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What made you decide to become a doctor, specifically a pediatrician?
After I graduated high school, I entered the Biology & Psychology program at McMaster University. I was good at the Sciences and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in Science, but I had no interest in lab work. I applied for and was accepted to Queen’s University School of Medicine and it was during my rotations that I found I enjoyed Pediatrics. I found it deeply rewarding to care for children and families and to help set a positive course for a child’s life. Children have a great capacity to heal and overcome challenges. As a community pediatrician, watching a child grow is one of the best parts of the job. I started practicing independently in 2015, and my first patients, who were newborns at the time, are now in kindergarten and starting school and I find this amazing.
I have several friends who are now doctors and the journey is a long and demanding one. How did your friends & family support you along your journey? Did you ever want to give up? If so, what made you push forward?
My parents supported me from the very beginning and provided me with absolutely everything so I could focus on my academics and my career. Later, my husband did the same – I would not be where I am now without them. I don’t recall a point where I ever wanted to give up, but the hardest time for me was at the end of 2011, after I went back to my residency training after taking one year of for maternity leave. We had our first child and this was the longest break I had ever had in studying or working in my iife.
When I returned back to work, I felt out of sync with everyone around me, and no longer had the time after work to devote to studying or preparing for rounds for the next day. I wanted to be with my child, but also be a great doctor. I came up with a solution that still works for me 10 years later and helped me achieve balance in my home and work life, which is to spend my home hours with my children and family, go to bed early (usually falling asleep during my kids’ bedtime!) and waking up in the early morning hours to study, catch up on emails and prepare for the day ahead.
You are now on the management side of things, what does your typical day look like? How is it different from just being a doctor?
Running Star Kids Clinic is a separate full time job, apart from my role as a Pediatrician. I usually wake up around 6am, have 2 cups of coffee and start going through my inbox at work, emails, paying bills and doing the staff and physician scheduling for the clinic. I have 3 children and they are usually awake around 8 am – my husband and I get them ready and they are out the door by 9am. We are lucky to live near our children’s school and my clinic so our commutes are minimal. I am at work by about 9.30am and I see patients until about 3-4pm, depending on the day.
Most physicians are good at multi-tasking, and with owning my own clinic, I have to think about ordering supplies, maintaining staffing, and maintaining morale in my office -for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a challenge, but I enjoy it. I try to be home by 4.30pm everyday – my husband or my parents pick up my kids after school, but I can leave work a little early if they are not available. After that, we have dinner, homework with the kids and bedtime. I don’t work in the evenings. I need mental space away from work to be ready for the next day, and having a strict separation of home and work helps me a lot.
What advice would you give somebody who is looking to pursue a career in medicine?
Go for it! Medicine is a long road, but this is true for any career where you are looking to achieve expertise in your field. There are no short cuts. Physicians are not only medical experts but also advocates for the populations they serve. Having more Tamil physicians, especially in positions of leadership in health care, as well as specialists, means improving the health and well-being of our community. There are so many different aspects to this profession and it suits many personality types. You can shape your career to the path you choose, and I encourage people to consider it.
I imagine running a clinic is a demanding job, what do you like to do outside of work? How are you with work-life balance?
Outside of work, I enjoy spending time my children, family and friends, reading, cooking and binge-watching Netflix. I love to travel but to be honest, have not had the opportunity to do that much recently because our children are so young and getting my clinic up and running has taken a lot of time. My work-life balance is fairly decent but there are times during the year when one demands more attention and this is ok!
Both you and your husband are highly educated (if you’re looking at it from a traditional educational system point of view). As a parent, do you want your kids to follow the same path as you guys or would you be open to your kids not pursuing post-secondary education and jumping right into the working world?
With the current economy, technology and demands of the working world, I don’t see an easy path for anyone without a post-secondary education. A Bachelor’s degree is only the beginning of a post-secondary education. I think you have more options in life with more education, to do whatever it is you want to do, wherever you want to be.
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Where do you see yourself in the next 3-5 years?
Professionally, opening Star Kids Clinic was a major goal of mine for the past 2 years. Now that it is up and running, I am in the process of considering what to do next and setting new goals for myself. I know I want the clinic to expand, but I am not quite sure how – perhaps through offering more services or locations. I am still considering this.
As a medical professional, I’m sure you have strong opinions about this. With the rise of social media, there is more equality to access information, but sometimes that information isn’t always accurate, especially around COVID-19. Do you think there is a significant segment of the population not taking COVID-19 seriously (similar to the anti-vaxxing movement)?
First, I don’t think there is a significant segment of the population in Canada who are not taking COVID-19 seriously. They are the minority, but a vocal minority. I think this is primarily a communication issue. Misinformation is presented in quick, easy to understand graphics, YouTube videos, memes, Whatsapp forwards and personal anecdotes. Medical professionals and public health officials are behind in this, although they are slowly catching up. Long and wordy papers or news bulletins don’t have the same appeal, especially in a population that is perhaps less literate or connected to traditional news sources. Public health has to reach people where they are in a medium they can understand.
