My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: William Cassidy, MD
For 16-year-old Bill Cassidy, the idea of having cancer was something he never considered, but the doctors had discovered swollen lymph nodes, so the tests were ordered. It was strange and unsettling, but the young Dr. Cassidy managed to see the good in it, an attitude that would come to shape his life. As he interacted with the doctors around him, he found that he liked them, what they did, and how they did it. He wanted to be a part of it. “I thought to myself ‘Wouldn’t this be an incredible thing to do?’” he remembers. “You always want your life to have meaning, and I realized those doctors had it.”
The tests came back negative and Dr. Cassidy was free to begin the rest of his life. Today that life reflects a noteworthy and interesting career that includes internal medicine, hepatology, teaching, and most recently, public service. Currently, he is the U.S. Representative for the Sixth Congressional District of Louisiana, a position he’s held since January of this year. The job in many ways is a culmination of the knowledge and skill he’s built over the last twenty years. He says that being a congressman is in many ways like being an internist. “As an internist, you learn to be patient because it takes a while to get a good result,” he explains. “Public service is similar, but if you keep chipping away—educating, educating, and educating, eventually you will get your outcome.”
But before there was Congressman Cassidy there was Dr. Cassidy, and the first step to that began at medical school at Louisiana State University. Later during his residency at the University of Southern California, internal medicine was an easy choice. He found it intellectually rigorous and practicing internal medicine made him feel like Sherlock Holmes, piecing clues together. He says even compared to surgery, he found internal medicine much more fascinating because of the variety. His conviction was further reinforced by his experience working with a mentor, Dr. Telfer Reynolds, who had told him that he once said to another physician in response to a request for a second opinion, “I’m just here to help you pursue the truth.” Dr. Cassidy was struck by the sentiment of the statement. “I really liked that idea—that as internists and teachers we’re pursuing the truth,” he says.
He took his first job as an internist and hepatologist for Cigna Medical Center in Los Angeles for a year before returning to his native Baton Rouge to take an assistant professor position at Louisiana State University Medical School. The role was an easy fit, which he both loved and excelled at, so much so that he stayed for 20 years. The title changed along the way from “assistant” to “associate,” and the passion never waned. “As a teacher you’re always trying to come up with the right answer,” he says, “which I love to do, and I also like being with young people. There is something about the idealism of young people that keeps your own embers of idealism stoked. Most of these young students are motivated for the right reasons.”
Even amid the excitement of his new life on The Hill, his years spent teaching remain the highlight of his career. “My best professional accomplishment is the fact that I have taught,” he says. “I feel as though the teachers I’ve had through the years gave of themselves to me to make me a better internist, and even though they never saw the end result, they understood on some level that they had made a difference. So I consider having taught to be an incredible compliment and accomplishment.”
Making the transition from professor to lawmaker meant learning the ropes all over again. It was a few years ago when he decided to act on his inclination to serve health care in another avenue; he knew instinctively that his experience would be valued in such an environment, however foreign it might turn out to be. He and his wife Laura, a surgeon, made the decision together. His first race was in 2006 for the District 16 seat in the Louisiana Senate. The experience was new and familiar all at once. “Running for office for the first time was a little like my internship,” he jokes. “You’re not quite sure when and where you’re supposed to be every day.” He also had to get used to taking advice instead of giving it. “As a physician, you’re used to giving counsel to other people and you’re used to them taking it.” Now, it was the other way around, and Dr. Cassidy found himself depending on people with more experience than he had. Once elected however, he soon adjusted. “I’ve found public service to be as fast-paced and intellectually stimulating as teaching,” he says.
Just two years later as a freshman congressman in Washington, Dr. Cassidy is appointed to several subcommittees of larger committees. He is crafting a reputation for himself by asking the right questions to spur more productive resolutions. For example, during an impasse in a discussion about a statistical program involving children run by The Indian Health Service, he inquires about office overhead and revenue levels for Medicare and Medicaid patients; in an H1N1 briefing, he asks about risk associated with vaccine lag time. He says being an internist has given him an edge for handling his new responsibilities. “Internal medicine is incredibly good preparation for what I’m doing now,” he explains. “A good internist is a good servant…you’re constantly walking down the hall thinking about details and implications.”
Since taking office in January as a Republican, Dr. Cassidy has experienced what it is like to be in the minority. He seems unaffected by it. “I’ve been told that it’s more fun to be in the majority,” he jokes, “but it’s fine, really. You’re always talking to people across the aisle about a number of things.” But there is one part about the new job which he does admit to not loving: the travel. It’s a typical complaint of many legislators, but one gets the sense that it is particularly challenging for Dr. Cassidy, who is as rooted in his native Baton Rouge as the deepest of Bald Cypress tree roots. He is devoted to the community—his efforts spearheading a successful vaccination effort in Baton Rouge fourteen years ago resulted in the vaccination of over 36,000 children for hepatitis B at no cost to the families or communities. He cites this as a close second to his years spent teaching as his proudest accomplishment. He is a family man as well—he says spending three nights a week away from his wife and three children, ages 15, 12 and 8, is difficult. And when it comes to down time, Dr. Cassidy finds enjoyment easily. “I know it sounds simple, but I just love walking with my wife,” he says.
Check out previous articles as physicians share what motivated them to become physicians as well as why they chose their particular type of practice.
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