Dr. Calvin Sun, ER Resident, Entrepreneur, and Adventurer [Episode 254]
Warning: Our guest today has done so much that it’s going to be really hard to give his background succinctly, but here goes. Dr. Calvin Sun earned his bachelors in 2008 at Columbia where he held numerous leadership positions. In 2014, he graduated from SUNY Downstate College of Medicine and served as graduating class president. Since 2014 he has been an ER resident at Montefiore and Jacobi Medical Centers and is also the Director of Resident Wellness at Jacobi.
In his non-existent spare time in medical school, he somehow managed to found and now runs The Monsoon Diaries, which he describes as “a blog-turned-travel company”. The Monsoon Diaries organizes flexible, budget trips and has gone to over 128 countries in the past six years. He is also a film-maker, popular speaker, and activist in the Asian American community.
Can you tell us about your background? Where you grew up? [2:26]
I was born and raised in Manhattan and was lucky to have parents who raised me in an environment where I was constantly learning and growing. In the interim of my youth my father died of a heart attack and my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which led me to determining my path for myself earlier than expected, and that led me to medicine which I thankfully believe was a decision I made on my own rather than a decision made for me.
My father had wanted me to become a doctor. Then after he passed I was free in that confusion to decide for myself whether or not I wanted to do that, and my mom gave her blessing to my exploring my options. I actually rejected medicine for a few years, because I felt it was something my dad had been forcing me to do, but ultimately the issue with overthinking is that I wondered whether I was rejecting it because of my father. I realized that if I really wanted to be free of anyone’s influence there was no way to know other than by trying it for myself. I applied to as many schools as I could, and didn’t think I would get in anywhere since my academic record was below average. My hope was to just get all rejection letters and check the box that I was free of the decision, knowing that I wasn’t meant to become a doctor. However, I was fortunate enough to get in, with people kind enough to see me as a human being rather than someone who studies all the time. I was very grateful that the evolution of medicine had become more humanistic and organic. While in medical school I insisted on keeping my life outside of medicine, and ironically it was all the things that almost got me flunked out (extracurriculars, etc) that got me into residency and becoming director of resident wellness. And now in my last few months of residency, if nothing else happens I will become an attending.
I believe you took a gap year between Columbia and med school. Are you glad you did? What did you do during that time? [6:42]
The best advice I can give anyone is to not listen to anyone else’s advice but your own. The second piece of advice I can give is to recommend taking gap years, as it’s the best decision I ever made. I took the time off since I didn’t know the answer to what I wanted. To have the confidence to say, “I don’t know,” that is a valid answer. I tell people to embrace that. We live in a generation now that when we have free time we are inundated with social media. We don’t actually have space to think for ourselves without influence from other factors. Part of those two years I did odd jobs – I was a bartender, did some entrepreneurial things, worked for my dad’s company, and did some clinical volunteering in a hospital to see if I liked it, which ironically I didn’t. But then my critical thinking asked why I didn’t like it. I realized I did like what I was seeing but there was only so much I could do as a volunteer.
This was also the same time I started traveling, in 2010, a few months before I would matriculate. I went to Egypt because I lost a bet to a few friends who were all going and wanted me to come. Before that I didn’t like to travel. I mean I lived in New York City and everyone came to visit me, why would I bother spending so much money going somewhere I wouldn’t be living in anyway. New York City is the center of the world – such a New York attitude! My friends rolled their eyes and I said I would go if the tickets were less than $700, knowing that there was no way you could get a last minute ticket for that little since they were leaving the next day. So as a joke we were checking the flights, and the fare went down to $650 at the last minute. Since I am a man of my word, I came on my own, and they picked me up at the airport since I came a day later. I thought I would be with them for three-four weeks and then things were starting to get dicey there with the Arab Spring on the horizon, so I was stranded in Egypt alone for a while. The first week I hated it. I thought I was going to die. The second week I was getting the hang of it. Then three weeks in. I got it. This is why people travel. It was the first time ever I had no internet, I knew nobody, and couldn’t understand any media. When was the last time we all had that experience? The only person I could talk to was myself, get to know myself, and love myself. So when I came back I decided to travel for the months prior to medical school.
