Immigration for One’s Passion: A Determined Medicine Woman’s Journey

Simran Kaur Matta

Critical Care Physician

(Houston, TX)

I met Dr. Simran Kaur Matta at a Groupmuse event in September.  Aside from her model looks, she was so friendly and approachable.  When asked about her career, she beamed and enthusiastically agreed to share her passion in medicine.  We finally got together in late November when our schedules lined up.  She came over to my house with perfectly curled hair and stylish dress, and when arriving at the front door, announced with her elegant English accent that I had a parcel (instead of saying ‘package’ or ‘mail’) waiting for me next to the door.  I giggled at her word choice.  She sounded so classy.  She was a class act through and through.

Dr. Simran Kaur Matta

Hazel:  Hello, Simran!  I’m so glad that we are finally able to get together.  Thank you for agreeing to do this!  So if you don’t mind me asking, are you originally from the UK?  You have such a cool English accent.

Simran: Hello Hazel!  I am very excited to be a part of your project.  I get that question quite a lot about my way of speaking.  I have, in fact, never been to Britain. Growing up in India though, our schooling is in British English, and that’s where my word choices come from.

Hazel:  So what was it like growing up in India?  Which city are you from?  What was their education system like?

Simran: India is such a diverse country that your experience varies significantly depending on which part of the country you dwell in.  Everything from food, clothing, culture, traditions, language etc. varies from place to place.  I was born and raised in Mumbai (Bombay).  It is a very cosmopolitan city and, in my opinion, the best place to live in India, but then again I may be prejudiced. The education system varies from state to state.  The medical education in India is very comprehensive and robust.  Also our medical school is 5.5 years including 1 year of internship, which is mandatory.  The American medical school system is of 4 years since internship is not included and required to graduate, however, it is mandatory in residency.  There are other differences between U.S. medical training versus the one in India.

Hazel:  Tell me about the other differences.

Simran:  In India, the medical training involves in depth training in certain subspecialties for all doctors. For example, we have one year of ophthalmology, Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) and public health alone. You do clinical rotations in them and ought to pass the exams, both written and clinical.  They expect you to be able to treat more than just the basics of these specialties as a doctor. It is helpful for countries like ours where the resources are fewer and access to subspecialties is limited. Overall, it does provide for a more comprehensive training. I think learning in a resource poor country makes you resource savvy and question every test you order. I personally feel grateful that I have had the opportunity to learn in such diverse settings, which has shaped me into the physician that I am today.

Hazel:  Thank you for sharing this information.  It’s so interesting.  I wonder what made you choose medicine?  Did your parents somehow inspire you?  Are they doctors?

Simran:  I thought a brown kid had no choice other than being a doctor or an engineer (laughs).  Yes, that’s the stereotype and there is some truth to that.  Luckily, for me, I was never pressured to pursue anything.  It was totally my choice.  I was also the first one in my family to become a doctor. I honestly do not have any inspirational stories to share or a prominent figure that changed my life to pursue medicine.

I really did love biology and physics classes in school. I had to pick one for a career though, and went with medicine, and that was that.

Hazel:  What was medical school like?  Were your classmates mostly men?

Simran:  Medical school was fun. I am not sure if that was the answer you were expecting but if you like something, you will enjoy it.  Of course, it demanded so many years of hard work, dedication, time away from personal life, so many nights of being awake on coffee and studying.  But fellow medical school classmates and I knew we were in this together and we would make it.  As far as the gender ratio, there are a lot of women in India in engineering and medical schools.  My class was made up of 40% women and some batches had up to 50%.  Just like we are seeing in medical schools here in America, more and more women are joining the field of medicine.

Hazel:  I did hear from the news recently that women surpassed men in medical school enrollment in the States.  What do you love about your specialty?

Simran: The fast-paced environment of the intensive care unit (ICU) appealed to me and I discovered a new strength in my life, the ability to maintain poise under pressure and to thrive in the critical settings.  In my subsequent rotations in the ICU, I found my comfort zone in the rapid thinking environment and I enjoyed the intellectual challenges that came with caring for the critically ill patients. It reinforced my passion for general internal medicine, and how this can combine with the science and critical decision-making setting of the ICU to produce an environment that I want to spend my career in. The pace of the ICU provides me the type of milieu I thrive in and suits my personality the most.

Hazel:  What do you love about your job?

Simran:  As an intensivist, I meet patients and their families for the first time in their most vulnerable moments.  A lot of them are treading a thin line between life and death.  To be able to resuscitate them, provide life-saving interventions and turn around the course is the most fulfilling experience.  When families express how grateful they are to have their loved ones back, it gives us the purpose and sense of fulfillment.  However, we cannot save everybody and we need to recognize our limitations. Sometimes “less is more” is merited and I have to guide the family through the process to shift the focus on comfort and end of life, which can sometimes be challenging.

