday-Bell is a pediatrician in training, currently working at Children’s National Hospital. Dr. Holliday-Bell also manages a blog on how sleep impacts health and wellness, check it out here. She shared a lot of insights about her work as well as her story with us in this interview, which is brought to you by BioTEC's Molly Lu and Jordan Van Wyk.
BioTEC: What initially motivated you to pursue a career in pediatrics?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: I actually wanted to be a doctor, specifically, a pediatrician since I was six years old. I think there is a mixture of the experience with my own pediatrician as well as caring for my family. My pediatrician was a black female like myself, she was very knowledgeable and smart. She was always able to make me feel better and I wished to be like her and be there for other people. That, coupled with having to care for other people in my family who have medical problems; I was always in the hospital, always in the clinics, so I got to see things from the patient perspective. These things together motivated me to care for other people the way my pediatrician cared for me, and I have been on that journey ever since.
BioTEC: You mentioned that your pediatrician helped spark your interest. Do you have other role models or inspirational figures to guide your decisions to become a pediatrician?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: I actually had several different role models in different stages of life, I didn't really have anyone in the medical field per se so I kind of had to figure out things on my own. However, I had teachers and counselors that were very helpful in motivating me to try to pursue my dream. Once I get to medical school, I had a physician who was very knowledgeable in her field to help me out with questions and directions. So, overall I think mentorship played a significant role throughout my entire path, and different people helped me out at different stages to keep me on the right track.
BioTEC: There is a lot of talk about even just being a woman in STEM in general, could you comment on how you find representation, being a woman of color in the medical field?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: Initially it was my own pediatrician who is a woman and made me really see myself in the position of doctor. Now I live in Washington D.C. during my training, but I’m from Chicago, inner-city, and there was no one in my family or women of color in my community as doctors. So, my physician had such a strong influence on me and it was the first time I saw myself in her position. It was definitely difficult, but I see the minority representation in the STEM field is growing, I believe we will see more and more women and women of color in the field.
BioTEC: How has the reality of being a physician differed from your expectations?
Dr. Holliday: When you decide to become a doctor you might look at it like I'm just helping people, and it is going to be great and people will be so happy. But there are a lot of difficulties that not only come with the training but also the work itself. During training you sacrifice a lot, and for the job itself, sometimes you push to the hardest you can for a good outcome and try your best to help people feel better yet they don’t. Sometimes there is nothing you can do to affect the outcome, so that has been the hardest part.
BioTEC: Based on the knowledge you have right now, would you do anything different and what would you say to caution people about entering the medical field?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: I personally wouldn't change anything that I've done, I think that this is what I meant to do. All of the sacrifices were worth it. I get a lot of joy from helping out my family and my patients. I would recommend people who want to enter the medical field to search within themselves and figure out why they want to do it as a career. There are some people that don't do it for the most sustainable reason, they do it for respect or for the pay. But if you're really passionate about helping people and learning constantly, as well as being on your toes to adapt to change, then I think you will make it. Know that you will be sacrificing but understand that the reward is just as great as the sacrifice.
BioTEC: What are some of your favorite moments or accomplishments?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: I had so many great moments in my training to become a primary care physician, and I have done a lot of work in the clinic. My greatest moments have been bonding with the families. Every pediatrician becomes someone they really rely on, you see the kids grow as firstborns into teenagers. Being able to experience this type of growth is amazing, it's something I don’t think I will be able to if I work outside of my field. The other moments are those when my patients looked up to me and they said they wanted to be a doctor. Either they were ready to be a doctor and they felt more motivated after working with me or they are inspired to see being a doctor as a sustainable career they can do. These moments really warm my heart, as representation is so important. Being able to affect someone in that way has been excellent for me.
BioTEC: What does your typical day look like?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: It depends on the day. We switch between the emergency room and clinics. Right now I'm in the emergency room, yesterday I worked the 7 to 5 shift. On other days I might work a 2 to 12 shift. So what it looks like is I go to the emergency room and whoever was previously there will tell me what needs to be done for the patient. You do check-ups, figure out what’s wrong with the patient, and talk to the supervisor about what you think is best for the patient.
When I am in the clinic, that is more of your standard 8 to 5 days. There are scheduled appointments, usually 6 to 20 patients a day. A lot of the times they come for immunization shots. In general, we check what’s on their record beforehand and come up with a plan and decide what treatment would be best. You attend the patients in rounds, which means going to each room. And every doctor adds on what you think should be done for that patient and contributes to the plan.
