Finding My Purpose and Joie De Vivre in Cardiology

 Jennifer H. Mieres, MD, FACC

"Find your purpose" and "find your Joie de Vivre." These are the two mantras by which I live my life and navigate my career. From my start as a clinical cardiologist to my current role in health care leadership, these have been the guiding principles that have anchored both my personal and professional journeys. However, as I reflect on those journeys, I understand that living up to these mantras requires the ability to be emotionally and intellectually agile, confident in my strengths, and the fortitude to overcome obstacles.

I was born in and spent my teenage years in Trinidad, West Indies, surrounded by a family who supported and encouraged us to work hard, believe in our abilities and reach for the stars. My parents were truly global thinkers. They considered themselves citizens of the world, and that perspective had a fundamental impact on how I viewed myself, my career and my potential to affect change. I grew up with the knowledge that "giving back" was essential, to be an observer was not enough and knowledge truly was power. My family's core values were generosity of spirit and kindness, finding a purpose and working hard to make a contribution to the world – all of which laid the foundation for my life.

My decision at age 7 to become a doctor stemmed from the loss of my dearly beloved grandfather, who died at age 67 from (as my grandmother explained) "hardening of the arteries." My choice of cardiology as a career was influenced and supported by two amazing female cardiologists, Alice Jacobs, MD, and Judith Hochman, MD, who shared their passion for cardiology and continue to be exemplary role models. They taught me that it was possible to overcome the challenges of being a woman in a predominantly male specialty and that I could build a successful career in cardiology, all while having work-life harmony.

With the strong foundation laid by my family, along with the backing of my amazing mentors and friends, I believed that as a lifelong learner and a "citizen of the world" that world was at my feet. I soon learned, however, that it was not that simple. In some ways, my early life experiences in Trinidad were in marked contrast to what some of my peers who grew up in the U.S. experienced. Trinidad is truly a multicultural country, where Black and Brown faces comprise the majority.

My family and my community were supportive and encouraging – cheering me on and providing a strong foundation on which to build self- confidence and perseverance. As a young girl, I did not face the same obstacles that I might have encountered here. When I began medical school and professional life in the U.S., I was not expecting the challenges of being a Black woman in a white, male dominated profession. I was not prepared for the personal affronts and blatant prejudices from patients and yes, even from members of the health care team. I was strategic and stayed focused on my goal, and developed an internal mantra to neutralize the slights and the feeling of "less than." Building a diverse group of friends and mentors was of great importance as they provided guidance and emotional support, reinforced my self-confidence and belief that I belonged at the table every bit as much as anyone. These relationships, as well as my core values and purpose, allowed me to weather many storms without taking those storms personally.

For me, "finding a purpose" has meant navigating obstacles and mountains which my peers may never encounter – dodging racial microaggressions and ignoring gender-based slights. The realities of these inequities meant that above all else, I had to trade my fear for faith in a larger purpose. I recognized early in my training that in order to pave a successful path forward, I had to remain focused, take time to set goals and establish a strategic career plan.

My career has demanded focus, strategy and support. I had to build a network of mentors and sponsors, a life raft of encouragement across all races, ethnicities and genders to lift me up and provide guidance. I had to speak up, ask questions and walk into rooms knowing I deserved to be there. In finding my "joie de vivre," I was living my mantra of "find a way." Perseverance, generosity, agility, and the ability to pivot have allowed me to become a prominent voice in the medical community and build upon my three strategic pillars: excellence in patient care delivery and medical education; clinical research on sex and gender disparities; and community service and patient advocacy.

