Rapid Rounds: 5 Minutes with Dr. Menaka Pai

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Dr. Menaka Pai is an accomplished Associate Professor of Medicine at McMaster University, who works as a hematologist and thrombosis physician in Hamilton, Ontario. Since she was born and raised in Hamilton, she truly does love working in her hometown!

Whether you’re a student aspiring to become a physician or a hematologist yourself, Dr. Pai has words of wisdom relevant to every individual! Keep reading to find out more about Dr. Pai’s background.

1. What inspired you to become a physician, specifically a hematologist and thrombosis specialist?

My father is a pediatric hematologist-oncologist. I grew up leafing through the textbooks in his study and watching him draw up treatment protocols. My dad taught me to love the science behind hematology. After all these years, I’m still fascinated by the molecular changes behind many of the diseases I treat – and the new discoveries that keep pushing our understanding of these conditions further.

I’m also very inspired by the human side of medicine. My dad found deep meaning in his work caring for sick children and their families. Even in the face of grief – like losing a young patient to cancer – my father took solace in the fact that he did the best he could, and that he offered comfort where he could. I watched my dad process the emotional side of his work during quiet moments at home, and when we were out, I saw the warm relationships he had with the patients and families we would meet. I could tell that he took the weight of his job seriously. From a young age, I knew I wanted a job like that – something that was challenging, and sometimes heavy, but that made a real difference in people’s lives.

2. What are the pros and cons of working in healthcare?

The greatest “pro” of working in healthcare (at least, in my part of healthcare!) is the variety. I’m a “consultative hematologist.” This means I support patients in the short term, while they’re acutely ill, and also follow patients over the long term, developing relationships that flourish over years. I get to work with teams of other healthcare professionals, both in and out of the hospital. I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly doing different things. Every day is different – and that’s what keeps me going! I’m an extrovert, so the fact that I get to interact with so many people every day – patients and colleagues – is also really energizing. 

The biggest “con” of healthcare is the potential for burnout. It’s a privilege to care for people during their most difficult moments. But the pandemic has taught me, and many others in healthcare, that it can be emotionally exhausting to provide care under difficult conditions, with increasing demands, and without adequate resources or system support. The ability to “care” is not a bottomless well, and caregivers need to be cared for too. Over the last 16 months, I don’t think many of us have felt particularly cared for in the healthcare system. We’ve felt like shock absorbers at times – for the carelessness, inequity, and callousness in our society. We’re tired. This job is still a privilege, and there’s nothing else I’d want to do. But I don’t know one colleague in healthcare who isn’t worse for the wear right now. It will take a lot of time to build back our energy after the pandemic is over.

3. How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your career?

The pandemic has taken my career in unexpected directions. In February 2021, I joined Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table to co-chair its Clinical Practice Guidelines Working Group. I was grateful for the chance to use my academic expertise and help clinicians make evidence-based decisions around caring for COVID-19 patients. But in March 2021, we discovered vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT) – a blood clotting complication of the adenoviral vector COVID-19 vaccines. As a blood clot specialist, I found myself in the middle of a whirlwind of information. And I realized that I could play a part in making that information accessible to the public. I’ve spent the last few months working a lot on science communication and vaccine safety – not what I thought I’d be doing 12 or even six months ago! But the work is rewarding. I’ve been able to learn from experts in communication, behavioural science, and public health. And I’ve been able to connect with so many Canadians, from all walks of life, who are struggling with the information overload around COVID-19. I can empathize with that information overload. And I’m glad that I can help other people make sense of it.

4. How do you find the right balance between work and life? 

Many of my days are tipped heavily towards clinical, research, and teaching work. But I have two little boys, so other days are heavily tipped towards berry picking, cookie baking, finger painting, or playing soccer in the park with them! For me, work-life balance isn’t about a 50:50 split every day. It’s about having dedicated time for the people that are important in my life. So I maintain balance by protecting that time. On weekends that I’m not at the hospital, I’m with my husband and sons – iPhone and computer turned off, giving them my undivided attention. I have “standing dates” with my friends, which these days means Zoom chats or safe outdoor walks. And I’m getting better at carving out time for myself regularly to exercise, read, or just lie in the hammock in my backyard.

5. Are there any tips you would like to share with students aspiring to work in your field?

I would tell them they’re making a great choice if they choose hematology! It’s an exciting and challenging career and can be taken in so many different directions. But because of that flexibility, I would encourage them, as they’re pursuing their academic goals, to spend a lot of time figuring out what kind of life they want. Do they like autonomy? Do they like teamwork? Do they enjoy academic research (and all that comes with it – teaching, grant applications, writing papers)? Do they want to work in a lab? What kind of hours do they want to work? What kind of lifestyle do they want? Do they want to be in a big city or a small town? My field can accommodate it all. But I think it’s important that young people who go into hematology (and medicine in general) know what their core values are. You don’t want to fall into a career that isn’t a good fit, or you’ll resent it. So my biggest tip is: introspect. If you want to be a success, the first step is to define what success looks like for you.

6. Having participated in #MedTwitter for many years, what is the value you see in spreading medical information on this platform?

It might sound crazy… but Twitter has changed my life! I’ve used it to exchange information with other healthcare professionals – discussing journal articles, staying up to date on new research, sharing hypotheses about challenging cases, even collaborating on papers and projects. But its real value is in allowing me to directly communicate with the public. I can reach so many people so quickly. And I can engage! I can tweet about vaccine safety and get immediate feedback about what Canadians are concerned about. I can tweet about a rare condition, and a patient halfway across the world will respond to share their lived experience. Twitter has given me the opportunity to share trustworthy medical information, and also learn from the people I’m sharing with, so my views evolve and mature. It’s incredible to be connected in this way.