Published: Getting My Words Out – Dr. Plastic Picker

Category: Published: Getting My Words Out

May be an image of 8 people and people standing
October 14 is Children’s Environmental Health Day. Recognized yesterday by the City of Chula Vista.

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. 

Writing it on a word-document

October 3, 2021

by drplasticpicker

I went back to it yesterday. I have always wanted to write a book. I started a word document a few months ago, but the work with Rewild Mission Bay inspired me to go back to it. Andrew Meyer the conservation director for the San Diego Audubon Society had suggested we title our advocacy letter one of the local city councilpersons Paging Dr. XXX. For an advocacy letter, I thought it would not go over as well. Paging a physician who does not want to be paged about what they don’t see as an urgent matter, is not the best way to convince them. But it really did inspire me as I realized for non-medical people – it captures their imagination. Plus, at different presentations for the HMO Green Team, I’ve used the phrase “we are always on call for the earth.” And I do believe that.

But that’s pretty much what I’ve done. I’ve settled on a working title and acknowledgements, and thinking about it. I’m at bag #565 about, and it will probably take me two more years to get to #1000 personal bags. That works out perfectly because that is the summer I am planning on taking my well deserved sabbatical and go on my electric car tour around the country. In the craziness of medical training, I’ve never traveled cross country and that is one of the things I’ve always wanted to do. Since this blog has been about taking risks and trying new things, I figured I could do that while spreading my message about physician wellness and climate and health advocacy. Dr. Plastic Picker has always been the ultimate mulit-tasker. Getting exercise and cleaning the earth at the same time!

I have to have San Diego Pediatricians for Clean Air designated as an official non-profit with tax exempt status. I’m not even sure how much a book would make, but I just want to make enough to buy stethoscopes for all our premedical advocacy interns. We have nine interns now! They are really wonderful. I want to be able to buy them each a nice stethoscope when they matriculate to medical school from SDPCA and AAP-CA3. But it is getting expensive as I have more interns now! I figure the book sales can go to buying their stethoscopes and otherwise maybe fund a picnic for the children’s arts council, and maybe some Tshirts.

The book can’t be too long. People have very short attention spans. I think 150 pages is enough? What do you think? I’m going to stop by Barnes and Nobles and browse the Physician Wellness section and see about how long those books are. The blog has been a beautiful endeavor and I’ll try to repurpose some of my blog post, but it’s kind of all over the place. I think a book should have some kind of cohesion. I need to figure out my character arc. And I want to sprinkle in tons of local color. I’m pretty sure I can pull off a national book tour (at small independent book shops OF COURSE!) but I know for sure I can do a local tour of San Diego. The local tour would be the most important, because the entire point is to local climate and health advocacy.

That is it. I just wanted to let the blog readership know that I’m continuing to plug away at the climate work, but I’m not forgetting my dream about writing my book! Every Crimson University grad needs to write a book especially before the 25th class reunion. Especially since the idea for this all came during one of the sessions at our 20th class reunion!

Things I’m reading these days.
Beautiful purple flowers.

May 6, 2021

by drplasticpicker

The art of storytelling, the art of writing – is something that is so powerful. It’s how we teach. It’s how we experience life. For me life has always been a series of interwoven narratives, of your life and my life. The threads weave and then unwind, and come back. They get frayed and then when we reform community and connections, we reweave them together.

When a new family comes in, I have always thought of it as another storyline that arrives. Each new baby is a fresh book, and the chapters may follow a similar arc – birth, breastfeeding, first roll, first food, crawling, walking and than toddlerhood, but the details of the stories are different. And it is those details that make life and families and patients so interesting.

I think I had realized that I was burned out when I no longer was interested in the patient stories. Maybe it’s called compassion fatigue. But taking walks now and taking the time to self-care, has helped me relearn that. Catching those details in clinic are so key. How a teen reacts to announcing there are vaccines. What the parent is wearing. What room they are in today. What activities are they doing now. Did they seem happy or sad. I used to be a voracious reader. I still read, but I read less now. I consume less TV shows as well. Filling myself with imaginary stories that someone else created preventing me from appreciating the real stories happening around me. And that’s my job, to notice those patient stories and notice the stories of the young physicians that inhabit the real world with me. It’s my job to notice the arc of the teenage drama that is my daughter and the quieter story of our older son. Even Mr. Plastic Picker has the arc of his story, physician leader, proud father, exasperated husband of wife who disappears to pick up trash.

