Dr. Patricia Celan: “Medical school is extremely challenging”

Connect with nature! In urban areas, people can live between concrete and glass for days, weeks, or months without spending any time in the natural environment. There is a good reason that Japanese mental health professionals prescribe “forest bathing” as a treatment for depression. As the world becomes more technologically advanced, we need to remember […]

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Connect with nature! In urban areas, people can live between concrete and glass for days, weeks, or months without spending any time in the natural environment. There is a good reason that Japanese mental health professionals prescribe “forest bathing” as a treatment for depression. As the world becomes more technologically advanced, we need to remember that we come from nature, so we can be rejuvenated by re-connecting with nature.


As part of my series about healthcare leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Patricia Celan.

Dr. Patricia Celan is a Canadian physician currently working for the Nova Scotia Health Authority. She obtained her MD at the University of British Columbia. She is currently in postgraduate training to specialize in psychiatry.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”?

Thank you so much for including me in the series! Although there are no physicians in my immediate family, I have wanted to be a doctor since I was in my pre-adolescent years, specifically a doctor in psychiatry. I felt that it would be a great privilege to help people struggling with their mental health to turn their lives around. There were many obstacles along the way, but I was determined to achieve my goal. So I worked hard in school, in my community, and on developing a strong character. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into medical school as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree, and I completed my training at the University of British Columbia. Graduating with an MD is one of my proudest accomplishments.

Can you share the interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I was in medical school, I was assessing a man in his eighties who we suspected of having Alzheimer’s Disease. The patient stated that he was 25 years old, that he married his wife in 1916, and that it was currently 1976.
I asked him, “So if it’s 1976 now… and you married your wife in 1916… that means you’ve been married 60 years, right?”
He responded, “Yes, that sounds about right.”
I followed up with, “If you’re 25, how is it that you’ve been married to your wife for 60 years?”
The patient looked down and thought about this for a while. Finally he looked up and said simply, with no hint of irony or sarcasm in his voice, “Just lucky I guess!”
I couldn’t help but smile at his sweet, innocent sincerity. The encounter showed me that, even when someone is so ill that he is unable to accurately recall his own birthday, the happiness of a loving marriage has the potential to transcend illness.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I am not someone who has much experience with babies, but part of medical school required a clinical rotation in pediatrics. When I was holding a baby awkwardly in the early part of my rotation and looked to the attending pediatrician for guidance, he told me emphatically, “Hold it like a football! Hold babies like a football!” I was even more perplexed. I don’t follow sports and football was not one of the sports taught to me in gym classes growing up. I said quietly, “How do I hold a football?” The pediatrician laughed and showed me what he meant. What I learned from that experience was that a vague awareness of sports techniques can be an asset in medicine!

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Yes! I have been one of a few people spearheading different components of a huge project to make nationwide change to some key issues in medical training. The first phase of the project was successfully completed in June 2021, which is actually sooner than we all expected. We are continuing to work on other phases of the project now. Unfortunately, I cannot provide details publicly at this time, because some powerful figures were unhappy about the changes, and revealing more could put my career in jeopardy until the rest of the project is complete. I have considered writing a book about it when the time is right, along with my other experiences in medical training.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful to my mother for helping me throughout my journey towards acceptance to medical school and graduation. She spent countless hours taking care of me in different ways so that I could focus all my energy on my studies and community service. She sacrificed her time, her own job, and in some ways her own happiness in order to ensure that I was always able to get to where I needed to go as efficiently and effectively as possible during my busy pre-medical years. I doubt I would have been accepted into medical school on my first attempt without her support.

Is there a particular book that made an impact on you? Can you share a story?

Elizabeth Murray’s memoir, “Homeless to Harvard”, had a great impact on me. I first learned her story when I was in my teens, and it inspired me to have the confidence that I could achieve my dreams. She started from a very disadvantaged background, worse than my own. My family was dysfunctional indeed, but Elizabeth Murray was born into a family so unwell that she ended up living on the streets. Despite being a homeless child, she had grit, and she worked her way to acceptance at the prestigious Harvard University. The resilience of the human spirit is astonishing, and her story inspired me and surely many others.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I work hard every day to bring positive change to the world through the care I provide to my patients. Depending on people’s experiences with doctors, some will say that doctors don’t listen, don’t understand, or don’t care. I believe that comes from a place of physician burnout, but I still speak up about it any time I see physicians saying or doing something that is unkind or unfair to the patient. When I work with patients, I strive to be the person who takes time to listen to them. I make an effort to not allow burnout to get in the way of ensuring that every person is treated the way that I would like to be treated.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant to you in your own life?

