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March 30 is National Doctors’ Day — a day to recognize our physicians here at UW Medicine for their dedication to patient care, teaching, research, and commitment to improving the health of the public.

To celebrate, physicians across UW Medicine share why they wanted to be a doctor, what they love about their specialties and what keeps them motivated through the challenges.

Danielle Debelak, MD, Family Medicine, UW Medicine Primary Care

Danielle Debelak

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a doctor?

My mother was a school psychologist and my father taught middle school math and science, so I was exposed to helping others and a love for science at an early age. I’ve always thought that primary care medicine is a great mix of those subjects.

Why did you pick your current specialty?

I had the privilege of growing up in a small town and being cared for by an excellent, dedicated family physician. When my brother was in his early teens, he was diagnosed with a chronic illness. Our family physician supported our family by teaching us about the illness, by genuinely caring and always being available.

What do you love most about being a doctor?

I love that being a physician allows me to help people become the healthiest and happiest that they can be. What I enjoy most about being a physician is the interaction that I have with patients every day, building relationships, problem-solving through stressors and sharing in successes.

What’s challenging and what keeps you going/inspires you?

Medicine, particularly primary care, is a constantly evolving field, as we can all attest to while living through a pandemic. Trying to keep the focus on patients as individuals amid changing medical guidance, increasing healthcare costs and staffing crises are my biggest challenges. Seeing the positive impact our clinic has on patients’ lives, the small talk I sneak in during patient visits, and the support of my colleagues and staff are what keep me going.

Manuel Ferreira, MD, PhD, Neurological Surgery, UW Medical Center – Montlake

Manuel Ferreira

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a doctor?

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a doctor, but an animal doctor. I wanted to be a veterinarian and help the injured and sick. It was when two of the veterinarians I worked for told me that they were going to medical school, that I began to consider that option.

Why did you pick your current specialty?

I completed a thesis project while I was an undergraduate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, studying the brain reward/addiction pathway. It was then that I learned and realized that the brain is the crown jewel of the human body. It is tangible, but it is also this ultimate supercomputer that gives rise to the mind and soul, both very much intangible. The field of neurosurgery combines the use of the surgeon’s hands and the study of the brain. This would provide me with a career of exciting study in an unknown frontier.

What do you love most about being a doctor?

I love it all. I wake up in the morning excited to see patients with complex neurological problems, to operate on them, to train my residents and fellows and push the field forward in the laboratory. It is the interconnection between clinical excellence, education and pioneering research that drives me and gives me a deep sense of fulfillment when I head home after a long day.

What’s challenging and what keeps you going/inspires you?

The healthcare landscape is becoming more and more difficult to navigate for the physician-scientist. The pandemic has brought this to light as there are fewer resources available for the academic mission.

Watching my patients, trainees and colleagues navigate these trying times, with smiles, inspires me. It is an honor and privilege to be an academic neurosurgeon at UW Medicine.

Amisha Mehta, MD, Palliative Care, Valley Medical Center

Amisha Mehta

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a doctor?

For a long time, I knew I wanted to work in the field of healthcare. Both my parents are physicians who had their own practices, and from a young age, I enjoyed watching them interact with their patients. In high school and college, I sought opportunities to work with people in various disciplines to help me find my scope. When I was deciding if medical school was the right path for me, my pre-medical advisor recommended I volunteer in a nursing home. He said that many people go into medicine thinking they will save lives, often forgetting that their patients will also die. He said that if you can handle death and the dying process, then you will be mature enough to be a physician. In college I volunteered in a nursing home and really enjoyed working with older adults. I had the opportunity to see people recover from acute illnesses and witnessed people at the beginning of their decline. I then volunteered in hospice and saw what it was like to care for people at the end of their lives. I learned so much from all the people I came across during this time. Each of these experiences brought me further along in my path to medicine.

Why did you pick your current specialty?

I enjoy caring for people with complex medical and psychosocial needs. During residency, I had the privilege of caring for an older patient with multiple medical issues for which he had frequent hospital admissions. On one of his readmissions, I sat down with him and his spouse and asked if anyone had talked to them about his illnesses and how it will progress. They both said they have not and know there are conversations they should be having about the future. We talked through his goals, and I helped to provide some guidance on what the future may look like based on different treatment options. He eventually decided to transition to hospice. I met his wife again a few months after he died, and she thanked me for sitting down with them and taking the time to have that discussion. She said, “You gave us a few more months at home saying, ‘I love you’ to each other.” That was my ah-ha moment of how I wanted to provide care for my patients in the future. Geriatric and palliative medicine allow for this person-centered approach to care. They are both collaborative fields that take a team approach to patient care. I knew I picked the right fields during my fellowships at the UW School of Medicine. The providers who mentored me during this time are incredibly intelligent and humble; the pearls they taught me have been so helpful in my career.