BioTEC: How do you deal with after such a long day at work, and how do you balance yourself between life and work?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: it is definitely a hard balance, it is necessary to understand you will need to sacrifice. For balancing my life, I think the key is being intentional, so being intentional about the time that you do have outside of the medicine. We get around 4 days a month off, so one thing that I made a concerted effort to do if you come to make sure I get enough sleep. I have a blog about sleep. You know it is hard for people to function optimally without sleep and it affects so many other areas of life. I have a very strict regimen of getting about the right amount of sleep. Above that I am married, so with my husband, we have plans to spend time doing activities for just the two of us, whether it’s watching a movie or having dinner together. Friends are also an important aspect. I can’t be there for every gathering, but I do my best to be there for them and give support.
I think work-life balance is definitely hard as a trainee, but if you are intentional about your activities and time spent on them as well as not ignoring your physical and mental health, I think it is manageable.
BioTEC: Could you elaborate on research on the blog you have mentioned?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: I had always had a personal loving relationship with sleep. I'm someone who has needed a lot. I was in my training in medical school or in residency and I haven't taken a lot of sleep and I realize it will have a personal toll on me. So I started to research sleep, we do have a medical curriculum on speaker things that we learned in medical school and then the residency founder of the sleeping medicine wrote a book called “The promise of sleep” and I read that and I was just life-changing.
Later I decided to personally educate my patients about sleep but then you know I want to educate a wider audience so I decided to start a blog so I can reach people. As a pediatrician, sleep comes up every time as an issue, because if there is a new-born in the family if the baby is not sleeping well, the parents are not getting enough sleep. I get started and sleep training so how do you get your child to sleep better so you can sleep better. We have a sleep clinic at our hospital. I worked with a psychologist and the physicians there to hold your audio were in the clinical sleep so they've taught me in research and I'm currently and I'm currently training to get my certificates in clinical sleep health.
BioTEC: What would be some of the recommendations for people to have better sleep?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: The most important piece is the right mentality for falling asleep. Nowadays, there are so many distractions: TV shows, social media. It is recommended that by setting up a regular bedtime routine: going to bed around the same time (within one hour of when you normally fall asleep) and wake up around the same time is important for the proper functioning of our circadian rhythm and biological clock. Our bodies secrete melatonin, which is the chemical that helps us fall asleep, however, the light from devices can disrupt the secretion of melatonin, and disrupts the circadian rhythm.
One way to help with that is to do something relaxing every night, whether it be a relaxing shower, or reading a book. The more you do it, your brain will associate the activity with falling asleep. For people who are suffering from insomnia, it can be harder, this is going to take time. If it takes more than 20 minutes to fall asleep, get out of bed, do something calming and relaxing under low light. When your body feels tired, get to bed again.
Avoid doing other activities in the bed, such as eating, or calling. Because those activities will make your brain associate bed with hanging out. You want your brain to associate bed with falling asleep only.
BioTEC: Do you have any tips for an undergrad student to set up a trajectory to get into medicine?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: You definitely need the right medical school, and get hands-on experience. During undergrad, I was interested in biology already, so my major was molecular and cellular biology, which includes a lot of the prerequisite courses for medical school. But you should pursue whatever you are passionate about, it doesn’t have to be biology, but make sure your academic standing is good.
For extracurricular activities, make sure you take leadership positions to show you have leadership qualities. You can take two or three and really focus on them, showing that you have other passions. And a game-changer you can have is to get experience in the medical field. You can reach out to your local clinics or hospital, maybe you could be asked to be shadowed by a clinician. If you successfully get this kind of experience, what it shows is that you have been around the medical field and you are still interested in it. If there is no chance for you to reach people from your hospital you can email individual clinicians, asking if they take students for shadow. At the end of your volunteer or work experience, you can ask them to maybe write you a letter of recommendation.
So three things in summary: staying top on your academics, showing you have active leadership qualities, and gaining relevant experience by reaching people who are already in the field.
BioTEC: How are you doing in quarantine and do you have any suggestions for people to stay mentally and physically healthy during this special period of time?
Dr. Holliday-Bell: As a trainee, I am an essential worker, so in terms of work there isn’t much change. However, there is more fear in the air and a lot more panic with the patients, and morale is a bit lower. We have strict guidelines and protection protocol, so going in to see the patients we need to have proper PPE no matter what we are doing, we are taking this very seriously. I think the biggest thing right now is just trying to educate people and also keeping people out of the hospital as much as possible. Especially with the little ones, we don’t want them to be exposed if they don’t have to.
Amidst all that, I am just trying to spend quality time with my families, making sure they are okay, and connecting with my friends. I am also working out to take care of myself physically as well. In terms of suggestion, I would just urge people to stay at home as much as possible and wear a mask if you go out. This is not only for your protection but also for the protection of other vulnerable people around you as well. When you are staying at home, do something that you enjoy, something that has nothing to do with the pandemic, to keep yourself happy, and to take care of yourself. Turn down the television and stay away from social media if you need to, sometimes the overflow of information can be intimidating and hard to process. Overall, focus on what makes you happy and stay active every day.