October 13, 2021
How does one begin to write a book? WHY write a book? When you walk through the few remaining books stores in San Diego, case in point the Barnes and Nobles in Mission Valley right behind the megalith restaurant chain B.J.s, there is always the section of books that are at bargain prices. $5 for two, with large red stickers plastered on the covers. Even in Harvard Square’s COOP bookstore where tourists and students would mingle among erudite tomes and popular fiction, and crimson university branded spirit-wear just steps away, there were bargain books. At some point, even great works of literature are sold at rock-bottom prices.
My name is Vi Thuy Nguyen, and I am a Harvard-trained pediatrician. Having spent the better part of 15 years as an undergraduate, medical student, pediatric resident, chief resident and to cap it off a premedical tutor (fancy Harvard-speak for premedical advisor) in Cambridge and then having a spouse with the same credentials but in a fancy subspecialty – it’s hard not to want to write a book. There are a lot of books written by Harvard graduates, sometimes even before they’ve graduated from Harvard. I’m not sure if it’s because we’ve self-selected ourselves by being self-driven and narcissistic enough to believe our life stories are THAT INTERESTING and that’s how we convinced someone to let us into Harvard? Or that we are so insecure that we need that continual affirmation, which drives us to continually update our resumes? Maybe that is why almost always a quarter of all Harvard graduates go into medicine, as those same qualities are often the strengths and pitfalls of the best doctors.
Which leads me to why I am writing this book. I’m in the glorious middle, and indeed turning 44 soon – a wonderful palindrome and even number bespoking a life that starting from the first digit or the last digit, reads the same and makes sense to me. As my requisite long self-absorbed subtitle explains, I’ve gone “From Harvard, Burn Out, to the Beach and Back Again. I was trying to save San Diego’s environment, but I ended up saving myself.” If you are reading this book, likely you’ve found my blog, Instagram, Facebook page, or heard me speak at various events. My story is simple. Two years ago, I found myself completely burned out from my career as a general pediatrician and what I call “middle-management” at a large HMO. I was a hamster on one of these wheels, running to where I had no idea. Rewarded with emails and accolades and bonuses by an invisible “upper-management” hand, doling out pieces of cheese to the hamster on the wheel. And during that time of poor sleep, constant work-messaging, middle-aged back pain from being a runner for over 20 years, always feeling inadequate as a mother and physician but with “metrics” that looked like success, I had two toddlers in my practice almost simultaneously diagnosed with cancer. They were both the youngest in their families, and I had been the only pediatrician both families had known. This book is dedicated to those two little girls (Ashley and Audrey), whose cancer diagnoses were the catalyst for my burnout but more importantly for my climate work. Their diagnoses and the reverberating pain when they become sick, affected me. I thought I was made of Teflon. I wasn’t. I was human, and I settled into a deep sadness that manifested in irritability, tension headaches, and then an irrational plan to leave my middle-management career.
But I can’t give the entire story away in the first chapter?!!! I need you to keep reading. I’m in the glorious middle. I’m at bag 560 right now of ocean plastic pollution collected from mostly San Diego’s beaches. As my fully description subtitle explains, this is “My Journey Through 1000 bags of Ocean Plastic Pollution” and I’m literally at the middle.
What does the middle of 1000 bags of trash, bag 560 look like? What does the life of a middle-aged Harvard-trained pediatrician in middle-management who is also the infamous “Dr. Plastic Picker” look like? It’s 5:08 AM and it’s pitch dark outside. I’m sitting drinking my matcha green tea soy latte with a teaspoon of sugar, and I’m typing away on my computer. I was fueled on 2-6 cups of coffee a day for over 13 years, and now I don’t drink coffee anymore. I only drink what I call my “Green Awakening,” this beautiful cup of matcha green tea soy latte in the morning. I woke up this morning refreshed and slept well, partly because I know to slow down my body with some yoga at night. My husband is asleep upstairs curled next to our little black crazy poodle mix, and he’ll go to work also as a “middle-manager” at our HMO. I’ve labeled him Mr. Plastic Picker, and he is Assistant Chief of Radiology. He is generally on the road to healing and improved health after back surgery a few years ago, because I am better. I asked him to take me to dinner this Saturday, as it’s my birthday, and we never used to take time for ourselves to go out to dinner. My in-laws are up, and they’ll be wandering into the kitchen soon to begin their morning routine. Much of my story of my climate and health activism, has to do with the lessons learned from my Korean in-laws. My son is going to take his PSAT this morning, and our daughter just won her first school volleyball game yesterday. She was former preemie and her medical struggles and my guilt as a working mother in her early years, are intertwined with my burn out story. But the beautiful thing about yesterday, is that I missed her first step and her first words – but I was there at almost 44 for her first volleyball win.
And what does the middle of 1000 bags of trash, bag 560 look like? Bag 560 looks like I’m Co-founder of San Diego Pediatricians for Clean, and Co-Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Climate Change and Health Committee. It looks like October 14 being recognized as Children’s Environmental Health Day by multiple cities in San Diego County, and my pediatrician friends and students fanning all over the region at press events recognizing the importance of environmental health with the AAP banner behind them. It looks like an upcoming Clairemont town council meeting where I’m co-presenting with one of our advocacy interns and a developmental pediatrician friend on the health reasons why leaded aviation gasoline and it’s pollution is an environmental justice issue. It looks like I was invited back to the National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program to speak on my climate and health work. And it looks like I’m still in “middle-management” and happy and found my niche in pediatric quality work and head of the HMO “Green/Sustainability Team.” And it looks like my entire family laughing yesterday around dinner, happy and saying our gratitude and eating a plant-based meal.
The middle looks like happiness. It’s absolutely true what I say during my climate and health speeches. Feel free to page me, “I’m always on call for the earth.” These are the adventures of me as Dr. Plastic Picker, self-proclaimed local-litter picking pediatrician. And the WHY I am writing this book, is that I’m literally trying to save the planet as climate change is a pediatric public health crisis. My crazy adventures and social media presence and book tour are about raising the alarm. It’s all hands-on deck. But I think you’ll find that if you help me save the earth, you’ll end up saving yourself as well.