What do you love most about being a doctor?

We have so many opportunities to help improve a person’s quality of life. Whether it is providing symptom management, educating patients about their illnesses, identifying goals and discussing treatments that align with them, or creating a safe space for people to talk about how their illness impacts their life, there is always something we can do to make a difference. My days are filled with heavy conversations with patients at vulnerable times in their lives. It is fulfilling to see them at ease after they have discussed some of their fears, shared their emotions, or have their symptoms better controlled. I had a patient who was admitted to the hospital for severe pain due to cancer. I visited her later in the afternoon one day, and she asked if I had a few minutes to chat. She talked about how her cancer impacted her life, especially her family. We reflected upon how each of her children were responding so differently. We also shared a few laughs. A month ago, she sent me a letter that said, “I will never forget the long time you spent in my hospital room listening to me and letting me ask you questions…You will never know how much I needed you at that moment.” My days are filled with experiences like this. To me, it seems like a part of my job, and I am recognizing that to my patients and their loved ones, it is so much more.

What’s challenging and what keeps you going/inspires you?

Many people do not know what palliative medicine is or often associate it with end-of-life care. We often get consulted on a patient at the later stages of their illness when the impact we can have on a person’s quality of life is limited. When a colleague in our hospital was reflecting upon our Palliative Care team and the work we are doing, he said, “I think we have a void here, and I appreciate you stepping in to give it some light.” I am hopeful that as our field grows, and we provide more education to the public about palliative medicine, we can meet patients earlier in the course of their illness and have a greater impact on the care we can provide to them and on the medical system as a whole.

I am grateful to work with talented and compassionate colleagues here at Valley. Watching them work hard every day to elevate the care we can provide for our patients is inspiring. It is so much fun to work with people who love what they do and appreciate the skills we all bring to the table. I have an amazingly talented administrative partner who is passionate about growing our program toward a shared vision. I feel valued and supported by the leadership at Valley; any time there have been bumps in the road, leadership has been a supportive partner. It is all of this and knowing there is so much more to do and learn that keeps me going.

Kenta Nakamura, MD, FACC, Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center

Kenta Nakamura

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a doctor?

I can’t say there was a specific moment of epiphany. It’s been an evolution from an early draw to science, to a desire to work with people in need, to build the knowledge and skills to help. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a doctor, whether a scientist or physician.

Why did you pick your current specialty?

My first mentors were in cardiology and I’ve never felt heart disease lacking in inspiration or urgency. We’re also fortunate to have a great breadth of treatments available, from medicines to devices and major surgery. I ended up training in interventional cardiology to perform minimally invasive procedures in the heart. I’ve leveraged that skillset with a background in cell biology and physiology to bridge clinical medicine and basic science research and help accelerate discoveries toward tangible therapies.

What do you love most about being a doctor?

The ability to use the knowledge and skills entrusted in me and be part of a team to impact patients not only at an individual level, but also broadly as a population. As an interventionalist, the joy of rescuing patients having heart attacks or heart failure is immediate and palpable. And as a translational scientist, our work to regenerate and rejuvenate the injured heart, while more abstract, is a chance to help countless more patients than I could treat in my lifetime and is equally rewarding. UW is at the forefront of this transformative wave of novel gene and cell-based therapies and I’m fortunate to practice in this exciting space.

What’s challenging and what keeps you going/inspires you?

Despite the great cardiac care we can provide today, alleviating symptoms and improving function, much of it is palliative. For example, heart failure remains uncurable for most patients. While I’m privileged to be able to help patients today, we have to do better and I’m motivated to help discover new therapies and ultimately, real cures.

Christian Peterson, DO, Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery, UW Medical Center – Northwest

Christian Peterson with the mutton busting champion.

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a doctor?

My father was a physician and I’ve been exposed to medicine my entire life. So, there was never a single moment that I knew I was going to be a physician.

Why did you pick your current specialty?

I grew up playing sports and when you play sports, you get injured. So, I was introduced to multiple sports medicine providers at an early age. Most sports medicine providers are former athletes because athletic providers need to be able to relate to the injured athlete’s needs. The injured athlete often feels more comfortable being treated by someone who may have been in a similar situation. This builds a symbiotic relationship and better outcomes.

