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A Conversation with Dr. Masud Habibullah On Gaining Inspiration From Today’s Younger Generations

Masud Habibullah was born in Columbia, MO, and grew up in Superior, WI. When his brother was diagnosed with autism, his family moved to Boston, MA to find a center for his brother. Habibullah’s parents then started several programs in Massachusetts for people with autism. In 2007, Habibullah received his Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry […]

Masud Habibullah was born in Columbia, MO, and grew up in Superior, WI. When his brother was diagnosed with autism, his family moved to Boston, MA to find a center for his brother. Habibullah’s parents then started several programs in Massachusetts for people with autism.

In 2007, Habibullah received his Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from Northeastern University, and then he moved to Virginia to attend Eastern Virginia Medical School. In 2012, he moved to New York to do his three-year residency at NewYork–Presbyterian Queens (formerly New York Hospital Queens).

During his schooling, Dr. Habibullah volunteered from 2006 to 2009 at the Boston Special Olympics, from 2008 to 2009 for the Project Smile at EVMS, from 2008 to 2010 for the Norfolk Emergency Shelter Team at EVMS and in 2010 for the MyHOPE Clinic at EVMS.

Dr. Masud Habibullah currently works as a Hospitalist at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, GA.

1. What do you love most about the industry you are in?

In terms of what I like about it, medically, it’s ever-changing. It’s a double-edged sword, which is why I like teaching. My favorite part about medicine is teaching, mostly because it keeps me up to date with what’s going on from a medical standpoint, but also because it lets me touch base with students who are going through the same thing I went through just a couple of years ago. I can guide them in terms of mistakes that are commonly made in terms of paperwork and their training course. I would say my biggest accomplishment thus far was the two years I was the director of a teaching program and the success that my students had.

2. What does a typical day consist of for you?

I work as a physician, and my job primarily is something called a hospitalist. It’s a job that’s been around for about 40 years. A hospitalist is kind of like your primary care doctor within the hospital. Let’s say a patient came in with a broken leg.  They will likely have other medical problems on top of having a broken leg.  This is when they would be admitted to my service.  I would call the orthopedic surgeon to come and fix the patient’s leg while I manage any other problems or conditions before releasing them. Much like a primary care doctor would do on the outside, where they would refer you to an orthopedic surgeon if you had a knee problem. So anything that brings a person into the hospital, I would see them for it. Sometimes cover the ICU but I generally cover the step-down unit, which is right outside the ICU, and the general medical floor.

3. What keeps you motivated?

As I mentioned before, my favourite part of the job is teaching. If I wasn’t good at what I’m doing, I don’t think my students would have faith in me. It keeps me from getting too complacent.

4. How do you motivate others?

The best thing that I can say is to try not to become complacent. It’s a grind, what we do. In medicine, unfortunately, it’s not just about the illness. It’s usually about the patient, their family, their social-economic situation. Particularly here in the United States, where the burden of health care can become a lot bigger than just what’s going on with you in terms of your health. It’s also whether or not you can pay to take care of your health. One of the biggest things I think I had to realize, going from a resident or a student to a doctor, is that medicine is the easy part. It’s the treatment, and whether the patient can afford to treat the social stuff that makes it so much more difficult.

There are times where your employer or the hospital, depending on whom you work for, are telling you a patient needs to be discharged, but they have no place to go. Then they’re telling you, the provider, the person who’s there to help these people, “Well, then, discharge them to a homeless shelter,” or something like that. These sorts of things really put you in a place where you start juggling with your ethics and integrity, what you can do and what you should do, what you should be able to do, and why you went into medicine.

Going back to how to motivate others, be sure to draw a line for yourself for what you’re willing to do, who you’re willing to work for, and go from there. Try to make sure that you’re doing what’s best for the patient. Even though everyone says that I’m not sure that everyone does it.

5. Where do you get your inspiration from?

In addition to my students’ successes, I’ve had a few really good professors down my training path. They put a focus on how you can’t control everything, but the things you can control, you should do your best.  For example, make sure when you see a patient whom you think is chronically there or someone who’s getting on your nerves, just to remember the roles. No one raised their hand when they’re little and said, “I want to have a chronic disease.” No one raised their hand and said, “Okay, I want to be in a situation where I can’t pull myself out of a hole.” It helps you recenter and do what’s best for the people in front of you despite it being some type of mental hurdle for yourself.

6. Who has been a role model to you, and why?

One was a professor of mine in medical school who is South African. He had to go through a lot to become a doctor, and he was one of the best doctors in our hospital. He was also a hospitalist. Whenever he approached a problem, he would approach it in the exact same way, no matter how many times he saw it or who the person was, or if the person was rude to him. We used to call him the House (like the TV show) of our hospital.