Hazel:  I thank you for doing such a hard job for our society!  I’m sure your patients and their loved ones feel lucky to have you as their doctor.  What is your least favorite aspect of your work?

Simran:  I get upset seeing so many patients end up critically ill requiring ICU level of care when such situation could have been prevented if they had insurance, access to primary care doctors and medications.

Even though it doesn’t pertain to my specialty directly, I know that primary care doctors have to often dispute with the insurance companies to be able to get authorizations for the medications for their patients. We physicians try to be the best advocates for our patients and it is discouraging when we cannot get the help we need for them.

Hazel:  Yes, I’m aware of the somewhat dysfunctional medical billing system in the States.  U.S. should be spending more dollars and resources on preventive medicine so we don’t end up having people go to the emergency room and ICU.  Even if you disregard the life quality issue, the critical care cost is far greater than for preventive medicine.  Tell me about the toughest time(s) of your career and how you survived.

Simran: The toughest time was when I decided to come to the United States to pursue my career.  I had no family here in this country and had little guidance on how to embark on this journey. The medical system and education here are very different from back home as we talked about earlier.

There were also times when I wished to eat my mom’s food or just to be able to come home to my own family.  Optimism, gratitude, wishing and being a catalyst for others’ success even when they are your competitors, and avoiding the external pressures that constantly try to immobilize and discourage you, are attributes that served me well to persist and persevere.

Hazel:  Is there any extraordinarily difficult case that you can share about?

Simran: There is one case that was very difficult for the entire team to cope with.  A mother had a cardiac arrest immediately post-delivery. She survived the first arrest only to keep recurring again and again every few minutes.  Her hemoglobin level was extremely low post-partum. She most likely had post-partum amniotic embolism leading to DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation) which can cause breakdown of red blood cells.  We requested the family to give consent for blood transfusion, however, they refused knowing that she will not survive without transfusion since they were of Jehovah’s Witness faith. The woman did not make it and died within a few hours of delivery.  I still remember she was a young woman and had a 3-year old child in addition to the new one that she had just delivered. All our attempts to convince the family of losing this life and the hardship of the two children being raised without their mother if she didn’t get the necessary treatments were futile. It was absolutely devastating because we felt we lost a life that potentially could have been saved. It was heart-breaking for all of us.

Hazel:  What a heartbreaking situation!  To lighten up the mood of our conversation, let’s talk about something positive. What about your proudest moment of being a physician?

Simran: I would say it was my first year of residency here in the U.S., which is called internship.  Despite having difficulty adjusting to the new environment, I felt so great when I was awarded the ‘Intern of Year’ for my residency program.

Hazel:  Congratulations!  That’s awesome.  In your opinion, what characteristics are important to possess as a physician to be a great one?  Are there particular traits important for your specialty?

Simran: I have come across many accomplished physicians in my life, but the ones that always stand out in my memory are the ones that are successful yet humble and thankful. They are so brilliant, nonetheless they are simple, unpretentious and value the importance of every person in the team.

As for critical care medicine, it is important to maintain poise and composure, lead and direct the team with efficiency without causing apprehension, and all the while thinking on your feet and making life saving decisions during critical moments in the ICU.

Hazel:  For all those who are inspiring to be physicians someday, any word of advice/caution?

Simran: This is not a fun road if it ain’t your road. However, if being a physician is your raison d’être, you will not only survive the hike to your summit but will have fun along the way.

Hazel:  What do you see yourself doing, career wise, in 5, 10, 20 years from now?

Simran: That’s a good question and I haven’t put much thought into it. I think I will always be in the field of medicine. But the specifics will depend on where medical care in America will be.  Are we going to bring universal healthcare, which would be great from a physician’s stand-point to treat without worrying about their affordability and access to healthcare? Or are we going to let Corporate medicine worsen the disparities in healthcare and have a gazillion administrators telling physicians what to do for their (corporate company’s) own self-serving financial motives?

Hazel:  Any last thoughts before we wrap up?

Simran: I just want to thank you for this amazing work that you are doing. I think the society will benefit from clones of you Hazel.  I have read some of your blogs and they are truly inspirational.  And for the readers, I would like to say that it is not so much your goal, but it is the journey towards your goal that defines you.

Thank you, Simran, about your kind words for my blog but more importantly for the contribution you are making to our society by helping those that are in dire need of medical care.  I congratulate you on your successes, especially after immigrating as an adult to a new country without any family or friends.  Our country is so much better off by having people like you to grace us with your presence and influence.  I wish you the best of luck in your journey in medicine.

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