Physicians, through their therapeutic relationship with patients, also help build trust in science and can combat misinformation on an individual level. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular has highlighted the importance of science and medical-literacy for the community.
This is another reason why it is important for young Tamil students to consider a career in Medicine – we trust those who are most similar to us, and Tamil physicians are uniquely positioned to impact the health of our community.
Do you have any mentors that have helped you in the progression of your career? If not, who would be somebody that you would want as a mentor now?
I don’t have any formal mentors, but I do have a good group of colleagues and friends whom I speak to regularly. We started off as young trainee physicians, learned together, got our first jobs and are now establishing ourselves. I rely on these women for feedback and guidance, as well as my parents who were entrepreneurs themselves and always have a very practical approach to running a small business.
Tell us about a major win that you’ve had so far that you’re proud of.
In August 2019 I signed a lease for an office in Markham where I was the only employee. Two months later I opened Star Kids Clinic and now, in December 2020, it is one of the largest pediatric clinics in the GTA. The learning curve has been steep, but I am proud of what the physicians and staff have accomplished. We have a culture of growth and improvement and I, along with my team provide high quality pediatric care to thousands of children and families. I am proud of this and I am proud of my team.
What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 5-10 years that you’ve learned the most from?
Failure is not an option! There have been hard moments and nights when I’ve been up at 3am trying to figure out how to solve a problem but I would not characterize this as a failure. The most difficult moments for me personally are to hear that I have not met someone’s expectation. I have limits to what I can provide to patients and families, but making those limits very clear can be difficult. Yes, myself and my employees could stay after hours in clinic to see an extra one, two, three or four patients – but if I did this, I would be home late every night of the week. I could take on more newborns as patients, but would this leave time for me to see my patients with asthma, depression, autism, epilepsy? Saying no to people is difficult, but I’ve learned that to keep going in the long run, I need to set limits to my time and what I can offer to my patients.
What would be an alternative “dream” job if you weren’t a doctor? Would your answer stay the same if compensation wasn’t a factor?
I would be a writer, or a chef. Both of these would be fun to do. You have to create something, from nothing, and try to achieve mastery over your craft. But I’m realistic – there’s no such thing as a dream job. All jobs have aspects that are more demanding and less enjoyable. I’m pretty happy being a doctor.
What do you think you would tell 16-year Harshini looking back?
Everything is possible if you work for it, but there’s plenty of time to work. Take more time off from school and from work. Also, invest in Google and Facebook – haha.
How would you describe your dream life?
The life I have now is my dream life. There is literally nothing I would change – except maybe adding a backyard pool, which would be awesome.
What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?
This year I received "Where The Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens, as a gift. It’s a beautifully written novel about living in nature, becoming a woman and at the end, a murder mystery. "The New Wilderness" by Diane Cook also has similar themes (but no murder mystery). Books featuring characters in the wilderness appeal to me, I think, because it’s very much outside my own experience. This year, my husband and I have tried to be outdoors more often with our kids, but these books are on another level.
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
This is going to sound so simple – make a list of everything you need to do, and then cross them off one by one. Previously I had multiple documents and Excel sheets to organize my time but now I have one list, in a notebook, with one section for work items, and one section for home-related items. I know what needs to be done at a glance and I love being able to cross off a completed task.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
I would spend this money on initiatives to improve the lives of women and children - education, toilets, access to contraception, support maternal and child nutrition programs, clean water and clean air. If there was any money leftover, I would increase access to high speed internet, which I believe will soon become another social determinant of health.
How would you describe the impact that the Tamil community in Toronto has had on your personally and your business?
The Tamil community in Toronto is enterprising and not afraid to take risks. I find it inspiring to see so many Tamil-owned small business, growing and employing other members of our community and providing necessary services. Tamils have supported my clinic from the beginning – through providing IT services, accounting, advertising, and as employees, as patients and as colleagues. I don’t think I would have the courage to venture out on my own and open my own clinic if it were not for the example provided by other Tamil business owners, including other Tamil physicians who were business owners in the early days of our community.
Do you think affluent members of the Tamil community contribute their fair share to philanthropic initiatives outside of the community? Any changes you’d like to see?
I think many people contribute to philanthropic initiatives, but quietly. That being said, I think traditionally, many charities in the diaspora are focused on helping those still living in Sri Lanka and abroad – which is necessary - but there is still a lot of need in our community here in the Toronto area and Canada. In children and youth, for example, there is a lot of undiagnosed mental health and developmental problems. The Tamil patients who come to me seem to have been suffering longer, and have received less help along the way compared to children from other backgrounds. This may be due to lack of awareness, lack of access to resources, or other barriers. There are things we can do to help improve our community, closer to home.
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
I like rice and curry. Basic but delicious. My favourite dessert is payasam.
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
I’m old-school – my favourite Tamil movie is Alaipayuthey.
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
Tamil culture is not stagnant – it is the people, our attitudes, language, music, food, celebrations and history. All of these evolve with time. I disagree with those who advocate for ‘one’ Tamil culture or who say something is outside of our culture. People make the culture what it is and we should celebrate the multitude of voices in our community.
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