Dr. Kabbash: The moment I knew medicine was my calling


Physicians are privileged to see patients at their most vulnerable, to reshape lives and continually revitalize the nation’s health system. In a challenging practice environment, physicians remain driven by the power of healing and the indelible connections they form with patients and families.

The AMA Wire®When I Knew Medicine Was My Calling” series profiles a wide variety of doctors, offering a glimpse into the lives of the busy women and men navigating new courses in their careers and in American medicine. No matter their age, their specialty or their career stage, they were born to do this and they tell us why.

Share a moment with: Dr. Lynda G. Kabbash is chair of the AMA Women Physicians Section governing council, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a staff allergist at New England Baptist Hospital and Atrius Health in Boston.

I was born to: Help other people.

The moment I knew medicine was my calling: I was working on lens proteins (from bovine eyes) in an immunology laboratory at McGill University where I was an undergrad. I was very interested in medical research and my lab instructor, a PhD, said: "Lynda, if you want to do medical research, go to medical school." I was amazed to think—as a young woman—that this was an option for me, as there were no doctors in my family and virtually no female doctors that I knew.

An experience from residency that confirmed my calling as a physician: Working with a young patient with immunodeficiency and his parents, I facilitated a blood draw and study of his blood cells by my colleague at Rockefeller University, Dr. Sam Wright. Sam was working in the same lab at Rockefeller where I completed my Medical Research Council research fellowship.

An experience from medical school that kept me going: My favorite experience in medical school was working as a clerk with Dr. Brenda Moroz in the dermatology clinic at Montreal Children's Hospital. She was brilliant in her diagnosis of her young patients’ conditions and still caring and super efficient. And she was a woman! I had been set on going into allergy/immunology, but working with her almost swayed me to dermatology instead.

My source of inspiration: When I was at Rockefeller University, a new disease called Gay Related Immunodeficiency (GRID) was detailed in The New England Journal of Medicine. After completing my immunology, internal medicine and medical microbiology training, I worked alongside Dr. Norbert Gilmore at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. Together we looked after patients with AIDS. 

It was a very trying time because our patients were dying and being discriminated against by medical staff across all lines. My neighbor across the road was a GP and asked what I was doing. I said looking after AIDS patients and he literally jumped away from me in horror. It was a terrible, but also very rewarding, five years of early medical practice for me.

My hope for the future of medicine: I sincerely hope that, as physicians, we can secure our role as leaders of the patient care team. There is so much sincere work and care that are poured into our extensive training, and this should be honored and valued for what it represents to society and the physicians themselves.

The hardest moment in medicine and how I got past it: When I interviewed for medical school I was one of the youngest in my class because I did a “straight” path to my medical degree with only two years of undergrad. Dr. Phil Gold asked me if I had ever seen someone die. I said no, and he told me that when I did, I would never forget it. This is so true. I remember a priest in the cardiac care unit who died on my shift. It is something you never get used to.

My favorite experience working with the medical team: The camaraderie at morning rounds in the hospital or clinic, and the sharing of our lives and cases at coffee or the cafeteria lunch table.

The most challenging aspects of caring for patients: In this current health care environment, the patients often do not respect our time and how much training and experience goes into time spent one-on-one with them. 

The most rewarding aspect of caring for patients: Empathy is key and it is something that is learned and constantly nurtured.

The skills every physician should have but won’t be tested for on the board exam: Bedside manner and a singular desire to help others.

One question students should ask themselves before pursuing medicine: Do you truly want to look after and help people?

A quick insight I would give students who are considering medicine: It will be very difficult, but very rewarding work.

Mantra to describe my life in medicine: Work hard, but remember to spend time with your family and friends.