The Power of Medicine
Commencement offers graduates a moment to reflect on their time as a Columbia student before they take the next step on their life path. It is an opportunity to celebrate accomplishments, but also pause and appreciate the people, relationships, and lessons that coalesce to make each graduating student’s experience unique.
We asked Hueyjong Shih, who will receive his MD from the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, to share a few highlights from his time at Columbia and their impact on his personal and professional development.
What drew you to medicine and, in particular, to the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons?
At the age of 5, I developed a recalcitrant fever that my mom was certain started with playing outside without my jacket on. After developing additional symptoms and then having numerous blood-draws and scans, the doctors finally provided a diagnosis— juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
With their plan to monitor and treat my condition, life went on, and my gradual recovery and eventual remission at age 13 fueled my interest in health and disease of the human body and inspired me to pursue a career in medicine.
I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to have been able to explore my hobbies of music, basketball, and tennis since adolescence. And I’ll never forget how medicine empowered me to live a healthy and active life and how it enabled me to pursue my various interests and passions.
In fact, one reason I chose to attend Columbia for medical school was because I was so impressed by the number of extracurricular activities the students were involved in and how they were also able to combine many of their passions with medicine.
Was there one course or clinical rotation that made a deep impression on you?
My palliative care rotation, during which I had the opportunity to care for patients with serious and life-threatening illnesses, made a deep impression on me. Under the guidance of palliative care attending physicians, social workers, and chaplains, I learned how to assess and manage pain and non-pain symptoms and communicate effectively and empathically with patients regarding their illness.
The biggest takeaway from this rotation for me was that communication with patients and their family members at the end of life is a skill that needs to be practiced and honed consistently to provide the highest level of care. No one is born knowing how to hold these extremely sensitive conversations.
Competent clinicians should prepare for these conversations as if they were preparing for any other procedure, including gathering all the relevant medical facts, planning for unexpected turns in the conversation, and knowing all the alternative options that they can offer patients. I feel better equipped to handle these important conversations because of this rotation.
Can you tell us about a project you worked on that had special meaning to you?
The Columbia Harlem Homeless Medical Partnership (CHHMP), is a free clinic that I have volunteered for since my first year of medical school. The mission of CHHMP is to provide high-quality primary health care services to the homeless and uninsured population of West Harlem through weekly clinic sessions.
As co-director, I planned and led weekly board meetings and monthly meetings for 40 student clinicians and four attending physicians serving a population of around 200 patients. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I spearheaded a CHHMP patient outreach initiative to educate patients and guide them to appropriate resources for their care. I also helped develop the CHHMP telehealth protocol for patients to be seen virtually.
My experience at CHHMP was the highlight of my medical school experience. It taught me how to advocate for and connect with disadvantaged patients from any cultural and socioeconomic background. At CHHMP, we could escape the fast-paced nature of traditional health care settings and dedicate several hours a week to exploring patients’ social histories and to helping patients navigate structural barriers to health.
Is there one professor that you would especially like to thank?
There are many professors I would like to thank. Dr. Jonathan Barasch (nephrology) has been an incredible mentor since I started medical school. He has always believed in me, and I admire him for his empathy and passion for medical education.
I would also like to thank Dr. Royce Chen, Dr. Lora Glass, Dr. James Auran, and Dr. George Cioffi from the Department of Ophthalmology for their incredible guidance and support throughout the residency application process.
I am grateful for Dr. Koji Takeda and Dr. Melana Yuzefpolskaya from cardiothoracic surgery and cardiology, who were exceptional research mentors. I also want to recognize Dr. Alokananda Bhattacharya and Dr. Mark Bateman from the Department of Medicine for their kindness, teaching, and advocacy.
Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Roy Vagelos and his exceedingly generous donation for financial aid assistance at Columbia, which made my dream of attending medical school come true.
What’s the next step for you in your career? And further ahead, what do you hope to accomplish?
I will be pursuing an ophthalmology residency at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts Eye and Ear. I aspire to become an excellent academic clinician and researcher who not only serves the patients in front of me but also invests in the future of care for patients who are to come.
During residency, I am excited to master the clinical reasoning needed to treat disease compassionately in marginalized populations while conducting clinical research that continues to lead to innovations in how we treat patients and improve patient outcomes.
What one thing will you miss most about Columbia?
When I head to Boston, I will miss the close friends I have made at Columbia and the mentors who have supported me every step of the way. However, I plan on keeping in close touch with all of them and visiting quite frequently! I know that these relationships will last a lifetime.