A group of medical students standing with their arms raised up in the air.
Incoming residents pose during an orientation session. (Photo courtesy of VCU School of Medicine).

Wellness session highlights self-care techniques for new doctors

For first-year residents, VCU’s Walk the Walk orientation promotes mindfulness during this time of transition.

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Dressed in brightly colored department-themed t-shirts, 155 new interns filled the McGlothlin Medical Education Center theater in late June as Virginia Commonwealth University’s newest cohort of medical trainees. Before beginning rotations across their various specialties, the group gathered for Walk the Walk, a three-day orientation on the MCV Campus that covered everything from promoting a culture of safety and working in a diverse community, to professionalism and escalation tactics. Halfway through orientation, they gathered for a session that wasn’t about their future patients’ health, but their own.  

Titled “Self-Care, Wellness and Resilience,” the session led by Rebecca Forrest, M.D., program director of the internal medicine residency, highlighted the importance of mindfulness and mental health support during a notoriously challenging transition. The presentation began with a simple question, but one Forrest emphasized is important to frequently ask oneself: “How am I today?”  

“For new residents, interns and fellows, mindfulness is vital to becoming an efficient health care provider, and the sooner you can identify what you need and where you can receive appropriate resources, the better,” Forrest said. “It’s not only important to be able to identify when you need help, but where you can go to find those resources.” 

Following the presentation was a brief panel discussion featuring four current trainees. Matt Wishnoff, M.D., a third-year surgical resident, shared the value of finding happiness outside of the hospital and carving out personal time.  

“You have to put in the effort, but it’s worth it,” Wishnoff said.  

Priyanka Parajuli, M.D., a second-year internal medicine resident, addressed burnout, a common experience in the medical field. She noted that oftentimes it can be hard for people to see the signs of burnout in themselves.  

“Others in your life may recognize your burnout before you do, so it’s important to maintain your relationships with your friends and family members,” Parajuli said.

New beginnings

In addition to five international graduates, the incoming interns hail from 65 different medical schools spanning 25 states and Washington D.C.  

One incoming resident is Southwest Virginia native Christiana Draper, M.D., Ph.D., who matched into VCU’s combined emergency medicine and internal medicine residency. After attending medical school at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio, Draper is grateful to be back in the commonwealth and closer to her family.  

“I’m nervous being in a new city and in a new hospital,” Draper said. “But I’m eager to learn from these new experiences and to continue challenging myself.” 

Nashira Howe, M.D., is an intern who was accepted into VCU's neurology residency. Originally from New Jersey, Howe attended Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. For Howe, Walk the Walk was “refreshing.” She noted that VCU School of Medicine has already promoted a “culture of asking for help,” and her impression so far is that the faculty she’ll be working with genuinely care about residents accomplishing something new and feeling comfortable asking questions, in addition to testing their knowledge.  

As for getting to know Richmond, Howe loves food and is eager to try everything the city has to offer. 

“Coming from New Orleans, Richmond has a lot to live up to when it comes to good food,” she said.

'I didn't see another program that offered that'

Among the newcomers are 36 VCU School of Medicine graduates who matched into VCU residencies. One of those familiar faces is Ryan Brown, M.D., a Richmond native who’s beginning his residency in pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond. Brown said he was eager to stay at VCU after his overwhelmingly positive experience as a student at the School of Medicine. 

“From interacting with people even prior to med school, VCU seemed very different from other places in a good way,” Brown said. “Even during pre-clinical classes, I never experienced any of the stereotypical toxic or negative things that are said about med school. They’re very receptive to feedback and try to make changes appropriately.” 

Brown said he found his passion for pediatrics during his first clinical rotation, and VCU’s pediatric residency stood out for its unique approach to resident wellness. The program allows trainees to split their time between inpatient and outpatient clinics on an innovative two-week rotation schedule designed to reduce fatigue, as opposed to month-long rotations that Brown said he found to be more common in other pediatric programs. 

According to Suzanne Lavoie, M.D., program director of the pediatrics residency, the two-week tandem schedule has had a “very positive reception” since it was introduced about six years ago. This structure, Lavoie said, allows residents to have two weekends per month without in-house call. 

“The pediatric program at VCU is just awesome. It allows for more balance; I can come home for dinner and just do other stuff outside of work,” Brown said. “I didn’t see another program that offered that.” 

To prepare for the transition, Brown said he spent the weeks after graduation focusing on creating healthy habits during his downtime that he can sustain during residency, such as cooking, exercising and working on projects around the house 

New OB-GYN resident Kayla Holston, M.D., a graduate of Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, said she was drawn to VCU because of the OB MOTIVATE Clinic, which provides substance use disorder treatment for women. Holston and her fellow incoming OB-GYN residents also attended a department-specific wellness information session led by Nicole Karjane, M.D., residency program director, who emphasized the importance of balancing self-care with the long hours of training.  

“It made me reconsider my approach,” Holston said. “I came out of it feeling encouraged that I’m going to be supported.”