Starting at an early age and throughout our lives, we are read books or told stories that promote a message not to give up when we find ourselves in tough situations. When these morals are instilled at an early age, we become very familiar with the concept of motivation or staying positive when life gets tough. It allows us to focus on the good and know that with great challenge comes great reward. However, when life is hard, it is not always easy to keep our eyes on the prize. This is when it becomes essential to surround ourselves with individuals who motivate us to remain focused on our dream, no matter the obstacles that lie in our path. We are also conditioned from a young age to start thinking about what we want to be when we grow up. Most of us change our minds multiple times before deciding our ultimate path, but once we make that monumental decision, the real work begins to make that decision into a reality.
Today, I sat down with Dr. Saween Thompson, an excellent radiologist at Houston Medical Imaging. She is a board-certified, fellowship-trained radiologist with a focus on reading MRI, CT, and ultrasounds of the head, neck, and body. As if that isn't enough, she is also a wife and mother of four great children. After our conversation, I knew that her story would not only be an inspiration, but also a great reminder that finding purpose and perseverance can lead us to achieve our dreams.
To be a female who wants a career as well as a family can appear daunting and stressful, especially in medicine. There is no denying that it can be challenging to strike a balance between work and family, plus a significant amount of sacrifice is required. However, Dr. Thompson is proof that it is possible to successfully achieve both due to a dedication to her purpose and her will to persevere.
I found Dr. Thompson to be both generous and admirable as we talked. It was clear from our time together that she is a very busy radiologist whose days are spent non-stop reading imaging studies when at HMI's Campbell location. I asked her what a typical day was like for her, and she confirmed that she has a steady stream of images that she must first review, she then goes on to dictate her findings, sends the finished report to referring physicians, and discusses the findings with them, especially in cases with abnormalities.
I could tell her passion for medicine runs deep and is a force that motivates her to keep achieving. When asked to speak about medicine, her eyes lit up, and she said, "Radiology is fascinating to me. I get to see and diagnose many unique and special cases. I can make a diagnosis and save someone's life!" She believes that radiology and medicine are at a cusp of a tremendous revolution where we can look at prevention rather than just treating disease. She explained, "In radiology, we are now evaluating calcium plaques in the coronary vessels before they ever lead to a heart attack, examining the vessel wall thickness in the neck before the patient gets to a massive stroke, and looking at the breast before there is an incurable cancer. With a single CT for abdominal pain, we may soon be able to diagnose bone mineral density changes, atherosclerotic vessel changes, and BMI changes before the patient has osteoporosis, diabetes, and heart disease. With the development of advances in augmented intelligence (AI), we will be more efficient in discovering subtle changes in the body before there is a disease."
Let's go back to the beginning. Dr. Thompson calls herself a California girl at heart. She was born and raised in the East Bay. She loved the area where she is from and described it as a small town that was somewhat isolated from the city. "Everyone knew everyone; it was a great environment to be raised in."
Her parents were hard workers and instilled the same morals in her and her brother from an early age. They encouraged medical school, as they thought that would be a great career option, but they allowed her to try an assortment of jobs within different industries to see what piqued her interest and passion. She laughed as she recalled all the odd jobs she had, including flipping burgers at Burger King, selling cosmetics at Macy's, working as a secretary, a clerk in labor and delivery, and a hospital laboratory. She explained her first real-life lesson happened while she worked as an assistant for a mortgage company. Her job consisted of completing packets for buyers, and she was getting paid $4 an hour, while another lady doing the same job was making $12 per hour. When she asked for a raise, the response was "no." Dr. Thompson said the advice she received was not to quit as it was a steady job, but she came to the following realization: "If I don't advocate for myself, nobody would. Just because a job is steady doesn't mean one shouldn't strive to get what they deserve." This early lesson helped shape her drive and taught her never to settle. Her job experiences enabled her to figure out what she did not want to do, and ultimately, she discovered her passion was for medicine.
She was twenty-two when she started medical school, and it was there she met her husband, who was a resident at the time. They got married a few years later, and before she even turned thirty, she was already married, had her first child, and was on her way to becoming a physician. During all of her pregnancies, she had Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), which refers to the poor growth of the fetus while in the mother's womb. This condition can have numerous effects not only on the fetus but also on the mother. The amount of stress that residents endure and the many sleepless nights can make for a difficult pregnancy.
I asked Dr. Thompson what it was like being pregnant and having to maintain the grueling hours during her residency. She explained that it was very tough but credits her tenacious personality that pushed her through those challenging times. During her years as a resident, there was no limit to the number of hours that they worked. Thankfully, times have changed, and there are new guidelines that limit the number of continuous hours residents can work. At the time, there was no maternity leave, so if you were pregnant, you had to save all of your vacation/sick time and hope the baby arrived during the time you requested off. Five weeks after Dr. Thompson had her first baby, she was told that she had to be back in training the following week, or she wouldn't graduate with her class. She recalled being panicked, trying to find someone to help watch her baby while she was at the hospital. She ended up having to hire the first nanny she interviewed.
Times have certainly changed in women's advocacy and support surrounding pregnancy and breastfeeding. We have to be thankful that our culture is more accepting and acknowledges that women are vital members of the workforce. There are now multiple companies, hospitals, airports, and malls that take pride in promoting their support for mothers and fathers by installing privacy rooms for mothers to breastfeed/pump, instating maternity/paternity paid leave, etc. Dr. Thompson recalls trying to find a private place in the hospital to pump but typically dealt with people opening the doors or sitting and watching her. "I'm so happy that society is making it easier for women to be in the workforce and starting to accommodate them as mothers."