My two decades of work in women's heart health was inspired by three outstanding clinical researchers: Nanette Wenger, MD; Leslee Shaw, MD; and Sharonne Hayes, MD, – wonderful friends , mentors and sponsors who continue to be magnanimous in sharing research, ideas, projects and publications. Along the way, I continue to meet people that inspire and share the mission of working towards health equity, gender equity and empowering people to be partners in their health. These partnerships have resulted in amazing feats and mentorship and sponsorship from generous leaders. Highlights include the guidance of Kathryn Taubert, MD; Pat O'Gara, MD; and Ian Nixon, MD, when I chaired the American Heart Association's Cardiac Imaging Committee, and in 2009 with the guidance and sponsorship of Bob Bonow, MD; Robert Hendel, MD; Mary Norine Walsh, MD, MACC; Gary Heller, MD; Kim Williams, MD, MACC; Jeffrey Leppo, MD; and Jim Udelson, MD, becoming the first female president of the American Society of Nuclear Cardiology. Great collaborations have resulted in co-authoring of more than 60 scientific publications, three books and the production of four heart health documentaries. Special thanks to cardiology colleagues and dear friends – Stacey Rosen, MD; Jean Cacciabaudo, MD; Allison Spatz, MD; Michelle Johnson, MD; Michelle Albert, MD; Cheryl Pegus, MD; Ram Jadonath, MD; Larry Phillips, MD; my former cardiology chief at Northwell, Stanley Katz, MD; and Northwell Health Care Executive Dennis Dowling who ventured into new territory and joined me and producer Barbara Paskoff in making the Emmy nominated PBS documentary "A Woman's Heart" a reality. I could not have done any of it alone.

As a cardiologist and Black woman in a predominantly white male space, I have made it my purpose to advocate for equity and education in the delivery of health care and empowering women to take ownership of their health. This is not only my duty, but my honor. Yes, I am a cardiologist who is a Black woman – but above everything, I am a humanist who believes in equitable health care and compassionate treatment for all. I am so grateful to have found my way – and I know the same is possible for everyone.

Cardiology is a wonderful and rewarding field full of opportunity. Understand that we occupy a unique position, given the fact that Black and Brown people are disproportionately plagued by cardiovascular disease. We know that trust and patient partnership enhance medical treatment adherence and lead to improved health outcomes. We also know that trust is better built if your doctor looks like you, and this is why we must expand the number of Black cardiologists. Being a Black woman in medicine means operating from a unique lens of empathy that will make you a better doctor and stronger advocate. It means always giving 150% while still being judged more stringently than others. It means juggling a demanding career path with questions about starting a family. You may feel like you are carrying the world on your shoulders, but know that you are making a difference in the delivery of compassionate care and treatment for all. It takes a village, and I am so thankful for the army of friends, colleagues, mentors and sponsors who have supported me along the way.

To all young women Black, Brown or otherwisewho are interested in building a career in medicine , I will tell you what I continue to tell myself every day: "find your purpose," establish a personal plan, seek out mentors, and build a network of colleagues, advisors and friends. Find the joy in what you do, and in your relationships with friends, family, mentors, colleagues and the communities you serve. Remember that you must take time to reflect; it is important to practice generosity of spirit and as my grandmother (who lived to be 100) always said, you must learn to forgive – otherwise you will never find the way forward when others push mountains in your way. It is important to express gratitude, and identify what is important to you and to everyone in your life. Your voice and perspective are needed and representation matters.  

For us to be successful in transforming the delivery of health care and improving health for all people – especially our Black and Brown communities – we need a model which engages and fosters a truly respectful partnership. We must find out what matters to our communities and co-create programs to promote health and wellness. As health care clinicians and leaders, we must demonstrate the ability to be respectful, agile and innovative global thinkers with a commitment to lifelong learning. It is a monumental task, but I know that together, we are up to the challenge.

I am solution oriented. History must be remembered and understood but cannot be changed. As we take our lessons from the past, we can create solutions for equitable treatment and opportunities for our daughters and granddaughters. The amazing work of ACC's Women in Cardiology Section continues to lay the foundation for all women in cardiology to thrive and find their "joie de vivre." I am especially thankful to my family, my Northwell family, my amazing assistant Cynthia Lewin and dear husband Haskel and daughter Zoë for their amazing support – they are my rock. As the incomparable Maya Angelou said, "We are here because somebody loved us, somebody sacrificed for us, somebody paid for us." We must never forget that we stand on the shoulders of those who have paved a path for us, and we must acknowledge our gratitude and pay it forward.

 I end with three of my favorite quotes:

"I have learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands . You need to be able to throw something back." – Maya Angelou

" If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you go together." – African proverb

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." – Winston Churchill

This article is authored by Jennifer H. Mieres, MD, FACC , professor of cardiology and population health at the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine in Hempstead, NY.