You did your medical school studies at SUNY Downstate Medical School. What did you like best about your med school experience? [13:18]
I loved how SUNY Downstate accepted me in the first place. They saw me as a human being. My academic record was very questionable. I was a very good student until my father’s death, but after was distracted and had no personal motivation. When your dad suddenly dies of a heart attack you didn’t expect, you have to rearrange your entire life since he was the sole breadwinner, and then my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s just a few weeks later, so I had to take care of her and figure out a path forward. My grades took a nosedive and obviously you want your grades to improve to get into medical school and instead mine got worse. When I took the MCATs I also didn’t do that great, kind of below average, which as an Asian American is tough.
What could have been improved? [17:35]
I was in a fortunate position to be elected as class president my first year, and was re-elected through all four years. Because of my re-election, I delivered validation to the school that my agenda was really supported. The only thing I wanted to implement that I couldn’t was superficial – we wanted to change our graduation caps to actual caps rather than a mortar board. We got wi-fi in the lecture halls, food and drink allowed in library spaces so people didn’t have to walk ½ mile to get something to eat. We were the first class where the administration worked together to get things changed with a particularly difficult block, so quizzes could be thrown out to be more fair so people didn’t fail because of one test or quiz.
Today you are an ER resident at incredibly busy NYC hospitals. How did you come to select emergency medicine? [21:30]
I’m going to give you the same answer I gave during my med school interviews, and when you are applying to any job, tell the truth. If they accept you for the fake answer you will have to be fake. If you are honest and they don’t take you, you should be relieved, because they are missing out on the honest you which is their loss. If they take you on your honest answer then you can be your true self. So my answer is, it was the closest thing to bartending I could think of. I was very tactful about it in my answer, of course, but as an ER doctor you are essentially behind a bar, and are very accustomed to telling customers to not come behind the bar, this is our space. We don’t know who is going to come in, and we often get the same types of “patients” - drunks, angry, or depressed patrons, and we move at similar paces, as fast as possible without disrespecting the person you’re serving. You want to make people love you in the 5-10 minutes you are with them. You have to have a certain pace, you can’t move too slowly, because other people are waiting, or too fast for the same reason. You develop the same skill set, it is all customer service, and making people feel comfortable.
As doctors we are not really there to save lives and fix diseases, that is part of our expectations as clinicians of course, but I firmly believe just being there for the worst parts of our patients’ lives is just as important, to understand something about a process they aren’t familiar with and being able to explain it to them. Patients aren’t necessarily looking for a cure, they just want to know what is going on. I found a lot of that as a bartender, too. You can only do so much in the limited time you have – stabilize to get definitive care, or fix problems you can before they catch something. So the bartender/ER doctor was a good overlap for me. The attending is a bar manager, making sure everything’s ok, “How are you liking my bar?” “How are you liking the ER?” “Give him a Tylenol on the house before you leave.”
Did you ever have a rotation or period in your path to date when you thought of giving up on medicine? [26:45]
During med school the treadmill is much more intense because there is homework. You are so busy there is no time to think or reflect on experiences. I was lucky to travel and start Monsoon Diaries while in medical school, so I could reinforce this was what I wanted to do.
The only time I really had doubts was during my first year of residency. Knowing I was going in with a lower academic record than my peers, I felt everyone around me was smarter than I was. I definitely had imposter syndrome – “I got in through the back door, someone will find me out someday.” I am grateful that I managed to make it all the way to second year and still have a job. That is when I woke up one day to realize I was happy and this was what I really wanted. I want people to be sure they want to be a doctor before they even apply, which is why I am doing this podcast and other speaking engagements, so people don’t get caught in the trap like me.