Dr. Thompson found herself simultaneously pregnant with baby number two and studying for her board exams to be certified in radiology. She had to travel out of town to take her exam, and the morning of her exam, as she got dressed in her hotel room, she realized her skirt wouldn't button, as the baby had grown since the last time she had tried it on. She laughed as she said, "I couldn't button my skirt, so I used a safety pin to hold the ends of the waistband together and put a jacket on to cover the rest of the opening." I laughed at the thought of it- the things we do to reach our goals! The good news is she passed her board exam.
Dr. Thompson remarks, "One of the biggest challenges I faced in residency was learning to juggle a family with work. Medicine is all-consuming and can be incredibly stressful. Trying to balance having children and being a mother to my four incredible children has been, and still is, a challenge. As a working physician, I cannot always be there. I practically missed the first two years of my son's life because I was working late shifts and covering call in the hospital to make up for maternity leave, trying to complete my residency, and simultaneously studying for board exams." She went on to say, "I also had a unique perspective in raising my children, teaching them to push themselves to be the best at whatever they pursue. I try to remind them that we are all gifted with one life that is so fragile that it should not be taken for granted. My kids' friends chuckle at my frank cautionary tales of what I have seen in my many years as a physician. One of the greatest blessings of having my children was finding a nurturing side of myself, and therefore, I look at every study as if it was one of my own family."
I couldn't help but ask if all of the sacrifices have been worth it? She paused for a second and responded with, "I have invested three decades of my life in school and training, and even though the fact that I love my children more than life itself, how could I walk away? The struggle of being a female physician in a demanding field is a hard reality. We are judged by others, especially other women for being too focused on our careers and not on our children. But my reality is my children need me, but so do my patients and staff."
She learned early on that you must work and surround yourself with people who have the same mindset as you and who can be supportive in maintaining a career while being a mother. She recalled once being told that her kids didn't need her, she could just hire a nanny. This prompted her to find a new environment that would support her spending more time with her children while still being a doctor.
She explained that being a radiologist is a unique role in medicine, as they are the ones that get all the pieces of the puzzle and make every attempt to put them together to solve the mystery. "My favorite aspect of radiology is the ability to make a diagnosis. No matter the specialty, every physician eventually ended up in the reading room of the radiologist, hoping he or she would make the patient's diagnosis. When they didn't know what was wrong with the patient, or even needed confirmation, the doctors, the nurses, the PAs all looked to the radiologist. We were described as "the doctor's doctor." In my radiology training, I loved gaining the required knowledge to understand the pathophysiology of most fields of medicine. I took a particular interest in head and neck imaging, women's imaging, and body imaging. I did a unique fellowship training in MRI, CT and ultrasound with the opportunity to learn MRI in neuroradiology, musculoskeletal, and body MRI. We even began performing MRI for breast imaging when it was just starting."
Becoming a radiologist is not easy, as it first requires being accepted into a program, which is very competitive, and then it takes many years of studying. In speaking with Dr. Thompson, I gathered that being a female in this field means that you always have to push yourself to be better than your classmates. Besides, having a family typically adds more pressure on the mother versus the father, so you have to have a willingness to work harder if you want to be successful and have both a career as well as a personal life.
The advice she gave for young women and men thinking about going into the field of medicine is, "You have to know why you are doing this. It has to mean something to you because it's a hard life. There are easier ways to make a living. It might sound like a cliché, but I think of being a doctor as serving a purpose higher than myself. Practicing medicine can be frustrating with long nights and often missing events at your child's school, but every morning, I pray that I can serve someone; at night, I reflect on my day, and I feel fulfilled. This gets me through the tough times, knowing that the sacrifice is worth it. I made a difference in someone's life and possibly saved a life. I am good at what I do. This is my purpose in life. I tell my children to find something in life that they are passionate about. Nothing worth doing comes easy, otherwise everyone would be doing it. Working hard and holding yourself at a higher standard is important to a good work ethic and ultimate fulfillment. Surround yourself with individuals that share your morals. There are always people that will judge you for your choices, so it's important to remember to keep positive people close and know that our ultimate purpose in life is to serve."
Her message to our female readers came from experience: "As women and mothers, we often bring a more caring side to radiology, which at times can seem so impersonal to the patient. I love interacting with the patients, especially when doing a procedure. Most often, the patients don't know what to expect or don't understand their diagnosis. They are often comforted that someone took the time to show them what is going on in their body. I feel that women bring humanity to a field filled with machines. So, my advice to any woman pursuing radiology is, if you love it, do it!"
When Dr. Thompson is not practicing medicine, she is an alumni interviewer for undergraduate admissions at Stanford University. She spends as much time as she can with her family and enjoys exercise, art, interior design, and loves a good movie.
Dr. Stenoien, CEO of Houston Medical Imaging, who hired Dr. Thompson, had this to say about her: "I hired Dr. Thompson based on her excellent reputation and expertise in head and neck imaging. She has been a radiological resource and specialist in Houston and has helped build a great practice in our Campbell imaging center location. She is passionate about her work and goes the extra mile for both her patients and her referring physicians."
Houston Medical Imaging is grateful that Dr. Thompson is not only part of the team, but for the high-quality care and dedication she gives to patients. She is an excellent resource to all of the referring physicians she works with daily, and it is her communication with them that ultimately serves the patients' wellbeing.