What do you love most about being a doctor?

The best part about being a doctor is providing medical outreach in situations where you may be the only physician they see all year. I am able to build relationships with the athlete and follow them in their career. Being an orthopedic physician, I am only able to speak to their musculoskeletal conditions, but at the end of the conversation, I am always greeted with a thank you.

What’s challenging and what keeps you going/inspires you?

The real challenge in medicine is figuring out how to overcome the daily adversity, stay committed to your profession and strive to always improve as a physician.

Robin Tong, DO, Family Medicine, UW Medicine Primary Care

Robin Tong

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a doctor?

I knew I wanted to be a doctor when my grandma was diagnosed with colon cancer. I was 16 and served as her translator in the encounter when her gastrointestinal doctor broke the news to her. From that scary moment, I learned that the practice of medicine is where communication, compassion and knowledge converge.

Why did you pick your current specialty?

To me, being a family medicine doctor was a natural choice. I wanted a wide breadth of medical knowledge that would be able to help the greatest amount of people. I also wanted to see folks of all ages from newborns to geriatrics. Diversity is what makes my job rewarding — being able to see patients of all ages, different backgrounds and various medical conditions. Family medicine also allows me to do many in-office procedures like birth control implants, skin biopsies and joint injections. I like being able to come to work knowing that no two days will be the same!

What do you love most about being a doctor?

I enjoy getting to know not just individuals, but their families too. I enjoy hearing people’s stories whether they’re happy or sad, scary or triumphant. I meet new people on a daily basis and I get to walk a mile in their shoes. My job allows me to have a unique perspective on so many layers of society and in a way, it helps me understand the world better. I think that being a physician makes me a more empathic person with a more open and nuanced view on people and our world.

What’s challenging and what keeps you going/inspires you?

What keeps me going is the encouragement of my patients and my colleagues here at UW Medicine. Because we are an academic center full of the best and brightest specialists, here at UW Medicine Primary Care, we are often the primary care providers for very sick patients. It’s not uncommon for me to have patients who need to see multiple specialists within UW Medicine. Not only do we take care of populations who are medically complex, but socially vulnerable as well. To receive gratitude and recognition for the hard work that I put in is what keeps me going. Knowing that I’m making an impact by being a part of a mission driven institution makes me proud of my work and gets me through the challenging days.

Heather Wheeler, MD, General Surgery, Valley Medical Center

Heather Wheeler

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a doctor?

There was no one particular moment that stands out. I come from a medical family of surgeons and nurses, and my dad is a surgeon. I grew up around that challenging, hard-working lifestyle, and I actually didn’t want to be a doctor! When I was in college and figuring out what I wanted to do, I found myself drawn to patient care, medicine and healthcare. I started working in labs and in volunteer jobs around patients. Biology, psychology and medicine were the most interesting classes to me. So I started looking at a wide variety of healthcare jobs. I worked and volunteered in a lot of different healthcare settings over my college years and after college. Eventually, I decided that I needed the challenge and intensity of being a physician, and I realized that medical school was the right path for me. I’m very glad I took my time to research and decide.

Why did you pick your current specialty?

I love the operating room (OR) and I love operating. I enjoy that environment, working with my hands and being able to cure disease. When I was in medical school, I found myself wishing I were in the OR every day, and that’s how I knew. My surgery rotation was my first clinical rotation in medical school, and I knew after my first day in the OR that I was going to be a surgeon.

What do you love most about being a doctor?

Definitely the connection with other people! Surgeons have a special relationship with our patients. It’s an intense experience that we go through together. I like being there for my patients and walking with them through the experience. I also love being a surgeon because I get a lot of quality, intense time with my coworkers and other members of the team.

What’s challenging and what keeps you going/inspires you?

One great thing about medicine is that we are always learning and growing. In surgery, we learn new techniques, create new technology and perfect our skill over our lifetime. It is a constant process of learning and growing.

Messages from the community

In celebration of National Doctors’ Day, read the heartfelt messages submitted by the community on Instagram and Facebook.

“Love my uw doctors 💕 ”

“Thank you to Dr Prutkin for giving me hope for a brighter future !”

“UW heart Clinic has the best doctors. Shout out to Dr Stout, Dr Bauber, Dr Prutkin”

“So, so grateful to Drs. Thank you for all you do.”

