Everyone has a story, and each story is unique, intimate, and powerful. Our Narrative series invites you to step inside someone else’s life by reading their story, as told in their own words. Readers, please come open-minded and ready to engage in one of the many stories that makes our community complete. The following is the narrative of Dr. QeeQee Gao, MD, founder of Med Intima, KUSOM alumna, and first-year psychiatry resident at UPenn.
What are three things that you love right now?
Three things. One is, I am getting into French press coffee in the morning. So the smell of ground coffee is something I look forward to every day. Two, I love, I think, just summer. I’m grateful for longer days, and sun. When I head out at the end of the day, before that, there is light. And then the last thing I love is a poet that I’ve gotten into, her name is Ada Limon…I’m going through her new book, The Hurting Kind, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to experience more of humanity.
Who are you? Can you give a brief summary of your life?
It’s a huge question and I feel like the answer is ever-changing. We’re just always as humans, in the process of “who are we?” We are constantly changing and striving for our personal betterment. But when I think of who I am, I think there’s just a couple of fundamental nouns, adjectives, that I would say describe me. So things that I hope to strive for on a day-to-day kind of basis is stuff like friend, someone who’s kind, someone who’s compassionate, caring. A global citizen, if you will. And someone who’s curious and always kind of open-minded and looking forward to learning and growing and becoming. So those are more esoteric ways I would describe who I am.
But my story, I’ll cater it towards more of like my medical journey, because I think it is one that I feel like more people would be able to relate to, but isn’t talked about as much. But essentially, I’m one of those kids–I’ve always wanted to be a doctor ever since I was young, I stereotypically thought of doctors as people who help people. And so I was on pre-med track and after college I took a couple of years off just because I was scared of commitment and didn’t know if medicine was the field for me. So then I dabbled in education and nonprofit but ultimately, I wanted something that is more science and more service-driven, and so, med school! But it was in med school where I think I had just faced deep disillusionment with the healthcare system and day-to-day of what the future of being a physician would be. I think I just really struggled to reconcile like, is this the field that I really should be into? Not just as a profession but also as a vocation, as my calling. Is this where I think I would do the most good for not just myself, but mostly for my patients and people in the world? And so…the earlier years of med school was just really I think grappling with those big pictures of like, okay, who am I? Who do I want to be, where do I want to be? How do I want to get there? kinds of questions. Ultimately, I had to stick it out. Lo and behold, I now found my way into psychiatry. I think just really like serendipitously; I didn’t think it was ever on my list of specialties to consider. But I think given my interest in just different things like arts and humanities, but also science, human narratives and condition and storytelling…you kind of piece together this very beautifully amorphous field that I think psychiatry embodies, as well as these very relevant public health questions in society.
That’s one thing that I’ve been really thinking about a lot recently. This is a field that can change you, right? How can I make this job special to me? But then how can I also remain a person that is totally independent of medicine while I’m doing this job? That’s kind of where I’m doing my balancing act right now.
Yes, absolutely. And I think that’s a balance that you’ll keep, you’ll keep learning and honing in on because as you’re in your clinical years, I think you will experience that more acutely. Here’s my day-to-day and how I can really impact people? Or, on the other hand, really sink into a mechanistic kind of everyday, same routine. And how do you prevent yourself from falling into that, routine or machinery? I think it’s the day to day struggle and process that I think everyone is learning how to balance and try not to sink into that quicksand.
The next question I really want to touch on was that of legacy. You can talk about medical humanities as a whole, Med Intima specifically, but truly just anything else from the last four years?
It’s not just me as an individual thing, right? Everything, change, it takes like more than a village to make. One thing that wasn’t something that I knew I wanted to do in med school was really diving into medical humanities. It was actually something that I discovered, I think within med school and during this process itself; I would not have considered myself like a humanities person or like a writer. It’s still kind of weird to think about that.
But essentially, the story of Med Intima is that in my first semester of med school, I felt kind of that disillusionment and disenchantment with medicine and healthcare. And so I felt like there needed to be a space where students can coalesce to express ourselves and feel our emotions while we go through every day. Sharing those really unique lived experiences as medical students, and our perspective into the healthcare world as well as the worlds of our patients. So a place where we can talk about that; share our stories, our journey, but also a way to display really creative works, that I know we have the capacity to do. And then just a place where we can coalesce in discourse, where we talk about our opinions and our thoughts and ideas in a way that I think is safe, but also hopefully, propelling these discussions in a forward manner.
