University of California San Francisco

Dr. Andrea Park

Andrea Park Spotlight

Dr. Andrea Park, MD, is a facial plastic, aesthetic, and reconstructive surgeon in the department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at UCSF Medical Center. She specializes in improving facial paralysis and in correcting facial defects that are congenital, acquired, or the result of cancer treatment. She has earned awards on her research regarding nerve injury models and novel treatment options to prevent synkinesis and her current research ranges from analyzing free flap aesthetic outcomes to improving surgical ergonomics to understanding the microbiomes impact on reconstructive techniques. She is a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.

Reta Behnam, MS1 (she/her): Thank you so much for agreeing to have this conversation with me. To start, could you please describe your career path, why you chose facial surgery specifically, and if stereotypes influenced your decision making?

Dr. Andrea Park (she/her): Yeah, sure! When I started medical school, I wasn’t thinking about surgery at all. I initially thought I’d be following in my father’s footsteps, but the medical school I attended had a 2-week mandatory ENT elective – in retrospect I was lucky to be able to rotate through during my third year. And when I did, I loved it. At the time I remember thinking that it must have been a fluke. As a fourth year, I did a one-month sub-I rotation, on ENT and I realized it isn't a fluke... this is amazing! The people are wonderful and the surgeries are incredible. When you're a medical student and you're on your sub-I, you're typically on the head and neck oncology service. I just fell in love with the anatomy and the crazy reconstructions they did. I never really thought about surgical stereotypes going in. I also didn't really think about the lifestyle or how difficult it would be from a gender perspective. It was really just all about pursuing my passions and doing things that I was interested in because you're doing this for so many years of your life and for so many hours in a day. I feel that you really need to love what you do to be able to keep a sustainable career. In residency, I kept an open mind with respect to which subspecialty I would pursue. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do, because I loved everything. But you know, as you go through the years, you sort of find things that you gravitate towards a little bit more and ultimately I found that what really gave me a lot of joy was the reconstruction. As a third and fourth year resident, I was exposed to facial plastics, and found that the field was a fantastic meld of all of my interests.

RB: It’s so nice to hear that loving everything wasn't a hindrance to your career path. I feel that we don't hear that very often. Also I really resonate with the sentiment of not really thinking too much about stereotypes when picking something and just focusing on the fact that you just need to love it despite whatever people may say. In a slightly similar vein, what is something you wish you'd known during training or something you wish someone had told you during training?

AP: When I was a chief resident, my co-resident passed away from an aortic dissection. That experience really impacted me deeply. It brought to mind a saying in that you can't care for others if you're not well yourself. But it’s so hard to put into practice because as physicians/surgeons we're so very sacrificial. There’s always another emergency or something else urgent that comes up and pulls at you and we find ourselves continuing to give fully of ourselves to save and improve the lives of others. When you're motivated, you love what you do, and you're in a very fast paced and/or intense specialty, self-care can be easily neglected. Eventually it becomes a habit, and I find that even now I still choose these other things over my own. When I was in fellowship, my director told me that he once got a kidney stone because he wasn't drinking enough water. After that he would always take a lunch break and drink some water. And so I saw that being modeled and I remember thinking at the time, “this is actually a good idea,” but putting it into practice was obviously a little bit harder. Personally, I found that while I was in training, you're often working such long hours so it was really hard for me to get motivated to exercise. If I'm faced with the choice of eating, sleeping, and working out, and you can only do two of the three, I'm probably not going to be working out. And, if I’m being honest, to my detriment I would not eat or drink or go to the bathroom. When you're a trainee, you don’t have or feel that you don't have as much flexibility which is why I really appreciate the culture here. I noticed that the attendings always tell their residents and trainees to take a break or grab some lunch/a quick bite to eat.

One of my research interests right now pertains to physician wellness and that interest was piqued during my recent pregnancy experience. When I was pregnant, I realized that I couldn't not eat or drink. Now I also wasn’t just thinking about myself but also about the baby, right? I realized just how poor my overall self-care was, and just how often I skipped lunch or failed to drink enough water to stay hydrated. Now that I'm post-pregnancy, I’m trying to take a step back and remember that self-care is still important. The other thing I would note is that from an ergonomic standpoint, when you're younger and you're in training your body just absorbs a lot of the impacts with minimal downtime, but I think as you get older, you start to notice that your body is not able to rebound as quickly or as robustly. So I’ve just been trying to be more conscious of how my body is positioned during long surgeries. I think it’s all really important to reduce burnout and to improve your overall health, mental state, and quality of life to allow us to continue doing what we love.

RB: That's actually really interesting. When we're young, we don't think about how it all does eventually catch up to us. Thank you for sharing that. As an offshoot of what you just talked about, the nature of medicine tends to be self-sacrificing, so how do you now balance self-care with the nature of surgery and all its long hours? Both in the hospital and outside of it?

