Thirty years ago, a teenager from Indianapolis accompanied her father, a cardiologist, on a medical mission to Haiti. Little did she know that the experience would change her life — and the lives of her future patients.
Elizabeth Kim, M.D., Trauma Medical Director at Medical City McKinney, has participated in medical missions to Haiti at least 10 times in the last three decades. It was the first one, however, that sparked her interest in surgery. While she was volunteering at a “bush clinic” in the Caribbean island with her father, a surgeon offered to let her assist on a few minor bedside surgeries.
“I didn’t want to be a doctor until I went to Haiti. It was my favorite part of the trip because I really felt it made a difference in people’s lives,” said Dr. Kim, who also works at Medical City Plano. “You can go there and give out blood pressure medication, and after a month, they don’t have any medication left. But if you do a surgery in Haiti, it’s life-changing, and it’s forever.”
She recently won the Frist Humanitarian Physician Award from Medical City McKinney for her dedication to improving healthcare in Haiti. During her most recent mission in August 2018, she led a 10-person surgical team to Hôpital Sacré Coeur, a 100-bed hospital in northern Haiti. The team evaluated 96 patients and performed 40 general surgeries during the seven-day mission.
The impact of her trips to Haiti has led Dr. Kim to establish an international medical rotation for surgical residents to assist with medical missions: “Going down there, seeing how much these patients need and trying to do the best to meet those needs … I really love providing that kind of care,” she explained.
Dr. Kim earned her medical degree from the University of Texas Southwestern and stayed there to complete her surgical residency. It was during her residency that she met Mathis Adams, M.D., President, Surgical Services, Envision Physician Services.
“The physicians in Dr. Adams’ group were always happy and seemed to love their jobs,” Dr. Kim shared. “It was the main reason that I wanted to join the group.” Once she joined Envision, her work with Dr. Adams continued: “He’s a great surgeon and a very good mentor.”
Being a trauma surgeon and helping people when they are in need, she believes, is an honor. “My trauma patients motivate me. Seeing someone so sick on a ventilator who can’t move, can’t talk and has life-threatening injuries; and then two weeks later, I round on them, and they’re out of the ICU, they’re on the floor, they’re talking to me; and then a couple of weeks after that, I see them in clinic, and we get to send them home. It’s an honor to see these patients through some of the worst times in their lives and their families’ lives.”
The most difficult aspect of the job, she said, is when the outcome isn’t what she had expected. “Of course, there are the people that we can’t save, and that can be very difficult … I have to go talk to the family and tell them some terrible news, and then I typically cry with them. It can be heart-breaking.”
Being a Woman in Medicine
While women were the majority in her residency class — one of the largest in the country that year — Dr. Kim said that mentoring and supporting female physicians still should be a priority and that Women in Medicine Month is an important step in recognizing the contributions of women in the field.
“Envision does help promote diversity and inclusion,” said Dr. Kim, whose children are two and six years old. “They’ve always supported our needs for whatever future that we feel is best for us. One of the great things that I’ve noticed about Envision is variability with our workdays. We can work a lot of shifts or we can slow down, depending on the needs of our families. It’s a very family-friendly place to work.”
The key to work/life balance and not getting burned out, she said, is having a good support system, such as her husband Sam, and practicing self-care.
“You can be a successful woman in surgery and be a great mother,” she said. “It can be hard to take care of your kids and give yourself to the hospital 100 percent. It’s almost like you have to give 200 percent to everything that you do: 100 percent to your patients and 100 percent to your family. It can definitely wear you down, so you need to make sure that you’ve got a good support system in your life and that you take time for yourself.”