I pitched the idea to MSA and Dean Meyer and stuff, and a lot of people were supportive and on board and since then it’s taken off in the hands of you and other med students. So it’s been really lovely to just witness its growth. And yes, I did start it, but it takes a community. I’ve just been really blessed and grateful that it has been a space for people to enjoy and to lead and to seek some sort of fulfillment or creativity from.
My goal in med school was just to leave the community better in a grander, broader scheme. So that could mean creating Med Intima or leaving the community in a more kind or compassionate way. And so I did that with different stuff like community outreach with Wyandotte and mentorship and Healthcare Collaborators. But long story short, I think everyone has the capacity to leave an impact and a legacy, if you will. It takes the right place, the right time and people to support…and that community that really feeds into it. And I think KU has been that.
Med Intima as a title, like, how did you come up with that?
We had in our writing department a professor, he was absolutely lovely and I remember brainstorming with him. And we loved the word intima. I wanted to think Latin, maybe because there’s something about Latin and medical terminology that just is right. And so something Latin. And then I thought of intima because it was like the word intimate. I wanted that space to be profound, intimate, but also thought-provoking. Unfortunately, Intima was already taken by another medical narrative journal, so we had brought up like, how about med as in medicine? So intima…that’s the inner layer of our blood vessels. And so it’s close to like, you know, our patients’ lives and how we are very just like intimately intersecting with healthcare and learning people’s stories. And then med was more technical, more scientific to that counterweight of the beautiful, more literary word “intima.”
What are your inspirations? What grounds you in the transition into residency?
I really wanted to juxtapose my transition to medical residency with prior to med school. I had a set of I think unreal expectations of what med school would mean and being in healthcare would mean…like a very efficient system where people are always striving for kindness and goodness and creativity and discovery and all that stuff, all the time. But in reality, that might not necessarily be the case. So heading into residency, I wanted to have a more balanced and more realistic perspective. Okay, this is what residency is: it is further training and learning. Then during orientation, we did a mindfulness exercise with one of our assistant program directors. We had a list of words to pick and she told us to pick words that really stood out to us and then choose, ultimately, one word that would be our highlight for the year. I chose meaning, fulfillment, and then acceptance. My one word was acceptance. Not merely acceptance of myself and acceptance of others, but acceptance of this process of transitioning into residency and being in residency rather than getting super lost in expectations, or ideals and theorizing. And so that’s been grounding for me. And I think because of that, it’s allowed me to show up every day like, I’m going to show up and ask questions, I’m going to be kind, I’m going to find meaning and fulfillment and joy in something in my day to day.
Other larger or broader inspirations…I think are change, goodness, hope, the ability to have progress. And I think we need that now more than ever. Anything that pushes the boundaries of what we consider to be the current status quo, anything that can challenge that marker towards progress and something that is overall more equal and equitable, or kind, healthy, better in any kind of sense. So those really drive my curiosity and align me with a lot of what I hope to be doing.
Is there anything else that you want to share?
I like to tell med students that med school is a time for you to change also, and make sure you hone into that process. Med school and becoming a doctor is very special and there’s inherently so much meaning and depth to that but at the same time, do not lose sight of yourself. Don’t forsake your sense of self for the sake of med school and the machinery of med school and becoming a doctor.
Don’t be afraid to be creative, to go on to something that is a new journey for you. Embark on something new. I think med school traditionally is very structured and to a degree it is, as is healthcare. But I fervently believe that within existing structures or frameworks there is that availability for creativity and for innovation. And through that is one of the ways we can create change.
Med school is hard and being a doctor is hard. It’s okay if you feel like you are lost or have no idea what you are to become or where you are to go. There are people–your classmates, colleagues, mentors–that are available to support you and there is inevitably someone else that shares similar feelings. So I encourage you all to reach out because it can be a very lonely and isolating journey in certain ways. But again, hone into things that give you a really deep sense of meaning.