Pulling Back the Curtain: Laura C. Michaelis, MD

Associate professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee

What was your first job?

My very first job was babysitting in high school; I used to have a pretty robust babysitting business, with five or six families from the neighborhood. I also sold hot dogs at the local high school and at summer league baseball games. I got free hot dogs and developed an unbelievable love for the game, which I have to this day.

Dr. Michaelis spending time with her dog.
Dr. Michaelis spending time with her dog.

How did you decide to pursue medicine as your career?

I had a strange career path. Before I thought about medicine as a career, I worked as a full-time reporter for about nine years.

In college, I was a history major, and I was an editor on the school newspaper. I also interned at the Associated Press and Foreign Policy magazine in Washington, DC. After college, I worked for the PBS program “The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” in an internship position. Then, I moved to Chicago and worked for the City News Bureau, where I covered police and fire on the overnight beat. After that, I worked at the Los Angeles Times, where I covered community news, education, and even some restaurant reviews for the Orange County area.

Later, I earned my master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. After graduation, I ended up covering Congress for Congressional Quarterly magazine, including the first efforts at health-care reform under the Clinton administration, which turned out to be my final project.

Around that time, a friend of mine went back to school to finish up the classwork she needed to enter medical school. I thought that sounded like a cool idea. So, I decided to try it by taking a night class in chemistry. I loved it – so much so that, when I got an offer to be a beat reporter at a newspaper in Albany, I turned it down. I thought, “If I’m not going to take this job, I should figure out if I really want to be in journalism.”

When did you know medicine was for you?

I quit my job at Congressional Quarterly; took night classes in biochemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology; and completed all of the requirements to go to medical school.

During the day, I worked at a bakery and as a temp at various places – including the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. One of those temp assignments was working as a secretary for William Chin, MD, a professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, who let me work in his lab when I wasn’t doing clerical work. That’s where I first did polymerase chain reaction testing and lab work. Eventually, I applied to medical school and got in.

I come from a medical family. My father was a cardiothoracic surgeon and my mother was a nurse, which meant that my siblings and I were very familiar with medicine. When I was young, my dad was on-service 24 hours and off-service 24 hours and my mom worked nights, so, until I was about five years old, my sister and I spent every night in the hospital nursery. We ate dinner with the residents and nurses in the cafeteria, and then we’d go to the nursery until my mom’s shift ended. She would pick us up and take us home so a babysitter could watch us while she slept. I’ve always been very comfortable in hospitals.

Do you think the skills you honed as a reporter help you as a doctor?

One hundred percent. People think that reporting is so much different than medicine, but there actually is so much that’s the same.

As a reporter, my job was to dig for information to get to the truth of a story, and then to tell that story. I would meet strangers, ask questions, figure out what their worldview is, how their life experiences have shaped them. … Medicine is not that different. I meet patients and their families, ask questions, and listen to their answers to figure out what they are going through. Listening might be a more important component of medicine than reporting. Physicians still have to tell a story, just to a slightly different audience.

Education is also a big part of both reporting and medicine, as well. To be good at both, I think you also have to be curious.

The main difference is whom you are advocating for and whom you build relationships with. With medicine, it’s more of a personal advocacy than a public advocacy. My obligation as a reporter was to the truth, but I found that I was really drawn to a role where I was advocating for people. For me, relationships are more important, so medicine seemed to be a better fit.

They intersected recently when I had the chance to interview my dad for a book from StoryCorps called Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. As the son of a physician and the father of a physician, my dad has a unique perspective on the medical career. Spending an hour interviewing him for the book was really nice, but also strange because, although I’d interviewed people all the time as a reporter, it was never for something so personal.

Did you have any mentors who played a role in shaping your career?

I’ve always tried to emulate the people I admire. My mother, certainly, was an incredible patient advocate and very nurturing. My father, grandfather, and uncle were all physicians, too, and, from them, I learned what it meant to be called to medicine.

Dr. Chin certainly had a huge effect on my career. It seems bizarre now – I was arbitrarily assigned to be a secretary in his office and, while I was there typing up grants, he allowed me to explore my interests in his lab. From a professional standpoint, he was the first person to recognize that I could contribute scientifically.

My resident program director, Joel Katz, MD, also had an incredible influence on me, as did Marshall Wolf, MD, and a lot of my colleagues in medical school and residency. Since I became an attending, there have been multiple people who helped me become the doctor I want to be: Mary Horowitz, MD, MS; Patrick Stiff, MD; Ruben Mesa, MD; Jason Gotlib, MD, MS; Linda Brubaker, MD, MS; Wendy Stock, MD. … The list goes on. I’ve taken a little bit of something from each of them and tried to incorporate it into my work.

What advice would you give to young trainees who have questions about their own career paths?

You shouldn’t be afraid to explore things outside of the traditional pathway to medicine – especially when you’re young. If you’re called to follow the straight and narrow path to medicine, that’s great; if you’re called to do a Fulbright scholarship somewhere or take a year off to learn a language or experiment with a different kind of research, that’s great, too.

Having richer, more diverse experiences will never hurt you in becoming a physician. It will help you better understand how to do your job and how you approach your work. For example, I interviewed one doctor who took a year off from training and spent it designing cooking lessons and shopping lists for women’s shelters. She said it taught her how poverty affected life and health.

I never could have been a good doctor if I took the traditional path to medical school right out of college. I was young, and I didn’t know anything about people or myself at that point. I covered a wide variety of things as a reporter: from local government to Congress, from homicide and crime to the FDA and public policy. When covering crime, especially in Chicago, I witnessed a lot of personal tragedy and the effects of crime, and it showed me a world I would otherwise have never seen. By the time I went to medical school, I had learned more about the world and had a different set of expectations. It was the right time for me to go.

So, my advice is that, if you’re drawn to experimenting, why not?

In a typical day, what do you look forward to the most?

My favorite part of the day is taking a nice long walk in the morning with my dog, a 19-month old Rottweiler. I also love a summer evening, after work, when I walk over to my neighbors’ porch to spend some time with them listening to a baseball game and unwinding. I’m a big baseball fan, so I’ve either watched or listened to nearly every Cubs game this year. I love being able to lie in my hammock in the backyard and catch up on my notes while listening to the game.

At work, I love seeing patients – going through their histories, listening to them, exploring what’s been happening in their lives, trying to teach them about their condition, putting together a plan that can hopefully alleviate some of their anxieties, and giving them a sense that they’re not alone.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

When I was in high school, I was a nationally ranked debater, which meant I competed in debates all over the country. That experience has been helpful because it has allowed me to be comfortable speaking in public. Participating in debate also teaches you a lot about skepticism, which is a very helpful trait in both journalism and medicine.

Is there a skill that you’d like to add to your repertoire, or anything that you’d do more of if you had the time?

It would be fun to do more traveling, even if it is for professional reasons. It would be great to do some kind of medical mission work in the future; it would be fascinating to see a whole different side of medicine.

I’ve always loved painting, and I do some watercolor painting – I’m not very good, but I enjoy it. I also garden, and I wish Wisconsin were warmer, so there would be more time for that.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?

I think I have one right now: I have a preternatural ability to catch things when they fall. When anything drops off a shelf, I’m right there to catch it. Of course, now that I’ve said that, it won’t happen anymore.

If I could choose another one, I’d like to have infinite patience, the ability to never get irritable. That, or time travel … Actually, I’ll take time travel.

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