My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Prerna Mona Khanna, MD, MPH, FACP
In the medium speed lane of the swimming pool at Glass Court Swimming Club, Mona Khanna steels herself for the day ahead. With each lap of freestyle, she ponders the near future. The ritual—which she has been doing religiously three times every week for half of her life—has helped her maintain a steady level of mental and physical fitness that has proven invaluable in countless situations, from the ashy Ground Zero after 9/11, to a steamy and stricken post-tsunami village in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in front of the CBS television camera in sunny Palm Springs, California, to the overwhelmed New Orleans airport teeming with tens of thousands of evacuees following Hurricane Katrina, to name a few. As some would say, swimming is an ambitious lifelong exercise, but that is exactly why she chose it. If there’s one thing that can be counted on with Dr. Khanna, or as she’s known in the media world, “Dr. Mona,” it’s that she’s always up for a challenge.
After immigrating to Chicago from India in the 1960s, Dr. Khanna’s parents impressed upon their children the importance of education and what it can bring to a life. “Medicine was seen as an über profession,” she says, “doctors had prestige. As a doctor you could secure yourself financially and otherwise and you were revered. That’s what my parents wanted for us, and education was the means by which we could attain it.”
Dr. Khanna and her siblings heeded their parents’ advice—today three out of four are physicians, and Dr. Khanna at just 44, has already collected a lifetime’s worth of achievements, well beyond her years. Her professional bio dazzles—among other highlights, she is triple board-certified, an Emmy award winner, a recipient of commendations from local, state and federal branches of government, and a founding member of the Department of Homeland Security. She says being an internist made it happen. “When you go into internal medicine, it opens the door to everything,” she says. “Students need to know that the opportunities are out there for internists. I get offers all the time. The sky is the limit based on your willingness to work.”
But even after all the awards, accolades and high profile jobs, Dr. Khanna remains focused on the grounding center of her life: empowering patients through health education. For her, it is a universal necessity and as such, her life’s work. She has built a career around it—for example, when she felt that her job as a medical director for the Riverside County Health Department in Riverside, CA was no longer providing enough value on an educational level, she left to pursue a medical reporting job with CBS in Palm Springs, CA. The position combined the early media training that she learned with a bachelor’s in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University with health education on a broad, public level. It was a perfect fit and she has more or less stayed in the same vein since. Today, she works as a medical editor for an online health network, www.icyou.com, as “Dr. Mona.” She oversees medical content and coverage for the web site, and answers viewer questions via video clip. She writes the scripts herself and travels to Charleston, SC, every month to shoot the videos. Last month she shot 42 videos in 3 days, including answers to “Ask Dr. Mona.” In the clips, Dr. Khanna exudes polish and reassurance all at once as she answers questions about earaches, shingles, heat rash, and vaccinations in a crisp white lab coat. She gestures frequently and raises and lowers her voice expertly at the appropriate times to engage the listener. She’s been in the job for two years and loves it. “This job allows me to do what I love in terms of education and it gives me flexibility,” she says, “and because being an internist gives you incredible credibility, people trust me. I think it is the most respected field in the profession.”
The Born Traveler
Dr. Khanna’s career and interests have taken her around the world, and over time she has found that traveling has become more of a requirement than an indulgence. Following medical school at the University of Illinois, she completed residencies in Internal Medicine and Occupational Medicine in San Francisco at St. Mary’s Medical Center and UCSF, and Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She has studied terrorism medicine in Jerusalem, Israel, emergency response in L’viv, Ukraine, infectious disease in Hong Kong and Vietnam, and traditional chinese medicine in Japan. She has trained at the Clinica del Lavoro in Milan, Italy, and completed a Rotary scholarship in Switzerland.
Over the years, Dr. Khanna has volunteered with national and international humanitarian agencies, as well as the Texas State Guard and the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), providing and promoting voluntary emergency medical services. She has staffed medical clinics at Ground Zero, the Fort Worth Alliance Air Show, the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, Kosovo refugee headquarters, and Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Dolly and Edouard.
When it comes time for vacation, she also travels. This summer, she traveled to Spain in early July for the running of the bulls and then shortly afterwards to Paris. Last year she went to the Olympics in Beijing, Germany, and India. “Traveling is a huge love of mine,” she says, “and my job lets me do it. Internal medicine has allowed me to do what I want to do. It has shaped my life.”
In the Field
The chaos began immediately after Dr. Khanna and a fellow physician were barely three steps off the bus. It was 2:30AM on August 31, 2005. Dr. Khanna and a team of 40 (only four of whom were physicians) from the NDMS were the first medical team to arrive at the New Orleans airport. A police officer drove over to them and said, “Where do you want me to put her?” He pointed to a young woman in labor in the back seat of his cruiser. The woman was ready to deliver and said that she had given birth before, which was relief to Dr. Khanna, but it didn’t last long. All of the births had been c-sections, the woman said, because she was incapable of dilating. Dr. Khanna instantly knew that she would need to get the woman flown out to the nearest hospital immediately. The incident was the beginning of an intense week. Dr. Khanna worked triple duty for two weeks with her team. During that time, showers and cots were not available for the first week; Dr. Khanna slept on a conveyer belt. The temperature hovered somewhere around 100 degrees with 80 percent humidity, and roughly 10,000 people came to the airport every day. Additional medical teams were sent for support, but the work was overwhelming and the workforce was inadequate. Conditions were stupefying. “We kept asking each other ‘What is going on? Where are the back-up supplies? The water? The food?’” she recalls. “It was horrendous but fascinating at the same time.” Although her primary purpose while there was to provide medical care, since she was also employed by CBS Television at the time, Dr. Khanna began phoning in reports from the airport every day. The station sent a cameraman and reporter out and Dr. Khanna worked as an impromptu field producer. She was proud of what they did. “We had video footage no one else had,” she says, “not even the cable networks. I was able to give our crew the best information and help show them where to go, since I had an insider’s perspective of what was going on.” When asked if she was ever scared during the week, she replies without hesitation. “Not at all. There is safety in numbers.”
Back at the Glass Court Swimming Club, Dr. Khanna flips another lap. With each stroke, her inner compass repositions itself to prepare her for what awaits her when she steps out of the pool—a health education video that might need shooting, a disaster medical clinic that needs staffing, a public speaking engagement, a television interview. Whatever it is, she will be anchored by the values she learned from her parents. “I’ve taken care of people all over the world,” she says, “and I still believe the most important part of any visit to the doctor is health education.” Soon, the jet-setting Dr. Khanna will be off to her next destination, but before she goes, she will likely stop in to visit with her extended family. They live in the vicinity, just minutes away from Dr. Khanna’s own house outside of Chicago, where it all began.
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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