7. How do you maintain a solid work-life balance?

That is a decent question for most doctors. The answer is you can’t; you have to pick one. If you’re going to be really good at work, really into your job, your personal life will suffer. So at one point, you have to make executive decisions for yourself. Here is a lecture that I give my residents all the time about trying to do this. An example of what I did is I worked very hard and paid off my student loans within two years. Then I continued to do that because no matter what you do when you see that kind of money coming in when you’ve been pretty much poor your whole life, it’s a big deal. Until I realized that like all I was doing was watching numbers increase in the bank account, and I wasn’t doing anything with it. So I made some decisions over the past ten years of not working extra and figuring out exactly how much money I needed to live comfortably in life. Then I took that extra time to go on trips and to do things that make me happy.

I don’t think this is a problem only for doctors. Pretty much most jobs now, you can have too much of one or the other, particularly the work part if you’re a work-minded individual, and you can become obsessed with it pretty quickly. Whether it’s because you want to advance your career or you want more money, it’s a pretty common thing these days.

So the only advice I give to my students and my residents is to figure out what you need in what period of time and then set boundaries, so you don’t overdo it. Then you can continue to work a job for your whole career without becoming jaded.

8. What traits do you possess that make a successful leader?

My strength most likely my interpersonal skills. I can communicate well. Also, knowing my own limits, knowing what I do know, knowing what I don’t know, and knowing how to find the answers to the things that I don’t know.

9. Explain the proudest day of your professional life.

When my medical students are becoming interns, I usually tell them this story. I tell people in medicine, no matter what you do, you will never forget the first person’s life you save, and you’ll never forget a person whose life you were trying to save, that you will fail at, and you’ll be part of their death.

I tell them the story of my first month as a doctor at my first job. It was right after I got a promotion for the position of director of the academic clerkship at Orangeburg Medical Center. It was a 300 bed hospital, and I was in charge of the step-down unit and ICU. The teaching team ran the ICU. So there was a former ICU nurse who had stopped being a nurse about six months prior to her admission. She was brought in, and they said she had end-stage emphysema. Since she had been a nurse and had seen so many people die during her career, for herself she chose to do not resuscitate (DNR). Basically, she didn’t want to be on a breathing machine, or CPR if her heart stopped.

When she came in, her blood work revealed that she had a high amount of carbon dioxide in her body. This is suggestive of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema, or some other medical issue, but 90% of the time in the hospital, when we see it first, it’s usually COPD or some sort of sleep apnea issue. Due to the high levels of carbon dioxide in her body, her mental status was quite depressed, and her family and her friends around wanting to respect her wishes of DNR and let her pass quietly.

I took over her care that morning after she was admitted the night before. I was looking through her record, and I saw one of the pulmonary function tests. It was a test that tells you whether or not you have lung disease, and the reason why they were saying that she had emphysema — it wasn’t actually diagnosed. It was presumed because she used to be a smoker about 20 years prior. Her family told me she had quit her job as a nurse because she hadn’t been able to make it through an entire shift.

So I was looking at this pulmonary function test, and I started analyzing it for myself. I realized that it didn’t make sense for the disease that they were saying she’s going to die from. It didn’t look like emphysema; it looked like something completely different. I was listening to their story. I was wondering whether or not she was misdiagnosed and whether or not there was a way to test it. The problem was that in order to do it, I would have to put her on life support, which is the exact opposite of what she wanted in terms of her DNR. I spoke with the family, and I told them, these are my thoughts and to be honest, someone her age and you shouldn’t pass away from something that you didn’t know, particularly if it’s something that can be done temporarily.

So the family said that they would just trust my judgment on it, and I went ahead and put her on life support and brought her to ICU. This caused quite a bit of a problem because I was a new doctor, and the hospital is like generationally employed. Everyone knew each other, knew their family, and I basically got against the wishes of someone they considered family. So the nursing staff went to the CTO, complained to him and wanted to get me fired.

The nurse woke up right after I put her on life support because I removed the carbon dioxide from her system. I then sent her to a higher level facility and told them I thought she had a neuromuscular disease called ____________________. I couldn’t test for it at the hospital I was at.

About two months later, the patient came walking into the ICU. She had been misdiagnosed, and I had been correct in what I thought it was. They treated her there, and now that she knew she had the disease, she could manage it. Luckily after that, it was sort of like I earned my stripes. There was a complete 180 in the staff, and they went from hating me to loving me.

So the point of this story wasn’t to toot my own horn; it was an example of how you’re going to be put in positions quite often where you have to rely on your training, and you have to be sure. That is the hardest part about being a doctor, you have to be sure when no one else is sure.

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