Patients Who Feed My Soul

By Dr. Vinh Chung

Carlos was the last patient on my schedule for the day. He was coming in because of a skin cancer on the right side of his nose. I was seeing him at a Vanguard dermatology clinic located an hour away from the main dermatology clinic located in Colorado Springs, where I live.

We had opened this dermatology office to serve the rural population in southern Colorado, where patients must drive for hours to see a dermatologist. It was the end of the day, I was exhausted, and I was ready to go home. I was a bit irritated when I saw that he was added to the end of my day. If it weren’t for him, I would have left early enough to beat rush hour traffic. 

I have a loyal patient base at the Colorado Springs dermatology offices closer to my home, so it did not make any business sense to continue commuting and serving this rural population. I was getting grumpy just thinking about it. I was already imagining that he would show up late or not even show up at all. Fortunately, I was wrong about all my assumptions.

Carlos showed up on time. He was soft spoken, mild mannered and exceptionally courteous.  The strength and depth of his character were palpable. I was humbled by this incredible man.  After we spent a few minutes to discuss Mohs surgery to treat the skin cancer, I continued the conversation to learn more about his fascinating life story. 

Carlos had immigrated from Mexico in his 20s, not speaking a word of English. He had settled in southern Colorado where he works on a large commercial farm. He works 12-hour days, 6-7 days a week, and was able to take this rare day off to drive three hours so he can see me. I felt embarrassed for having been irritated earlier.

Married and with three kids, Carlos has dreams of sending his children to college so they could have a better future. His family is the epitome of what it means to live the American Dream. The more I learned about Carlos and his family the more grateful I became for having the privilege of being his dermatologist.

I was expecting an inconvenient add-on problem to fix. Instead, I found a deep human connection. Carlos’s life reminds me of my own personal journey to become a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon. My family had immigrated from Vietnam as refugees. It was only because of the kindness and generosity of others – teachers, mentors, and coaches – that allowed me to be where I am today. 

These individuals spent extra time with me, did not make poor assumptions about me, and they believed the very best in me. A reminder of my personal journey through this patient allowed me to feel such profound joy and gratitude in a long and hectic day. I have been inspired by Carlos and I believe my life is a bit richer for having cared for him. I have received more than anything I could have given him.

In any major city, if I personally could not care for a dermatology patient, there would be dozens of other dermatologists who could. This is especially true for patients with commercial insurance or who have cosmetic needs. For patients from rural areas, getting dermatology care is almost impossible. That is why I continue traveling to multiple dermatology offices in these rural communities, an hour from my Colorado Springs home. I do this not only to serve an unmet need but also to feed my own soul. I do not enjoy the long commute just like anyone else. With four children, I have the same financial and time pressures just like anyone else. But I realize that even more important than time and money, I need inspiration. I need a sense of purpose for what I do, so that I can experience joy and gratitude in my work. 

With the epidemic burnout among physicians, finding joy and gratitude through intimate human connections is the ultimate solution. I do not need improved efficiency. I do not need more metrics. I do not need coping mechanisms, so that I can work harder or to be more resilient. I just need to know that what I do matters. That my work matters to another human being. That what I am doing serves a greater purpose. 

With the ever-changing landscape of health care, physicians must fight hard to remove any obstacle that may prevent us from having authentic human connections with our patients. This is our lifeblood, reminding us that our work is a calling.

When physicians choose to go into medicine, we want to connect with patients so that we can uniquely serve their needs. Over time and with all the administrative demands of practicing medicine, we become occupied with just fixing problems. 

Sometimes, we need to pause and take a little extra time so our hearts can be reminded about “Why” we chose to go into medicine in the first place. Like any important thing in life, we find meaning and fulfillment when our hearts can flourish.

Vinh Chung, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and a fellowship trained Mohs surgeon. He specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer at Vanguard Skin Specialists. Dr. Chung sees patients in Colorado Springs, Canon City, Pueblo and Woodland Park.

He has a passion for finding meaning and purpose in medicine.  He can be contacted at [email protected].