Dr. Albert Chmielewski was born in Poland and lived there until he was 10 years old, at which time his family relocated to Wichita, Kansas. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Biology from The University of Kansas, Albert worked at a plasma center and a doctor’s office to support himself financially and to gain important experience to help prepare him for medical school.
After graduating college, Dr. Chmielewski attended the Poznan University of Medical Sciences which is accredited in multiple countries around the world. This gave him the opportunity to go almost anywhere to practice medicine, but ultimately he decided to go back to the United States because his parents and closest family resided there. While studying medicine in Poland, Dr. Chmielewski reconnected with childhood friends and family members, brushed up on his Polish, and traveled to multiple new and exciting vacation destinations.
In the fourth year of medical school Dr. Albert Chmielewski enrolled in clinical rotations in the United States. While attending his rotations in the US, he interviewed for residency positions throughout the Midwest and the East Coast. After graduating from medical school, he was accepted into and completed a three-year family medicine residency in Iowa at the Cedar Rapids Medical Education Foundation. After residency Dr. Chmielewski moved to Kansas City to begin practicing family medicine.
You can find more information about Dr. Chmielewski at https://albertchmielewski.com/.
What does the road look like to becoming a doctor? What struggles did you find along the way?
Most students that plan to go to medical school make that decision in college. Typically, many of those students who decide on “pre-med” will choose a major in the sciences, such as biology. This foundation of knowledge will better prepare them for their medical college admissions test, also known as the MCAT. This exam tests prospective students on the topics of biochemistry, biology, general and organic chemistry, physics, psychology, and sociology. You do not necessarily have to study one of the core sciences in college; however it will take significantly more preparation and self-study to do well on the MCAT otherwise. During their studies, many students opt to work in a doctor’s office or clinic as well to gain basic medical experience.
Medical school is four years long and is typically divided into two halves. The line between the two halves is often blurred, depending on the curriculum of the institution. The first 2 years consist of lecture-based courses and laboratory experience designed to instruct students in subjects including anatomy, biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, pathology, and pharmacology. In the third and fourth year, lectures transition into clinical rotations such as family medicine, general surgery, internal medicine, obstetrics, psychiatry, and pediatrics. These clinicals are crucial in preparing the student for the tremendous growth in medical knowledge as well as professional development required during residency.
Residency varies in length, but it can be three to seven years, depending on the specialty that the student chooses. Family medicine and pediatrics, for example, are three years long. Medical students choosing anesthesiology or pathology can expect to train for four years, while those specializing in general surgery (or the multiple sub-specialties thereof) will typically undergo five to seven years of training.
Regarding struggles along the way, medical school certainly is tough and requires dedication and unwavering perseverance, and residency is even tougher. Residents often have long shifts and it is not unusual to be on call for 24 hours, during which time you are very, very busy, often getting paged or called at all times of the day and night. The long grueling hours are an enormous struggle for a lot of medical students as they transition into their residency. Constantly juggling between inpatient/outpatient rotations, call, lectures, meetings, and one’s personal life is mentally and physically exhausting. The long hours and irregular sleep schedule were the most difficult adjustments for me as it really wears you down over time; ultimately you adjust, but it is a protracted and arduous journey.
What advice do you have to those struggling in residency, especially during COVID-19?
Residency is definitely very hard work, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made it more challenging for residents, as well as doctors, nurses, medical staff, patients, and their families. Most individuals working in the medical industry are significantly more tense and apprehensive during these uncertain times than they were previously. Everyone involved in healthcare must be extra vigilant in order to mitigate and minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus. This extra level of stress, compounded with the already taxing work environment residents endure serves only to worsen fatigue, making residency even more physically and mentally demanding.
I was fortunate when I was in residency because we had a strong support system which included a fulltime behavioral health faculty member. He was always available to help residents when they were burned out or having a rough time dealing with the immense workload that residency imposes on them. I can imagine that the need for such a support system has only grown during this pandemic. If I could recommend one thing to residents that are struggling, it would be to make sure they seek assistance when they are feeling overwhelmed. Residency programs as well as hospitals and clinics often offer counseling or therapy services for their employees which provide support for those experiencing work related burnout.
