At Medic Footprints, one of the common issues we hear about from our fellow doctors is that a medical career can really keep us from pursuing our other passions and interests in life. Commonly known as, a work-passion balance.
Whether it’s due to a lack of time, energy or feeling like a GMC automaton – these other interests form a part of who we are as human beings.
Once they slide, life can feel less colourful.
“Creativity is the birthright of every human being”- Dr. Kato Wong, all day, every day
Enter Dr. Kato Wong (a.k.a. Chairman Kato). He juggled his creative pursuits alongside his medical training and a busy life as an A&E doctor; so he knows a thing or two about the ‘Work-Passion Balance’.
Furthermore, he transformed his ‘extra-curricular’ activities into a flourishing career as a public speaker on career change, career coach, meditation practitioner, artist and musician.
Dr. Christina Hudson catches up with Kato on career jumps, how the arts and medicine can make unexpected friends and pursuing our passions.
Q. Please tell us about your journey leading up to medical school. Did you feel even then that you were leading a ‘double life’? Did you debate pursuing the arts as a teenager?
A. When I was at school I was already in the habit of balancing my studies with creativity. Every spare moment outside of school was spent on some sort of scheme or endeavour; I was always up to something.
Like many teenage boys, I was in a load of dreadful bands until I started going out in Birmingham and experiencing the underground club scene. That changed everything for me. When I was doing my A-levels I spent every spare moment teaching myself to DJ. I was determined that by the time I went to university I would be good enough to play professionally.
I assumed as a teenager it was impossible to have a standalone career as an artist. I hadn’t been exposed to any role models in that way, so I naturally fell into the habit of balancing the two.
Q. Over your time at medical school and your working years as a doctor, how did you juggle the arts and medicine (practically and personally)?
A. God only knows how I made it through medical school. Throughout the first few years, I was DJing all the time. I had residencies all over Leeds and was running my own club nights. Again, I didn’t think anything of it, it was just a way of life.
I would revise as much as I needed to for exams and the rest of the time would be doing my music and starting to teach myself production. At the end of every term, I would be in bed for a couple of days with a fever and muscle aches. But I was having a good time!
In my last two years of medical school, it became difficult to maintain all of my extracurricular work. At that stage you’re not a medical student anymore, you’re a student doctor. I had to focus on my studies so I cut down on my DJing and kept up one of my residencies, which I maintained right until I moved down to London.
Whilst I was in my final years of medical school a friend of mine introduced me to a place called the Tate Modern. I’ll never forget that moment. I started visiting London as much as I could to educate myself about contemporary art. Little did I know what this would pave the way for.
Working as a doctor hit my creativity hard at first.
I barely made anything in my F1 year as a result of working silly hours, exhaustion and drinking too much.
When I started my F2 year I had a look at things, cleaned up my act and started to be more careful about how I used my time. And then came the question of post-Foundation training.
Initially, I decided to take a year out and do a locum post in A&E in Yorkshire. I had discovered I really enjoyed A&E. It suited me down to the ground and I could now pick when I wanted to work. For the first time in my life, I had the freedom to pay the bills and focus on my music production.
It was amazing and my music was starting to show the benefit.
By this point, I really wanted to pursue music further and be closer to the arts, so I moved to London to work as a locum in A&E. ‘One year out’ was turning into two.
By this point, I was quite experienced and confident in the speciality and as luck would have it, one of my first jobs was in a gravely overwhelmed and struggling department in East London.
They really needed me there and they treated me as if I was a trainee. In reward for my hard work, they gave me on the job training, helping me to become competent at procedures, trauma skills and departmental management.
For a long time, this was a great arrangement. I was working as a locum but being treated like one of the gang. Working as a supply doctor is often quite unstable but I had a home. I could work when and where I wanted and put that money into my art projects.
Q. If you had any advice for those who have a passion outside of medicine, what would it be?
A. Please pursue it. It’s better for your wellbeing and it’s better for your patients.
I think as doctors we get used to the chronic strain and exhaustion to the point where we don’t notice it anymore. Just because that is the norm does not mean it is healthy.
It’s not normal to be surrounded by that much suffering, pain and stress on a daily basis. We need an outlet.
We need to go and do something else to remember that we are actually a human being and not some faceless automaton on a GMC register.
Reconnecting with our own humanity outside of work can only benefit our patients too. Medicine is about 20% science and 80% the study of the human condition. When we come back to work refreshed and relaxed we stand a greater chance of seeing our patients as the complex and vulnerable people they truly are.
Q. Given your current work in the arts is very different to medicine, do you feel like your medical background has been a help (or a hindrance)?
A. I could never have predicted how much my medical background would help me as an artist.
Some of those benefits are obvious. We pick up a lot of transferable skills as doctors. We have to be very organised and efficient. That’s useful whatever we go on to do. A scientific training makes us methodical and rigorous in our approach to things, and that’s useful for creativity too.
I have quite a high-stress threshold after working in A&E. Creative obstacles always come up and I suppose in the back of my mind I know that aren’t many things that are as worrying as an acute airway emergency or trying to keep a decompensating department going through the night.
So far there hasn’t been anything workwise that can compare to those situations, even having to address 500 people. I also think you have to develop a no-nonsense approach to survive in that environment.
If something needs to be done, I assume I will get it done and I bring that to all my present day work.
Having said all of that, the biggest advantage was the one I never saw coming. Before leaving medicine I was very, very self-conscious about my scientific background.
I was convinced that it would count against me in the arts but it’s had the opposite effect. My story follows me around everywhere and it has opened countless doors for me in the art world. Life is so odd.
Q. Do you miss anything about medicine? Would you ever consider returning to clinical practice?
A. People ask me that all the time.
I find that medicine never leaves you. I may have left clinical practice but I will always be a doctor.
I really like people. The best thing about being a doctor was sitting and listening to people talk about their lives. As an artist I still do that. I always take the time to chat to the people I’m photographing, for example. I’m basically super nosy.
I also take the responsibility of the artist seriously, in the same way that I did in my position as a doctor. I believe that the arts have the power to create positive change in society and I am committed to practicing that ethos as much as I am dedicated to my own painting and music.
I’ve run several community arts projects in my own time since leaving medicine and last year in response to the contract changes proposed by the government I did a project called ‘Screw Jeremy Hunt, Let’s Paint’. I wanted to help raise morale amongst the medical profession so I opened up a gallery for doctors to come and hang out and paint in.
Strangely, I have encountered a big increase in out-of-hospital situations since leaving medicine. Only a few weeks ago I had to manage a teenage lad having his first seizure on a train and choking on his food. See what I mean? Medicine never leaves you.
Q. You’re also a mindfulness practitioner. What are your tips for everyone on how they can best look after themselves? Is there anything specific to doctors that our subscribers may find useful?
A. Meditation teaches us about our own minds, and everything is in the mind. Not many things, if any, are truly objective. How we view things changes our entire experience of external events.
Meditation and mindfulness give us an awareness and compassion that help us to break free from reactive patterns of thinking and behaving.
The tools to do so are very simple and become powerful with practice.
Everyone can benefit from meditation and I’m passionate about spreading the word.
Q. Knowing what you know about the world and yourself now – what would you tell your 18-year-old self?
We would probably just end up talking about music and girls.
To read more about Dr. Kato Wong’s work and read his ebook – ‘The Art of Career Suicide’ – check out his website www.chairmankato.co.uk .
Interested in the arts? Check out From Medicine to the Arts for more inspiration.