From a chaotic childhood to President of Doctors of BC: My unlikely journey in medicine
By: Dr. Matthew Chow
I recently received a message from the Royal College to recognize 10 years of being a Fellow. It caused me to reflect on my unlikely journey, which I offered to share in the hopes it may help someone who is doubting their abilities or who thinks they are not cut out for leadership.
I have led Doctors of BC as President (2020-21) during a year of multiple waves of COVID-19, record overdose deaths, hundreds killed in a heatwave, and wildfires that erased an entire community from the face of the earth. As if to punctuate my term, we now face years of reconstruction efforts after catastrophic flooding, isolating parts of the province from the rest of Canada.
I am probably not what you imagine to be a “strong leader during a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.” For one thing, I was elected at the age of 36 — early in my career. I am a specialist in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry — a small community of practice. Canadians who look like me were not allowed to vote until just before my father was born. And my own upbringing was challenging. As a result, I was a shy kid, socially awkward and terrified at the prospect of speaking in public. I continue to be a lifelong sufferer of imposter syndrome.
Becoming a doctor, and later a leader, was certainly not the path I was expected to take.
Finding peace in an unexpected specialty
My parents tried their best but were in some ways wounded themselves. Academics was how I escaped. I poured myself into my schoolwork so much so that I was able to get into medical school at the age of 20. I began to flirt with a series of what I viewed as analytical specialties: intensive care, radiology, oncology; even emergency and family medicine.
It was not until the very end of my clerkship, when CaRMS was about to begin, that I did my mandatory rotation in Psychiatry. It was my throwaway rotation — I am not ashamed to admit that — but something magical happened.
I was assigned to an outpatient psychotherapy clinic. It was my worst nightmare… the furthest thing from the elegant systems and numbers and anatomy that I was most comfortable with. But I finally felt at home. I felt at peace. I had time to fully listen to the stories of my patients. I was not tempted to try to intervene or solve their problems because I lacked the skill or understanding to do so. I just listened and supported. In doing so, I learned one of the most important skills that continues to serve me to this day: listening without judgment.
Our associate dean probably had a heart attack when I walked into his office and told him I wanted to apply to Psychiatry. Classmates were already starting to fly out for interviews. But he helped me juggle all my remaining electives, wrote me what I suspect was an amazing dean’s letter, and now I am a psychiatrist.
Fighting through imposter syndrome
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry provided a draw for me because of the chance to help kids and families before things go more awry — perhaps another throwback to my childhood.
I was lucky enough to receive an appointment to our provincial children’s hospital straight out of residency. My experience tinkering with computers since I was 10 helped me start a new telehealth outreach program — something that ran into resistance from naysayers but was ultimately vindicated in the opening weeks of the pandemic nearly a decade later.
Somewhere along the journey, my life partner found me and we had a daughter together. I took leave after she was born, and during an episode of acute boredom (or was it sleep deprivation?) I signed up for a few short physician leadership seminars. It was during these courses that I met people who would become steadfast friends, mentors and co-conspirators. They convinced me to apply for any opening that I could find on our provincial medical association committees. I got onto one committee and, from there, I picked up any additional work or task that I could find. I signed up for some unenviable tasks (one time I had to find a way to contain cost-overruns in the budget for physician incentive fees) but gained a lot of experience.
Fast forward a couple years, and someone tapped me on the shoulder to run for President of Doctors of BC. I had never won any election I had participated in. So, like everything else in my life to that point, I dove in headfirst while continuing to nurse a very bad case of imposter syndrome.
To my surprise, and great honour, I was elected.
The lows and highs of speaking up
A short time ago, I wrote an editorial about the importance of vaccinating 5-to-11-year-olds against COVID-19. It was published province-wide, quoted by the Premier, and incorporated into official public health outreach. I’ve done close to 100 media interviews, led town halls with thousands of participants, and met with countless physicians, government officials and community leaders.
I have received my fair share of hate mail. People have stopped talking to me for defending public health measures. I have faced the fury of colleagues for advancing certain policies or making decisions that impacted them.
Yet I have received many more words of kindness, respect and gratitude. One physician appreciated my diplomacy. Another, my support for beleaguered colleagues. Still others, my steady hand in a crisis. A number of physicians described me as one of the finest presidents they had experienced in multi-decade careers.
Pretty good for a shy kid — a kid from a specialty that sometimes get stigmatized just like the patients we treat; a kid who had never seen someone who looked like him in photos of past presidents.
Discovering what matters most
When I think back on the past 10 years, I am amazed at what I have accomplished with hard work, the support of friends and colleagues, and by staying open to possibilities.
I held an important leadership position during a pandemic.
I met and collaborated with the people who we see every day on the news.
I was an ambassador for my specialty on a big stage.
But you know what mattered more to me?
Teaching my daughter how to ride her bike for the first time.
Listening to a group of intensivists describe their daily heroics.
Sharing tears with a community of rural physicians.
Reassuring a terrified neighbour that things would be okay.
In other words, what mattered was being a human being and allowing others to be human with me. Our shared journey. Listening without judgment. That’s what mattered.
I want to finish my story by reminding you today that you are enough. No matter how tired you are, how frustrated, angry, hurt or overwhelmed — you are enough today.
I have been terrified sometimes. Confused. Completely unsure of what to do. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I just kept listening. I just kept being human.
This is my story. It may be yours, too.
Matthew Chow, MD, FRCPC, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in Vancouver, B.C. He recently finished his one-year term as President of Doctors of BC (2020-21). You can find him on Twitter @DrMattChow