My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Pamela Zee, MD.
Many physicians know fairly early on during college or even high school that they want to go into medicine, but that was not the case with Dr. Pamela Zee. As an undergrad at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, she dabbled in many subjects, trying everything from architectural drawing to plant biology before deciding on a double major in biology and psychology. She was not sure at the time what she was looking for, but she knew that it needed to be stimulating, offer variety, and involve working with people. “I had this project for plant biology where I had to spend like, a thousand hours just hanging out by myself grinding up leaves from a willow tree,” she explains, “and I thought to myself, ‘Gee, this is kind of fun….but working with people would be more fun.’”
This somewhat whimsical statement reveals a lot about the 35-year-old internist from New Jersey. It hints at her strengths—an imaginative mind and a gift for relating to people—and it is an honest declaration of what she needs from a career. It is also an example of her communication style, which is decidedly not dull. She tells you funny stories about college and how going to a Depeche Mode concert makes her feel old. She is likable and quick to laugh and it is easy to see how these qualities make her stand out as an internist.
More Than a Doctor
“On good days, going to work feels like visiting 25 friends,” she says. “I’ve formed many meaningful relationships with my patients. I see my patients as complete people, not just as a stomach or a heart.” Dr. Zee’s patients see her the same way. For some time, she conducted visits to home-bound patients one day a week. One of her patients was a woman who insisted that Dr. Zee come to the house for a “social visit” before any medical matters were addressed. It was a bit unorthodox, but she obliged and spent an afternoon with the woman in her living room drinking coffee, eating cookies and chatting about church and family. By the end of the visit, the woman had even told Dr. Zee about her courtship with her husband of over 50 years. Needless to say, Dr. Zee passed the test and became the woman’s primary physician. The woman passed away some time afterward, but Dr. Zee’s relationship with the family continued. “Her husband started coming to my office as a patient and is still one of our staff’s favorites,” she says. “We even hired one of their children as a member of our office staff.”
Dr. Zee grew up in White Plains, New York and later moved to New Jersey with her family. After her time studying at Vassar College, she attended medical school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine. She chose Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey for her residency and liked it so much she stayed on as an internist, where she has been ever since. She has worked at Cooper for a total of twelve years, during which time she has started treating successive generations in a family. It is an experience she finds to be hugely rewarding, even if she has to contend with a challenge here and there. In fact, it is that reason that makes her job satisfying.
“I’ve had several meaningful relationships in my time at Cooper,” she says. “For one family, I am the primary physician for the mother, the daughter, and two granddaughters. Not too long ago, one of the granddaughters in this family dropped out of school, expressed no desire to hold a job, and became pregnant as an unwed teenager. I started seeing her in my office frequently, for undetectable rashes and ill-defined body aches, along with other vague ailments. Finally, I confronted her and suggested we set some goals together, such as returning to school for a GED or obtaining employment.” Dr. Zee was persistent, reminding the girl of the goals they had set at every office visit; the visits became more life-coaching and less direct medical care. Eventually, Dr. Zee’s message got through and the girl got a job at a major retail store. “This experience reminded me of what I love about internal medicine,” says Dr. Zee, “the opportunity to make an impact. You really get to educate your patients and you can make a difference in someone’s life.”
A Place to Call Home
Dr. Zee’s decision to pursue internal medicine, like her decision to go into medicine in the first place, was a bit of a zig-zag course. Her first plan was to pursue neurology, but after filling out the application, she found herself wanting to continue in internal medicine.
“I had a great advisor for my internal medicine rotation who was such a great physician,” she says. “He was so knowledgeable and he knew his patients so well. He was a great role model and in my eyes, the ideal doctor. He made me not want to give up internal medicine.” She withdrew her application for neurology that day and never looked back.
In the twelve years Dr. Zee has worked at Cooper, she has gone from medical student to faculty member. The transition, both professional and personal, has passed with many milestones: becoming an assistant professor at her own medical school, serving as deputy director of fourth-year clerkships and heading her department’s division on clinical research. She even met her husband at Cooper. “The match-making chief resident put us on call together every fourth night for the first six months of our internship,” she says. “We married at the end of our residency and are now expecting our first child in May.”
In a transient world where people change careers an average of seven times, not many are lucky enough to have Dr. Zee’s extensive professional network at their fingertips. “My teachers and faculty mentors are now colleagues; we sit together on hospital and medical school committees. Some of the hospital staff who watched me develop as a student are now my patients. And it’s very satisfying for me to now witness the transformations of current medical students.”
It may have taken Dr. Zee a while to figure out where she belonged, but once she did she made it stick. These days, the popular doctor satisfies her mental wanderlust by working in travel medicine, a consulting and treatment service for patients traveling abroad. In typical Dr. Zee fashion, she describes it as “really cool.” The would-be architectural illustrator or neurologist says for her, internal medicine was the only way to go. “If I had chosen neurology or something else, I wouldn’t have been able to do everything I do now,” she says. “Choosing internal medicine meant that I didn’t have to give up any of my interests. As an internist, you are only limited by your imagination.”
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