AP: Yeah, it's a great question. Right now, I’m working with a personal trainer and working on my core muscles which took a beating with pregnancy. Pregnancy also really exacerbated my chronic back pain and neck pain, which can be a big concern with the work that we do. I also am trying to be better about eating, making sure that I'm eating at least 2 meals, if not 3 meals, a day and making sure that I'm drinking enough water. From a hobby perspective, a lot of my outside time now goes to spending it with family. We're exploring the different playgrounds in the area and activities. I wish I could say that I had more interesting hobbies right now or that I have the time to pursue them.

My other interest is research and trying to figure out ways that we can make things better to improve patient access and care. Being in San Francisco, one of the neat things is that we live in a tech forward city. Self-driving cars were around here for years before the concept even hit the other areas of the country. I love the culture here and one of the things I'm trying to do is explore this entrepreneurial side of medicine more. How does it look when you're melding medicine and innovation? We’re innovating and pivoting all the time in the operating room, right? So how do you do that on a more massive scale to impact more lives at once?

RB: One of the suggested questions is actually what is your favorite drink! Either alcoholic or non-alcoholic-- are there any interesting drinks in the cafeteria?

AP: Right now a favorite sparkling water is the La Croix Limoncello. I'm a lightweight so I can't really drink much, but I do enjoy a cold crisp beer like a Modelo, and as for wine, I gravitate toward blended wines or a Malbec.

RB: Amazing. In line with some things you've already mentioned in terms of advice and people who have impacted your career, how has mentorship specifically impacted you?

AP: Yeah, gosh, this is such a loaded question. Mentorship has been really important. As a trainee for sure, right? You have your clinical mentors, you have your research mentors, and I believe you also need a life mentor, especially as a female surgeon. I had focused on the first two, but the life mentor is one thing that I didn’t seek out as much in training. This is why I love the mission of the Muriel Steele Society because it not only helps to connect women but it’s also about women empowering other women. Although it makes intuitive sense that women should champion one another, I didn't always find that to be evident or modeled well. Here at UCSF, I have seen collaboration and championing more so than competition among female providers, which has been really encouraging to see. As more and more women go into surgery, it has been really encouraging to see camaraderie and more exposure to other likeminded female surgeons over the years.

Then when you’re in practice, there's still a need for mentorship to grow in your clinical career, your research career, and your academic career in general. My clinical mentors really helped me develop my professional identity and helped me to navigate and work through difficult cases. An academic mentor also helps you navigate the administrative and professional development aspects of medicine. When I chose to pursue a career in academic medicine, I didn't really fully understand that there were multiple tracks that you could go down and different ways you could distinguish yourself as a clinician. At this point in my career, I still need mentorship, but I also need sponsorship. With respect to the research side, I still stay in contact with my mentors from my trainee years, for example Dr. Paniello who was a great out-of-the box thinker and innovator, but also ones I met here at UCSF as well. I work really closely with my division chief and I just love being able to brainstorm ideas and see how we can grow our academic and clinical practice as a division. At the end of the day, coming in with no family background in surgery, each of the mentors I've had has helped me by showing me different possibilities.

RB: Thank you for sharing that. It definitely does take a village, even as an attending! Ok, this is a happy question to end on! What inspires you to keep doing medicine?

AP: I believe that being a physician and a surgeon is a calling. I think it's hard otherwise to do what we do every day. My patients inspire me as does my family. I want to be a great example and the best mother for my son. I hadn’t fully thought through how to accomplish and achieve the elusive work-life balance when I happened to chat with Dr. Robert Ferris. He was our invited Roger Boles Endowed Lecturer last year, and during our conversation about navigating life as a new working parent, he said to me, “You know, it's a great thing that you're a surgeon mom.” I asked, “How so?” And he said to me, “When your son grows up, he's going to be able to know and appreciate strong, capable, hardworking women because you’re demonstrating that.” I was humbled, blown away, and felt inspired and empowered all at the same time. In doing what I love, I hope to be able to show my son how to pursue his passions to find an equally fulfilling career that brings him joy, as well as develop a respect for women and our capabilities.

I would say also that my colleagues continuously inspire me. I work with an incredible team. My colleagues care for their patients deeply and are all so collaborative and hardworking. It just makes you want to be a better person and teammate. I feel lucky that I was able to find a really great community of female surgeons here. The women that I work with are just so open, kind, thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate, and they're all also incredibly gifted surgeons – they are truly bad-ass! Many of them are also mothers. You don't have to give up your personal life or give up your dream of having a family just because you decided to pursue a surgical career. After going through the experience of operating/working while raising a child, I just have so much more love and respect for my own mother, who was able to model to me what it looked like to be a true superwomen.

RB: That was so lovely, thank you for sharing. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AP: I’d like to share the wisest piece advice I’ve received to date. When I graduated residency, one of my mentors Dr. Branham, said to me, “You get paid vacation time in academia. Don’t save it. Use it.” At the time, I smiled and thought, “Yeah, ok I hear you. Sure, that makes sense.” Well, I didn’t exactly follow that advice early on in my career because when you’re starting out, you are hungry to operate and to build your own practice. Now that I’m a few years in, I see the wisdom of it. Given how prevalent burnout is in our profession, I have come to realize how important it is to make time for your family outside of work and to take time for yourself so that you can be the best version of yourself to then help others.

RB: What a lovely note to end on. Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Park!