Many people would say I was lucky. What is luck? Opportunity plus preparation. I didn’t sacrifice anything that made me happy. I still traveled, I still bartended, I still did nonprofit work, and didn’t give up, and ironically people thought the things that were taking me away from medical school got me into it. Take the time off to put yourself in a space to become best friends with yourself. We don’t live in a world anymore where you can really get away by going camping in the woods. You still have a cell signal. You see a billboard for Coca-Cola, or people will ask you about your job. I recommend international travel to find space and really unplug.
You are the director of residency wellness at Jacobi: Is your top advice for medical student and resident wellness to have that space? [33:19]
I think the biggest problem most people have is with communication. We don’t learn how to communicate and be honest with our feelings. We worry about what other people are thinking. Developing space is the beginnings of a sandbox to create that language of speaking to ourselves. Trauma is also a space that is created, where actions we take there help us to know ourselves better. Meditation is another space. I consider traveling as controlled trauma and meditation.
Let’s turn to The Monsoon Diaries. What is it and how did it come to be? [35:46]
It is now a travel community, but was originally a travel blog, originally just to let my mom know I was ok. I have kept a diary since I was six years old, writing every day. Since I was dedicated to it, I made the blog a priority to publish every day, and that work ethic allowed people to tune in as though it was live, which turned it into a community. Most travel bloggers post for a little bit, but then not again for another few weeks. I would blog live - “I missed my train.” I posted thing in the moment, which made people feel it was possible for them to do it. I tried to make travel more accessible – “anyone can do it if you just do this.” When people started asking if they could come along, I would say yes, and kept saying yes. Eventually it just grew, and people started calling themselves Monsooners, splitting off, and soon there were reunions on the other side of the world.
The reason I named it Monsoon Diaries is because the storm is like the way I travel. A monsoon is a giant storm that covers a large surface area, is very intense, and then disappears, and everything is ok afterwards.
How do you choose your destinations? [39:20]
Randomly. If I haven’t been there I will go. If it’s on a bucket list, I will go next week. I don’t believe in waiting – the psychology of postponement is very real and I want to avoid that. If I want to do it, I will do it. I announce it on my social media, these are my flight prices, and whichever location wins the most votes, I will go to. I lob it out to others that, “If you voted for me to go, you should come, too.” Then they often end up coming.
Most travelers are young professionals, and a little disillusioned with their life routines. A lot self-select since the nature of my trips are off the beaten path – Chernobyl, Iran, not traditional vacation destinations. So it is a great group all united in some sort of transition period. Now it is a much more inclusive community. I have 50-60 retirees and teachers, all the way to freshman in college. The only exclusion criteria is if you can handle the itineraries.
What are some of your upcoming trips? [42:12]
I will celebrate the new year in Nauru, a Pacific island in the middle of nowhere. I have a September trip to Japan, relief work for licensed med professionals only to Haiti in the only critical care hospital in Port-au-Prince in May, then Kuwait and Oman, then Armenia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan/Iraq, and West Africa are all on my to-do list. If I haven’t been to it, that’s the plan of where to go next. I never like to go to the same place twice, but now I have started going back to places since I am running out of places to go.
What was the most beautiful place you’ve visited? Do you have a favorite trip? [43:31]
The most fascinating places for me politically, culturally, and personally were North Korea and Myanmar in 2011. Both of these countries are very different than they were in 2011, and I think people should travel responsibly. As for natural beauty it would be Antarctica or Namibia. The most fun is Cuba. The most underrated is Slovenia. The country I go back to over and over again is India. And the most recent one is New Zealand.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [46:44]
In terms of how the Monsoon Diaries came about, when the community started called themselves Monsooners, I was very touched. Travel was something that I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to appreciate, yet somehow now I am seeing and blessed to be perceived as someone who makes travel accessible to others who didn’t need three weeks to be stranded in a country to appreciate. I feel like I am not the right person to be doing this. Ironically people look to me to get them out of their routine life. When they call themselves Monsooners in homage to my blog name, they are saying there is value in something I created. I was the unwitting and accidental catalyst.
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