“UW neurologists saved my life, UW physiatrists made me walk again, and UW obstetricians brought my baby into the world. Every good thing I have is because of them!”

“To your Orthopaedic Trauma surgeon Dr David Barei. He is so very kind, and wonderful. A very gifted man. 💖🏋️‍♀️🤸‍♀️”

“To your NICU and emergency delivery team – I never thought I’d have to have an emergency c section (who does!?), you guys were so understanding with my anxiety and the care provided to my daughter for the next 2 1/2 months in the NICU meant everything to me. Thank you for all you do and what a selfless position of work you dedicate your time to ❤️ ”

“While I have many doctors at UW to thank, one stands out. Thank you Dr Ganesh Raghu for all you have done for my health. I appreciate you.”

“Thanks to Dr. Mary Horan at the Northwest campus. She has been the best doctor I have ever had and I am 71. Dr. Horan has been my pulmonary specialist for 16 years. She is retiring at the end of June and I will miss her. A big thanks to Dr Claire Jenkins at the UW Shoreline clinic. She’s an excellent primary care doctor.”

“Thank you Dr. Bruce Sangeorzan for making an impact in my life.”

“Thank you Dr. Ronald V. Maier for saving my child’s life.”

“Thank you Dr. Robert Michael Dini for not only the medical care you’ve given to my Mom and I, but your compassion, care , and thoughtfulness cured our spirits minds and souls as well. I will always appreciate how you treat your patients with patience! Your mannerisms and professional care are very much appreciated!”

“While I have many drs at UW to thank, my deepest gratitude goes to dr Ayars (Immunology, Eastside clinic), Dr Hawkins (nephrology, main campus) and Dr Templeton (gastroenterology, main campus). All three have had such a positive impact on my health.

“Dr. David Byrd and Dr. Alan Failor – both amazing doctors and even better people. They cared for my dad pre and post surgery in 2016. Sadly, we lost him despite outstanding care but these doctors continued to go above and beyond – Dr. Byrd making a HOME VISIT to answer questions and offer support to my grieving mom and Dr. Failor making calls and offering support and advice to my daughter with the same condition in his own time as she was in another insurance network. I will be forever grateful to both of these incredible doctors.”

“Can’t say enough good things about the UW medical and cardiology care team. I’ve had my favorite cardiologist Dr Kudenchuk for 30 years. Such a blessing to be in their care💜 ”

“I’m very grateful to UW doctors. They truly care for their patients. They cared so much for my very rare cancer and they saved my life in 2015. I’m still here. Thanks UW doctors”

“Dr. Weiss at UW was a lifesaver for me after my MG diagnosis. He is one of the best in his field.”

“UW is the best. Dr Victoria Fang is my PCP, Dr Kawaguchi & Dr Thankappan are my Neurologists, Dr Dean is my Gastrointerologist & Dr Subterwohl is my Cardiologist. They are the best! When I call or send a message, it’s always answered within 24 hours. Emergent issues are answered right away. You can’t ask for more!”

“5 years ago I was there. A grateful thank you to Dr. Michael Githens, Ortho Trauma, Dr. John Lynch, ID and all of the nurses, aids and everyone who cared for me. Everyone at Harborview is the best of the best!”

“They got the best knee team I had mine done by them Dr Sassoon I am not sure on spelling his team will blow your mind”

“The ” Best in the West” Dr Patel performed a smooth back operation on this young 80 year old dude – I highly recommend him. Peace”

“I love Dr Brage!!! He’s my rockstar. My right foot has an arch again, and I can walk many miles again after I pounded my right foot over the years in skiing, running, hiking injuries. He also fixed my husband’s Achilles Tendon when a bone spur threatened that major tendon. Thank you Dr Brage for giving me my active life back. You and your orthopedic crew at Harborview are miracle workers!”

“My husband had a prosthetic ankle joint placed by Dr. Brage and his amazing team in 2016, and is still going strong. We loved Dr. Brage’s kind, professional, and gentle manner, he took the time to discuss all options. My husband says he is genuinely concerned about how he is doing; He also explains things clearly, which is very helpful. We gave him a pair of Superman socks after he saved my husband’s ankle, and he just gave a timid smile and thanked us. Thank you Dr. Brage, we’ve had the opportunity to send several people your way.”

“Dr Gee in orthopedics has done two awesome knee Surgeries for me in the last two years.”

“MS Center, Dr. Annette Wundes, is my top doc and so is the program!”