While I have a few life lesson quotes that I find valuable, one of my favourites is, “Give. But don’t allow yourself to be used. Love. But don’t allow your heart to be abused. Trust. But don’t be naive. Listen. But don’t lose your own voice.” There have been several times throughout my medical training when I realized that I was either being used, treated unfairly, or even sabotaged by competitive colleagues. I used to allow it, but eventually I started standing up for myself and setting boundaries. When I first declined to continue doing favours for someone who turned out to be using me, she was not happy with me, but I felt relieved and freed. My energy is too valuable to expend on those who are not acting in good faith, so I save my energy for people with good character.

Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that will help people feel great?

1. Connect with nature! In urban areas, people can live between concrete and glass for days, weeks, or months without spending any time in the natural environment. There is a good reason that Japanese mental health professionals prescribe “forest bathing” as a treatment for depression. As the world becomes more technologically advanced, we need to remember that we come from nature, so we can be rejuvenated by re-connecting with nature.

2. Exercise, exercise, exercise! This is difficult for many people, but it is absolutely key to having good physical and mental health. Patients will say things like, “I don’t feel motivated to exercise,” or “I’m too tired to exercise.” What most people don’t realize is that exercise affects your brain chemistry to the extent that it actually gives you more motivation, energy, self-esteem, and more. If you wait to feel motivated or energized, you might wait forever. Start with achievable baby steps. The more you exercise, the more you will be able to do it without challenges or excuses.

3. Cultivate a strong sense of community. Research has shown that people who have more social connections live longer, happier, more fulfilling lives. Community serves as a buffer against mental illness, but isolation increases your risk for mental and even physical illnesses. Moreover, if your current community is rife with conflict because it doesn’t fit with who you are, find a new group! When you find the right community, you set yourself up for better health.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Medical school is extremely challenging. Some people compare it to running an Iron Man marathon; others say it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose running at full pressure. At the start of your medical training, you’ll need to be in optimal physical and mental health, with a strong group of supports around you, in order to succeed. This is difficult if you’ve been uprooted to an entirely different location to complete medical school or residency training, so make a plan to best prepare yourself for the wild ride.

2. As ridiculous as it sounds, doctors are expected to be superhuman in many ways. The hours required of medical students, resident physicians, and staff physicians are unbelievable and inhumane. At least 1–2 times per week, you will need to work shifts that are 24 hours long or longer. You’ll be awake the whole time and go hours without food or bathroom breaks because you’re so busy. Somehow, you still need to be at your peak performance because people’s lives depend on you not making mistakes despite your physically deprived state. The fact that this is a standard expectation in medical culture is a big problem, and there have been efforts to change this over the years. Progress is slow, which is seriously unhealthy and unsafe for both medical trainees and their patients.

3. Depending on where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re working with, there can be a lot of abuse in medicine, mostly directed toward trainees. Unfortunately, physicians who were treated abusively in their own medical training tend to pay it forward rather than stopping the cycle of abuse. That can include anything from light hazing, to being publicly humiliated in front of patients and colleagues, to being shouted at or name-called. That’s unacceptable, and people are becoming more and more comfortable to shut down ongoing abuse in medicine.

4. Medical colleagues can become your friends, but there can also be antagonistic, competitive people in medicine who are in it for the power and prestige, not because of compassionate souls. While medical school admissions processes try their best to weed out problematic applicants, it’s unavoidable that some of your colleagues will be wolves in sheep’s clothing. Beware of people who will seek to sabotage you at their first opportunity for their own personal gain, and choose your friends wisely.

5. If you have put a career in medicine on a pedestal, take it off that pedestal. A radical culture shift needs to happen in many ways. Medical training is demanding, difficult, and not in a fun way like overcoming a short-term challenge. Medical training will push you to your physical and mental limit and then take you past that. There is a reason doctors have one of the highest suicide rates and have high rates of mental illness in general. Don’t go into medicine for prestige, money, family pressure, or to prove people wrong. Do it only because you have a passion for helping patients and feel that being a doctor is the best way for you to satisfy that passion, compared to other helping professions. It will be a struggle for many years, but if you’re in it for the right reasons, it will pay off in the end.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

There are so many movements I wish I could inspire, but related to this topic, I think something like #DoctorsAreHumans would help more people than just doctors. When we reduce the expectations that doctors be superhuman, we reduce physician burnout. Physician burnout is a key reason why doctors may make mistakes with patients or be disrespectful toward patients. Burnout is also the reason why many doctors decide to switch careers, retire early, or die by suicide. Ultimately, patients pay the price for burned out physicians or having a lack of available physicians. Medical culture needs radical change.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have lunch with Dr. Pamela Wible. She presented the TED Talk “Why doctors kill themselves” and that was the first time I came across someone speaking up about the issues in medicine. Her courage is inspiring, and we need more doctors as brave as her to speak up and change the system.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Feel free to follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/patriciacelan, or check out my website PatriciaCelan.com for links to my other social media!

Thank you so much for these wonderful insights!

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