My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Paul Quartararo, MD, FACP, Medical Director, New York Life Insurance Company
A desk job was the last thing Paul Quartararo, MD, FACP, imagined himself doing, yet it is exactly where he found himself on the heels of a successful run as a practicing physician. And he likes it. Each day as he walks into the New York Life Insurance building between Madison and Park Avenues in New York City, he takes a moment to admire the shining pyramid-shaped gold dome on top of the building, and once inside, the high arches and mosaics of the lobby. “One of my first thoughts when I was considering this position was ‘I’m a physician…am I going to go crazy sitting at a desk all day?’” he says. Fortunately, the answer to that question turned out to be no. “It’s a pleasure coming to work.”
A Perfect Fit
At New York Life Insurance, Dr. Quartararo works as a Medical Director and co-head of medical underwriting. His job is to assign mortality risk to applicants. As a former practicing internist, he is uniquely qualified for it. “We have three goals in this company,” he says. “Integrity, Humanity, and Financial Strength. Being a physician enables you to balance those things well when reading people’s medical records.” While others might find his job tedious, he sees it as quite the opposite and there is an excitement and contentment in his voice as he describes it. “I review 20 to 30 files a day,” he says. “I find it intellectually stimulating and fascinating to see how other doctors are treating their patients, and how that treatment has played out in their patients’ lives.” He also enjoys the people. “I work with a great group of people,” he says. “There are nine physicians in the company and they’re all bright, pleasant, fun and interesting. The employees who aren’t physicians are also wonderful. It’s a huge collegial environment. Dr. Quartararo says the tradeoffs of giving up some degree of authority and autonomy is counterbalanced by the improved quality of life. “Nobody wakes me up at two in the morning,” he says, “and I can call in sick. When you are a practicing physician and you have fifteen patients scheduled for the day, you don’t call in sick. These are the little things that make the difference.”
Paul Quartararo, MD, FACP
A Long Way from Long Island
Dr. Quartararo knew he wanted to be a physician from the age of four, inspired by his father, an endodontist, as well as friends of the family who were physicians and his own pediatrician. From his father, who continues to work three days a week, he learned a core set of values which would and still guide him through this career: community, education, and a strong work ethic. From both his father and the others, he found inspiration. “I thought they were all personable and intelligent,” he recalls. “I just thought they were great people.”
The path he would take over the next several years would teach him much about his profession as well as his own strengths and weaknesses. He attended medical school at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, where his passion for treating adults and the elderly came alive. “I enjoyed treating the people who were extremely ill because that’s when people show their true colors,” he says. “I also found the interpersonal challenge of that to be a big adrenaline rush. It was high energy, high stress. It fit me then.”
After that, the native New Yorker decided it was time to stretch his boundaries and chose Cincinnati, Ohio to pursue internal medicine training at the University of Cincinnati. It was a period of growth for him, not only as a student of medicine, but also as a newlywed and eventually a father of two children. “It was challenging with neither of our families around.” he says. From Cincinnati, Dr. Quartararo moved his family back to the east coast where he would pursue a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Brown University in Rhode Island. There, he realized that general internal medicine would be a better path for him. Upon completion of his fellowship, Dr. Quartararo joined an internal medicine group practice in Stamford, CT. He says group practice was the right choice at the right time.
“When you’re starting out it’s good to be in a group,” he explains. “There’s camaraderie, mentorship, and it’s nice to have experienced physicians around you.” After spending seven years with the group practice, he decided to set up a solo practice a few blocks away. “What made solo practice special to me was being able to practice according to my own style,” he says. “For example, having a person answer the phone instead of voicemail, and having a small staff who the patients know personally.”
But after a few years, the personal sacrifice he was making to treat a large Medicare population was taking its toll. “The time and energy that I was taking to treat my patients were affecting my ability to be a good father and husband,” he says. He also admits that he struggled to “do it all.” “I was never good at working off-shifts,” he explains. “The physicians who are good at it can, for instance, get a call at 2am, talk calmly to a patient about his or her symptoms, then hang up, go back to bed, and get up a few hours later to go to work like nothing happened. There are physicians who are good at that sort of thing—whom I admire—and there are those who aren’t. I’m not one of them. I thought to myself, ‘I won’t make it to 65 or 70 years old like this.’”
He pursued other roles as well during his time in practice, including as a medical director for a local visiting nurse and hospice care organization, as a volunteer for the American Lung Association, and as a physician in a pulmonary clinic at a local corporation. He also taught at Stamford Hospital for ten years, a role he embraced. “As a student I remember how I appreciated the time and energy that were given to me by my teachers, and so I was grateful to be able to give these back as a teacher myself,” he says.
Through and Through
For Dr. Quartararo, there is little delineation between “career life” and “personal life.” To him, they are one in the same. He has a tendency to carry his work home with him and to internalize what goes on during the day. It was this inability to detach himself from his work that led him to make the career-changing decision to leave his practice.
“The hardest part about leaving my practice was knowing that I had taken care of these people for years and now I wouldn’t be,” he says. “The separation was difficult.” He also says he has a heightened awareness of end-of-life issues. “I’ve always been sensitive about these issues,” he says, “what people are faced with when they face their own mortality.” This sensitivity came to a head during his last two years in practice, when he worked in hospice care. One patient in particular had so much of an effect on Dr. Quartararo that he struggles when discussing it. Polly, an elderly woman with end stage COPD, was independent with a strong sense of self, and she worried that her care was too much of a burden for her family. As her condition progressed, it was clear to Dr. Quartararo that the family had indeed reached its limit. “I knew hospice was the solution for this family,” he said. “With end of life care, everything is magnified and can seem like a crisis even when it’s not. I was so relieved to be able to get her into the program because at the time, the majority of hospice patients were cancer patients.” When asked for more detail, he pauses for a long time and finally offers a simple, “We helped her a lot,” before growing quiet again.
When he’s not working, he spends his time with his wife Carol and his three daughters, and also at his church where he volunteers with his wife. As for the future, Dr. Quartararo has plans that, like his father’s, do not include retiring. “In ten years I’m still going to be a kid,” he jokes. He plans on staying at New York Life, and after that is anyone’s guess, although he is entertaining the idea of opening his own gourmet chocolate shop. An avid chocolate lover, he collects it when he travels and has plans to organize a group from work to go to an international chocolate show in the fall. A nurse he used to work with gave him a plaque that reads, “Give me the chocolate and nobody will get hurt.”
Dr. Quartararo takes everything in his life, from the chocolate to his patients, very personally. “I miss my patients,” he says, “but since I live in the same community as a lot of them I often run into them at the grocery store, on the train or in the park, which has in a way made up for not seeing them anymore as their physician.” Whether in the quiet corporate offices of New York Life, the buzzing activity of a medical practice, the hallways of Stamford Hospital, or the comforting familiarity of Long Island, it’s this quality that makes Dr. Quartararo shine—the fact that he cares and isn’t afraid to show it.
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