From 2011 to 2016, Mona Kulkarni traveled during her vacations to Guatemala providing general and regional anesthesiology and sedation for cleft lip and palate procedures, gynecologic, and general surgical procedures. From San Cristobal, to Chichicastenango, and Quetzaltenango, Mona worked tirelessly during this time with HELPS international to fill the gaps in healthcare in underserved, rural areas of Guatemala. With one doctor for every thousand residents, persistent health crises threaten Guatemala’s social and economic progress.

Throughout her impressive career, Mona Kulkarni has been published in various prominent medical journals and has received many awards and honors in anesthesiology and clerkship. She has also held multiple membership positions in top medical societies (including her present roles at the Society of Cardiovascular Anesthesiologists (SCA), the California Society of Anesthesiologists (CSA), and the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA).

In addition, her philanthropy and volunteer experience has supported numerous impactful charities including the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Bacchus Foundation, and the Rose Brooks Shelter for Battered Women.

Since starting her career in Santa Barbara, California, Mona now serves as a consultant for various entities including the non-profit organization bags2masks, a company that creates and distributes masks to frontline workers and those in need.

Where did your interest in healthcare come from?

At a young age, and from a two-physician family, my parents helped build a strong foundation of an interest in science.  I am a nurturer at heart, with a love of knowledge, so combining those two passions into a career led me to medicine. Making a difference to the sick, and the sicker, is a rewarding experience for both the physician and the families. My greatest experiences and strongest passion for my field were realised on my first medical mission.

What advice do you have for young people interested in becoming an anesthesiologist?

I would tell any medical student, physician in training, student of any age really, that you should look at what you have a passion for.  As a physician, we have a duty to be our best self, hardest working self, and most compassionate self.  Whatever interest you have, whatever rotation shows you that side of yourself, go after it.  Your passion for the field will get you through the training process.  Learning is continuous, and doesn’t stop when you get your degrees.  Medicine is a life-long learning process, but can bring the greatest rewards.

Anesthesia is a somewhat thankless job.  Your patients often do not remember you, your colleagues will be focused on something else, and you are alone with your abilities and knowledge.  You also help to control the environment and attitude of the room.  If you are a critical thinker, can think outside the box, are calm in the face of stress, and like to do procedures, anesthesia is definitely a field you should do a rotation in!

Can you explain to our readers what a medical mission is exactly?

International medical “missions” are groups designed to provide medical care to underserved areas of the world.  Often, these groups are sponsored by a religious based organization, hence the label of mission, though the work itself is without religious context.  The medical providers procure and package supplies to bring into the country, after receiving appropriate clearance from the US Government to carry and distribute supplies.  The group is also protected by the government of the recipient countries, by local law enforcement throughout the mission, as well as aided by translators to ensure appropriate history and physical exams with patients.

How did you first become involved in medical missions?

My first experience with a medical mission was on an emergency trip requiring anesthesia providers after the earthquake in Haiti, in my last few months of residency.  It was an experience that I will never forget, and shaped the way I wanted to practice.  If you are considering applying for or joining a medical mission, I encourage you to do so.  You will know immediately if it is something that you would like to pursue throughout your career.  Even if this type of medical work is not for you, the experience itself will improve your communication skills, diagnostic abilities, and drive to succeed.  You are left to your own skills and abilities, and the pure science.  It is a wonderful way to experience a culture, and contribute to healthcare on a global level.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being an anesthesiologist?

That’s a great question!  And also somewhat difficult to answer.  I will say my top three: the ability to make a difference for patients and families during a critical point in their health path.  You become part of the team to get the patient through whatever it is they are going through.  Secondly, the training and experience in trauma as well as critical care I think allows us as Anesthesiologists to understand a lot about physiology, pharmacology, anatomy, and hemodynamics.  This can be applied to many aspects of medicine so we get to know a little of everything during our careers.  It allows Anesthesiologists to be specialized but maintain knowledge pertinent to many fields of medicine.  Thirdly, our skills can be applied to many situations, including critical thinking and procedural excellence.  These skills allowed me to quickly adapt to unfamiliar situations such as on a medical mission or new surgical suite, as well as have allowed me to be a pretty calm person in my personal life.

What advice do you have for students trying to decide where to do their residency? 

As far as where to go for residency – nowadays most likely residents will choose a subspecialty.  I recommend picking a fellowship spot that is different from where you trained, or in a city that you would like to practice in.  As far as residency, the main choices are private practice versus academics.  If you think you would like to go into private practice, apply to places that allow you to have outpatient rotations, as well as a high number of sedation cases and outpatient cases.  If you know that you want to be in academics, apply to programs at University programs that are strong in all residencies.  I trained at UTSW in Dallas, which includes Parkland Hospital.  The caliber of my colleagues in all fields was excellent.  This allowed me to learn from so many different physicians in so many different fields during my rotations.

What trends in healthcare are you currently excited by?

I am currently excited by the International Medical initiatives, as well as the variety of fellowships offered after residency. As fellowships are created, residents get exposure to those rotations and have a more 360 degree view of potential career options, versus picking and choosing a fellowship based on their core sub-specialty requirements.  Residency is busy.  It’s nice to be able to offer residents some insight into other aspects of medicine and humanity, as well as how to incorporate some of your interests into your profession.  We kind of lose our interests when we are so focused in residency, and can regain some of those other passions early in our career, to incorporate some of those passions into how we would like to practice (Program Director training, Global Health, Pre-operative clinic, outpatient surgical fellowship, etc).  I think this will overall push physicians into being the best version of themselves, professionally and personally, as well as increase career satisfaction and decrease burnout.