Dr. Villena-Vargas is a cardiothoracic surgeon and clinical researcher in NY, NY.
Interview conducted by Eric Dessner MD
Q) So you’re a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon. In my estimation, this must be one of the most demanding and stressful professions in the history of mankind. How do you sleep at night?
A ) I think that sleep evades most professionals and it really may have to do with either a real obvious worry or a buried guilt. I think that I sleep most soundly when I have realized that I have put my all and I cannot give another ounce. I actually consider my life pretty simple right now as I do not have children or a sick parent, therefore the baseline stressors of most people my age do not compound my tough day at work. That being said, I do have those “two am look at my phone moments” at least twice a week, and these seem somewhat sporadic but usually increase in frequency when I have piled on enough deadlines that I cannot remember them all.
Q) No seriously speaking. I’ve always been fascinated as to how a person decides to dedicate themselves to such a challenging craft. Was it a deep sense of spirituality that made you want to pull people back from the brink of death, on a daily basis? Or perhaps it’s an adrenaline thing?
A) I wish I could say it was a spiritual calling, but in reality I just liked solving really hard puzzles and working with my hands. I think my intrinsic competitiveness may have something to do with it. If I can think back to my younger years when I chose to be a surgeon it may have been more of an ego thing, but now it is definitely more of the experiential learning process that I truly enjoy. I actually avoid the adrenaline rush, it does nothing for me but increases rash decisions and leaves me exhausted.
Q) Got it. But do you think there are other cardiothoracic surgeons who chose cardiothoracic surgery because society puts you up on a pedestal? Perhaps the ego, or a G-d complex, really is a prime motivator? Be honest.
A) To be perfectly honest that persona is overblown. If anything I find CT surgeons to be some of the humblest of all surgery specialties. I think I see the ego/god complex more from less complex specialities, or less “coveted by society” specialities. I am not sure why but I think it may be the whole chip on shoulder/puff out your chest sort of thing.
Q) It seems to me that today people are constantly rethinking their career choices and recalibrating their work life balance. However, it takes so long to become a cardiothoracic surgeon and I would imagine one’s identity gets wrapped up in being a cardiothoracic surgeon. Are there colleagues that take sabbaticals? Or make career pivots?
A) I think there may be a very pragmatic answer to your question. Mostly having to do with time and money but to be honest very few people take sabbaticals or pivot. If anything most of my partners wear two or even three different career hats. I think most high achieving people push to see how far they can get. If you’re not a 9 to 5’er regardless of the field you’re in you will keep challenging yourself, especially if you excel at it. It percolates in many examples , why settle for being a singer when you can be an actress, own a clothing line and start a non-profit? Now the whole work/life balance is another can of worms, something I cannot speak to right now.
Q) What about dating or being in a relationship with a cardiothoracic surgeon? Any advice?
A) Tricky, I guess it depends on who you ask. If you were to ask me if I would want to date one, the answer is most likely no. But what I prioritize right now in a partner is in direct conflict with someone that is willing to sacrifice that much. But only because I have to as well. If I had a 9-5 job I think that the response would be different. I think my biggest advice would be to know what you’re getting into so you don’t get buyers remorse. Although I believe that this life is extremely manageable there are a lot of missed birthdays, dinners, trips as well as exhaustion, stress and probably self-centeredness. There is however that unique joy of finding a person that really loves their job, is passionate and does good in the world.
Q) If you were reincarnated with the same intellectual abilities what would you do in a subsequent life? Would you still crack chests open for a living?
I think I would be a chef but it was mostly to do with working with my hands and the subtle complexities of good food. If I was aware that I was previously a surgeon and wanted to try something else, I would probably be a scientist. To discover something new continues to always be a draw.
Dr. Villena-Vargas is a cardiothoracic surgeon and researcher in NY, NY
Interview conducted by Eric Dessner MD