I wasn’t able to notice the stories when it was noisy. When I heard upper management’s endless stream of emails about metrics. This is why I detest shortcuts on the electronic medical record (I still use them), but I want to write the patient narrative myself and give them the instructions that I have created. I felt the endless workflows and smartphrases was erasing me.

But I realize now that I can use these shortcuts created at work to spend more time with patients, because I keep the stories in my heart. I remember them. I write about them (vaguely) on the blog. I echo my memory of the day in my silly art. I wish this for everyone. To live your life purposefully and slowly. Treasure the details, the moments. That was the true answer to burnout really. Reclaiming the narrative of my life and just slowing down time. It was rushing too fast before, and now it is gloriously slow.

This dish was real. Easy and fast, and nutritious.

January 5, 2021

by drplasticpicker

COVID-19 is surging in the great United States of America. Between seeing patients and talking on the phone with families and catching up with them, I realized the common thread to all of yesterday’s conservations is that we are all living in this grim historic moment of COVID-19 infections and deaths. In pediatrics, we expect to see the wave of MIS-C (Mulitsystem Inflammatory System in Children) soon that occurs in about 1 out of 6,000 pediatric COVID infections and earily presents like Kawasaki’s disease. Our other Assistant Boss whose name rhymes with bong sent out a reminder to update our order panels with the labs that we have to order. I will do it today after the Pediatric Infectious Disease lecture at 8am. I didn’t give away some of my evening after hour clinic shifts for the next two months, because I know I need to be in the trenches with everyone else. So I’ll have my order panel ready as well.


Rohr Park yesterday.

January 2, 2020

by drplasticpicker

Congrats, Dr! Your website was quite popular this year! You had 7,981 visitors!

Your best month was December with 1,299 visitors!

Total Visitors


Total Sessions


Your Top 5 Pages


1.Dr. Plastic Picker – A Personal Plastic-Picking Blog: Fighting Ocean Plastic Pollution One Piece At a Time9,845

2. The Star Trek Enterprise Romance of T’Pol and Trip: I’m going to give them the ending they deserve – Dr. Plastic Picker3,313

3. Pediatric Advice – Dr. Plastic Picker784

4. Who is Dr. Plastic Picker? – Dr. Plastic Picker592

5. Dr. Plastic Picker – Page 2 – A Personal Plastic-Picking Blog: Fighting Ocean Plastic Pollution One Piece At a Time480


2020 Blogviews

Your Top 5 Referrals



Congratulations to me!!! Almost 8,000 people know the name Dr. Plastic Picker and spent about 2 minutes on this blog scrolling through on average 5 blog post. Most of those were here looking for Star Trek Fan Fiction! LOL. The top outsider referrering webstie was retireby40, probably because his website is the only one I consistently read. It’s Joe, and I like Joe. I get some traffic from other FIRE blogs when I comment and read them. Again with this blog is quality over quantity, since we are non-monetized. The traffic is mostly from facebook which I honestly know are mostly my friends, families and patients.

October 27, 2020

I posted this on my personal Facebook page, and it’s worth reposting on the blog. I have been interviewed by a few news outlets including KPBS and mentioned in Del Mar Times, and will be doing a podcast soon with KevinMD. But the one that has been the most meaningful was this recently completed interview with Voices of GenZ writer Arlene Nagtalon. Rereading our conversation in her article, I felt much the same way when my son talked about his Climate Strike Speech at school. To see our children especially these brave teenagers tackle issues that we as adults have failed at, is inspiriting.

“Its 11PM and trying to coordinate with some key people efforts to get a measure passed tomorrow at the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to limit flavored ecigs in order to protect our teens. And it’s frustrating because big tobacco and many forces are out there fighting against such a common sense measure. But when I get frustrated and want to give up fighting for pediatric health and our environment, I think about amazing teens like Arlene Nagtalon. This is a co-worker’s daughter. I was touched when she asked to interview me for the youth on-line magazine Voices of Gen Z. Below is the interview. I’m a bit tired of talking about myself, but I was so grateful to get to know Arlene during our virtual interview. She wrote all about me, but sprinkled during my replies was a true back and forth conversation that was very satisfying. I can tell you it was one of the best most intelligent and stimulating conversations I’ve had in a long time. Check out her article, but better yet check out this magazine. What these young minds are discussing, blogging about and writing – is simply amazing. They get it. They get the issues. It’s their world and they are fighting for a better future. I sound probably hypomanic in the interview because it was so fun to talk with Arlene. Kudos to her mother and father for raising an amazing daughter. Her pediatrician (a friend and colleague) for being her pediatrician. It really takes a community. Anyway just wanted to share why it’s worth fighting big tobacco at 11pm at night and why picking up plastic is worth it, because it’s for our children. It’s true we borrow the world from them.”


