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American Association for Physician Leadership
American Association for Physician Leadership

Finally, a Cardiologist

by Joan L. Thomas, MD, CPE, FACC

August 1, 2022


At the age of 39, I was officially a cardiologist. I had done it! Only 5% of cardiologists were women, and I was proud to count myself among them.

Choosing cardiology means four years of medical school, three years of residency, and three years of fellowship training. To become a subspecialist requires an additional one to two years. Even after we physicians are earning a good salary, we are still saddled with nearly suffocating debt that looms large because the span of our career is about a decade shorter than other professionals, giving us less time to pay off debt and save for retirement.

For me, medicine was always an altruistic calling. I never wavered in my commitment because I felt that the sacrifices would be worth it if I could heal others just as I had been healed as a child with rheumatic fever. However, I think the profession will suffer without the prospect of good salaries because fewer people will be able to withstand the financial hard-ships medicine requires.

Medicine is one of the professions that is a calling rather than a job. Physicians, including me, are passionate about their work, which makes the long hours worthwhile. When I had been practicing for about 20 years, I was reminded that others don’t understand the sacrifices physicians make. One day, a teacher approached me as I was leaving my health club and proclaimed that doctors make too much money. This roiled me; I couldn’t help but respond with “Don’t you have summers off? And don’t you have paid vacations and holidays that I didn’t even know existed?”

The 10 years of medical school and post-graduate training meant that I didn’t make my final loan payment until I turned 46. If I had decided to do interventional or electrophysiology cardiology, I would have had to train yet another year. Some specialties require two additional years. It’s a fact that our nation needs physicians to keep our population healthy, so it’s critical that we do not make it so hard to enter the profession. The consequences will be devastating for all of us.

The last day of June in 1990 was the final day of my fellowship. I had survived what had seemed like a long-distance race through a raging wild-fire. At the ceremonial graduation dinner in my last week as a fellow, Dr. A spoke highly of me. I was gracious and polite. Finally, the last day arrived. I spent most of it saying goodbye to Dr. D and Dr. B and the staff I had worked with for three years.

As I boxed my coffee mug and picture frames, I felt tremendous relief at the prospect of returning to the intense but normal level of stress inherent in the medical profession. I had accomplished my goal of finishing the fellow¬ship and becoming a cardiologist, but it had been a suffocating three years. I walked out of the hospital for the final time and into the humid summer night. The air was heavy, but I could finally take a deep breath. It was over!

At the age of 39, I was officially a cardiologist. I had done it! Only 5% of cardiologists were women, and I was proud to count myself among them. Unfortunately, my celebratory mood was tinged with anxiety. I was worried about Dad’s health and wondered at the same time how I would be treated as I prepared to join an all-male cardiology group at nearby Highland Hospital.

Would the word woman still “appear” before my name on my white coat? Was I a cardiologist or was I a woman cardiologist? What was in store for me?

Excerpted from The Heart of the Story: My Improbable Journey as a Cardiologist by Joan L. Thomas, MD, CPE, FACC.

Joan L. Thomas, MD, CPE, FACC

Dr. Joan L. Thomas is a retired cardiologist from Rochester, New York, where she healed hearts for 31 years. She volunteers at Volunteers in Medicine, a large free clinic for individuals working without access to healthcare.

For over 45 years.

The American Association for Physician Leadership has helped physicians develop their leadership skills through education, career development, thought leadership and community building.

The American Association for Physician Leadership (AAPL) changed its name from the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in 2014. We may have changed our name, but we are the same organization that has been serving physician leaders since 1975.


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