#ChooseCardiology: Salma Baksh Chaudhary, MD

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The decision to pursue cardiology was an easy one. The heart has fascinated me for as long as I can remember – the vital organ located in the center of the intricate human body, with branches reaching out and connecting everything within.

Learning in depth about this complex organ during medical school fueled my interest further.

While sitting in my physiology lecture when I learned that ionic movements resulted in microvoltage changes and thus action potentials – the precursor to every heartbeat – I went "Woah! The heart runs on electricity! Who knew?"

It felt like fate because prior to my pursuit of medicine, I had initially set out to be an engineer like my father. Heart disease has been the leading cause of fatality for the last two decades, causing one in every four deaths.

Any advancement in cardiac care had the potential to save millions of lives every year. I knew I wanted to be the cardiologist contributing to and implementing these advancements.

My interest in pursuing a career in this male dominated field was met with some pessimism and the various reasons presented to me included: I am a woman, I am a foreign medical graduate, I would be immersed in work and never have time for family, and so on and so forth. In any moments of self-doubt, I have reached out to mentors who I respect and trusted for their counsel.

Roselle D. Mesmer, MD, cardiologist in private practice, guided me during residency. She always believed in me and helped propel my career on this track. To this date, Mesmer remains my role model, and a successful cardiologist who has struck the balance between her personal and professional life.

I love being a cardiologist and an electrophysiologist, and I relish being challenged every day. I have to think on my feet, and frequently the decisions I am faced with make the difference between my patient's life and death. What I appreciate the most is the opportunity to impact my patients' lives and make lasting connections.

When a patient suffers a cardiac event, be it acute coronary syndrome or complete heart block, it is a terrifying experience for them. As a cardiologist, not only do I get the chance to treat the patient but more importantly support and comfort the patient and family when they are most vulnerable.

I found the perfect blend of cardiology, arrhythmias and surgery in electrophysiology (EP), which appealed to the engineer and clinician in me. I still remember my first time in the EP lab observing an atrial flutter case; the euphoria I felt coursing through me when I saw the arrhythmia terminate with ablation and convert to normal sinus was like nothing I had experienced before.

I had learned that the practice of medicine consists primarily of disease prevention, disease modification and control, and that cures are hard to come by. Yet here I was, witnessing cures in the EP laboratory daily!

So, of course I wanted to pursue EP, but this would mean extending my training by two years and repeatedly exposing myself to radiation before starting a family. Ira D. Galin, MD, FACC, my fellowship program director, and Hal S. Wasserman, MD, FACC, director of the cardiac catheterization laboratory at Danbury Hospital, were instrumental in talking me through many of these concerns.

Meeting women in EP truly helped me realize that gender need not limit me. I give immense credit to Janet K. Han, MD, FACC, associate professor of medicine at University of California, who was forthcoming and honest about the challenges of this path, but at the same time, shared the joy and exhilaration of being an EP and pushed me to pursue it.

A major factor in my choosing the fellowship program at Columbia University was meeting an accomplished woman on the faculty, Elaine Y. Wan, MD, FACC, assistant professor of cardiology – EP, who is still a mentor and close friend.

Today, as a practicing electrophysiologist, wife and mother, I look back at my journey and realize how fortunate I am to have had this long list of mentors and teachers every step of the way. I have been blessed to find a career that I am passionate about and to have a family that supports me.

To all the women out there considering a career in cardiology, I will say this: cardiology has something for everyone. You can be a clinician, researcher, radiologist (cardiac imaging) or proceduralist (interventional cardiology and electrophysiology).

You are only limited by your imagination, not gender, not race and not ethnicity.

Find a mentor and believe in yourself. Everyone has a path and the challenges that go with it, but in the end, being a woman in cardiology is empowering and absolutely worth it.

This article was authored by Salma Baksh Chaudhary, MD, cardiologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, NY. (Twitter: @SalmaBakshMD) This article is part of the ACC WIC Section's #ChooseCardiology series, where women in residency, fellowship and early career are encouraged to share why they would choose cardiology again.