A Geniune Soul - Dr. Susan Lim, M.D.

We get so busy spinning our complex webs which we call life, going to and fro, frantically trying to make the connections, balancing on those fragile threads, trusting in its strength and tensility, and trying our best not to fall. 

Sometimes, along the way, we happen upon a connection so unexpected, so vibrant, we stop and take pause, we re-focus and see each other with a new clarity and sense of wonderment. We forget that we are merely hanging on a thread in this web we have spun, and we rediscover the joy and keening pleasure of encountering a genuine soul. Dr. Susan Lim is one of thoserare, generous souls.

Like most of us, Dr. Lim has lived a life. Like many of us, she has loved, she has suffered and she has sacrificed. It would be very tempting to define all these in general terms but that would defeat the whole purpose. Undoubtedly, beneath the complex veneer of civility that we all affect, we all care about the same values, we all share the same concerns, mankind after all is one huge collective. But what defines each one of us are the nuances of our approach to life, the innate step style that carries us through. Having had the pleasure of engaging in a conversation with Dr. Lim, this writer has had the opportunity of hearing her journey and her personal approach to the challenges that came her way. With an open heart and generosity of spirit, she shared with us her life, the burden of her failures, the betrayals, the griefs; the challenges of her skills, her gifts and her vision. She shared with us her hopes, her joys, her disappointments, and her delightful sense of humor. 

Her journey began all the way back in Cebu, Philippines where she first studied Medicine. When she first moved to California, interestingly enough, medicine was not the first challenge that was asked of her but marriage and motherhood. But it did not take long before her medical calling took precedence. Balancing motherhood and a career is never a cake walk for women and Dr. Susan Lim was no exception. But instead of allowing this to hold her back, she instead, looked at her daughter as a motivating factor. 

She knew that one day, her daughter will view her as a role model and she wanted her daughter to see first hand that indeed, yes, women are strong creatures, capable of living a fulfilling life.

Unfortunately, her marriage could not bear the pressures and the hurdles of the rigors of residencies, fellowships, board examinations, and everything else necessary to obtain Medical Licensure to practice in California. Again, she did not allow this to deter her from achieving her ultimate goal and it certainly did not stop her from believing in love. 

Divorce is never an easy matter and can get quite tough and ugly. Yet somehow she did find love again, in spite of the emotional stress and the career pressures. Sadly, fate dealt her another blow when the new love of her life was taken prematurely from this world. She plunged into one of the darkest times of her life. The healing process was painful and slow. 

Ultimately it was her profession as well as friends and family that helped her through these tough times, providing focus to a tormented mind and solace for a broken heart.

Below are several excerpts of our conversation. There is nothing simple about Dr. Susan Lim’s journey.

Once in a while we encounter a soul like hers, a generous one, who tries to take in the needs of the world. Like all of us, her soul suffered and yet it has refused to dim or to shut down, it is hopeful and cheerful, and engages the world in such a way, that we cannot help but open our own hearts to her. 

What course of events in your life made you decide to pursue medicine? 

I always wanted to become a doctor for as long as I remember. I grew up watching Dr. Ferrer, or as I called him, Uncle Ulpiano. He was our neighbor, the godfather of my brother and the only physician on the island where I grew up. I played with his kids a lot which gave me the opportunity to watch him examine and treat his patients from all walks of life. I was amazed. He was very welcoming when sick people go to his clinic after hours. He was kind, well-respected, and humble. Since then, I dreamt to become a doctor.

Why pathology?

I would say destiny led me to pathology. I had a friend, Gayle, who was becoming a pathologist. During her residency, she introduced and suggested pathology to me. Initially, I did volunteer work for the department. I worked myself up to be a research fellow and then got a job as a pathologist assistant at USC before I started my residency. Along this journey, I realized how much I loved what I was doing—the sense of making the unknown known and helping people reach the correct diagnosis for the proper treatment.

What are the specific challenges and benefits practicing pathology as opposed to other specializations?

Challenges: One of the the main challenges would be teaching people about what we do and how our work is at play throughout the medical field. Sometimes dealing with the clinicians can be challenging; however , most of the time it is very educational working with them. The public know little about what we do. Benefits: It is always interesting. Being a good pathologist isn’t just about looking under the microscope, it’s also about looking at the whole clinical picture along with the histology of the specimen. Also, the time we have as pathologists is more flexible. We can afford to lead a balanced and fulfilling life in and outside of work. 

If pathology is done right, we are given the opportunity to be involved in many critical decision making that will be affecting a patient’s life and to be the forefront for proper care delivery. \We are given the privilege to be a “doctor’s doctor.”

While you were a medical student back in the Philippines, did you ever imagine practicing in the United States one day?

No…not in my wildest dreams…

In your career as a medical doctor, who or what would be the most influential person and/or significant circumstance that you’d say helped direct the course of your medical journey here in the United States?

My chance working with two great pathologists at USC: Dr. Sue Ellen Martin and Dr. P Chandrosoma. I worked with Dr. Martin as a research fellow. I was able to double scope with her, looking at slides. She was the chief of cytopathology at USC Keck School of medicine. She was intelligent, confident, respectable and a doting mother of two girls. She inspired me to be a good working mom. I was able to take a short break raising my child in the middle of my fellowship, however, I knew I had to continue my path to become a doctor because it would benefit her future also. Dr. Martin was also a huge help getting me a stipend when she found out I was volunteering for free. Dr. Chandrosoma is the one who offered me a job as a pathologist assistant, which prepared me for my residency training. I learned most of my diagnostic skills from him.

How did you balance motherhood with your medical career?

This question is difficult to answer, mainly because I had no choice but to. My residency had to be first though because it was extremely demanding, but I did look at my daughter as one of my main motivations to do so. I even had to move to North Carolina for a few years and she stayed with her dad in California because they had a life here and I wanted to come back. Unfortunately, I was going through a divorce when I came back but I wanted to be close to my daughter more than anything. So I did what I could to see her as much as I can on the weekends when I was in LA and she was in the OC. Everything paid off when I finished my residency because I had more time to be with her. She moved in with me at the end of high school and after she went away for college.

As an International Medical Graduate (IMG), what challenges or struggles did you encounter which perhaps a locally trained doctor would not otherwise have?

Taking the medical boards which happened in three parts. Since I started late after I took a break being a mother and undergone an open heart surgery for correction of my congenital heart abnormality , it was harder for me. Adjusting to the new culture of medicine was difficult. We had to adapt to the expectations of patients, colleagues, and supervisors and learn appropriate behavior and practices in the workplace. There were cultural clashes, especially in NC. However, I was lucky to be able to spendmost of my residency training in California which is more of a melting pot. Finances and the language barriers were also driving factors.

Are there any unique issues to being a female minority doctor?

In general, it was very competitive to get into medical graduate (IMG), regardless of gender. The only time I struggled being a female minority doctor was when i was doing my first two years of residency in NC. One time a patient refused to go on with a fine needles aspiration procedure when she saw that two ‘colored’ people were her doctors, an African American and myself. She left the room screaming.

Historically, women worked as hard as men but still are not getting the same recognition or receiving the same amount of pay. I believe that the struggle with discrimination is still alive in certain areas of the country.

What would you say is your most outstanding quality that helps you achieve your goals specially in a rigorous field like medicine?

My dedication and being able to love what I do. Determination, good work ethic, assertiveness, and modesty.

Any advice to young medical students and/or up and coming female medical doctors?

Make sure that this is their calling and what they want to do for the rest of their life. Focus on achieving their goals. They need to have a thick face, work smart and harder, and stay modest. Most importantly, prayers!

Amanda Fischer