I also advocate allocating time to having a personal life outside of work. That can be very difficult as free time is so limited in residency, but make sure to take advantage of opportunities to relax and do what you enjoy. Maintaining a proper work life balance is essential in succeeding during residency. Spend time with family and friends, go to the gym or on a bike ride, visit the local park or farmer’s market; these types of activities will allow you to unwind outside of work and help promote mental and physical well being.
Any mentors in your career that have helped you along the way or given good advice to follow through with?
One of my mentors was a senior resident when I was an intern. He was offered a teaching position at our residency program, and once he graduated, he became one of our attendings. He was very strict, but in a good way. He frequently told us to check and double check our work, especially our documentation to make sure there were not any mistakes or omissions; he was known for saying “if you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen”. This simple advice is so important in the field of medicine; you simply must document what was said and what was done during the patient encounter in great detail. If you end up in a situation where your clinical judgement or diagnosis comes into question, for example if there was a poor patient outcome, or in the worse scenario, due to litigation, proper and accurate documentation can protect you if everything was done accordingly. I must mention however; that although my mentor was stern, he was also exceedingly caring and helpful, often serving as a pillar of strength and providing a wealth of medical knowledge when my fellow residents and I needed it most.
What made you decide to become a family doctor?
In the beginning of medical school, like most students, I was unsure of what specialty I wanted to pursue. For some time I was debating between family medicine, psychiatry, cardiology or gastroenterology. Eventually, after a great deal of thought, I decided to become a family doctor because I really enjoyed the close contact with patients and their families and the continuity of care that it entails. It is wonderful to be able to offer a holistic approach to a patient’s health care which involves their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. It is not unusual to provide care for patients, their significant others, and their children, allowing you to develop a strong and positive relationship with the whole family unit. There is something special about interacting and caring for patients ranging from newborns to the elderly and everything in between, continuity of care is again a key concept here. I was especially drawn to that exact notion after doing a family medicine rotation early on in my fourth year of medical school that I really just enjoyed.
What helps you connect with your patients? Importance of good bedside manner?
I think intently listening and empathizing is fundamental to effectively connecting with a patient. Doing so allows the individual to become more comfortable, building and strengthening the patient-provider relationship. Patients who trust their general practitioner are more willing to share their symptoms or concerns, particularly personal or private ones they may be hesitant of disclosing. Understanding and identifying with a patient’s situation nurtures the relationship and promotes trust, which is vital. When a patient has confidence in their medical provider, they become more compliant with the recommendations and treatment plan, resulting in better patient satisfaction and patient outcomes. Bed side manner is also critical in fostering a successful relationship, as patients tend to respond better to a physician that displays a positive approach and a positive attitude towards them and their family.
Did you have any other career aspirations aside from wanting to be a doctor?
This may sound cliché, but ever since I was little, I wanted to be a doctor. The desire to become a physician waxed and waned when I grew older, as childhood aspirations often do. During high school I decided to join the Navy or Army in order to obtain tuition assistance for attending college and subsequently medical school. My family however; forbid me from joining the armed forces because they were worried that I would be sent off overseas during the Global War on Terrorism that was launched after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Instead, my parents and my grandmother offered to help me with living expenses and tuition, and I took them up on the offer. In college I declared biology as my major to help prepare me for medical school. During my 3rd and 4th year at the university I had developed a significant interest in neurology and neuroscience however; and I was strongly considering pursuing a doctorate degree in neurology and becoming a professor at the collegiate level. Unfortunately, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer my senior year, and due to the swift and appropriate action of our family doctor, her cancer was removed and she has been in remission ever since; due to this, I again became motivated to pursue medicine as my sole career choice.
How do you manage a good work life balance with a really demanding job?
I try my best to keep my work life at work and my personal life at home. I typically do not leave the office until everything I need to accomplish is finished; that way, when I arrive at home, I can focus on the things that I enjoy doing. Trying new cooking recipes, going to the gym, playing sports, or hanging out with my girlfriend, friends, and family are just a few of the things I take pleasure in doing during my spare time. I also strongly believe in taking trips or vacations on a regular basis in order to physically and mentally “recharge”. Maintaining this proper equilibrium between work related responsibilities and personal activities is important in reducing stress and promoting a healthy work-life balance.