October 25, 2020

by drplasticpicker

I am waiting for Mr. Plastic Picker to finish a call. He’s staffing for his department this morning, and will be done in about 15 minutes. He said he’d go to the beach with me to talk while I pick up trash. The beach has been a healing place for me the last year, and I am always grateful when he agrees to go with me. I think he is healed next to the ocean as well.


We never show our faces! It’s part of the mystique.

October 1, 2020

by drplasticpicker

Plogging is jogging while picking up trash. Plalking is walking while litter picking. Plurfing is gathering plastic while surfing. #fillabag is when you find a bag and you fill it with trash. There is an entire lexicon and culture within the Instagram trash collecting world. You can clean the environment while jogging, walking, paddle-boarding, kayaking or surfing. You can make the trash you find into art and be an artivist. You can knit with discarded fishing lines into a scarf like @grannyplastic. You can spend hours picking up litter or just 2 minutes like #2minbeachcleanup. You can even be an awesome dog in the Netherlands like Bob The Plog Dog. The only rule is that you have to show some of the litter you pick and care about the environment. I am Dr. Plastic Picker, this community’s unofficial litter-picking pediatrician. I am a Harvard-educated pediatrician and Assistant Chief of Pediatrics at Kaiser San Diego. I am Co-Chair of AAP-CA3 San Diego Climate Change and Health Committee which is currently the largest AAP committee chapter in the country. But I’d rather be known as Dr. Plastic Picker.


Just our dog. She is so funny.

September 26, 2020

by drplasticpicker

I have to write the Eco-America blog post today. It’s 300-600 words which is shorter than my usual post which are about 800 words. There is a 50% chance that it will be cross published onto the American Academy of Pediatrics National Blog. One of my former co-residents at Mans Greatest Hospital was published on the AAP site last week regarding autism, but she went into academic medicine and did the Mans Greatest Hospital General Pediatrics Academic Medicine Fellowship. She was mentored by the past AAP President Dr. Jim Perrin and has published a lot of papers. So I want to spend some time of the blogpost, so will write it this weekend. I try not to compare myself to others back in my former training program, but I still do. I do have to say that I was mentored by the ocean and a community of Instagram Litter Pickers. It doesn’t feel natural to me to just write that kind of blogpost on this blog, because the Eco-America blog is for a different audience. I want to write “the truth” about my activism but filtered for a mainstream audience. On this blog, this readership sees the truth. Indeed, I think of this readership as Mr. Plastic Picker who likes me to read my blogposts to him in the morning when he is brushing his teeth. That my husband who studied Shakpeare and is a talented short story writer himself likes my writing is meaningful. At some point, I hope he takes up writing again.


I’m odd and I’m okay with that. This was one of my more memorable trash art pieces.

September 14, 2020

by drplasticpicker

When I started this journey of climate activism and picking up ocean plastic pollution a year ago, I never thought that writing would be my way to make a difference. I began blogging at 4am this morning, earlier than I usually do. I had to work yesterday at Pediatric After Hours Clinic and it was a relatively quiet and fun shift. I did pick up a hip click that two other doctors missed so I felt good about that. But anytime my schedule is a bit off – my sleep is disrupted. Writing like ocean plastic picking tends to quiet my mind. I love the sound of the clicking on my key board. It makes me feel like I’m going somewhere, eventhough most mornings I’m just sitting at my kitchen table. The air purifier is running this morning and that is a stark reminder of our climate crisis. It’s been running all night and stable in the 30s PM 2.5 but when you open the door, it shoots up to the mid 50s. Before the wildfires began it was in the single-digits. My father-in-law is moving around the kitchen quietly making his coffee. It’s usullay just him and me in the mornings, and he tries to not make too much noise. I think he thinks I’m doing really important things on the computer, eventhough most of the time I’m writing nonsence. But the air purifier is running today and we will buy an additional one for him, because increased particulate matter and air pollution is associated with increased cardiac death in older adults.