A patient asked me recently how I came to be an aesthetic physician. Since this relates directly to Women’s History Month, here is my story:
I did not grow up knowing that I wanted to be a doctor. I think the lives of doctors fascinated me for some reason. Maybe I just wanted to learn more about what doctors really do aside from how we are portrayed on TV. Back in the 80’s (ancient times now) I used my college years to figure things out...and after a summer volunteering with physicians in a hospital, I was hooked.
During medical school, I had the opportunity to spend a year in England doing my clinical rotations through surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine, psychiatry and pediatrics. I was just at the beginning of figuring out where I wanted to be once I graduated. Those years were so formative in my decision process. It was such luck to work in an environment without insurance paperwork as I was learning the science of medicine.
Women had many options in the various fields but at that time, I chose Internal Medicine as my career path. This was the study and specialty of adult medicine with consideration to all the organ systems that support us...liver, lungs, heart, skin, brain, intestines etc. all of which were part of this field and potential areas of subspecialty later on.
I spent the next 8 years of internship, residency and fellowship in Oakland and San Francisco, delving deeper into the wonders of the body systems and then I found my calling: the critical care /intensive care unit or ICU. There, I saw my abilities to provide expertise to the most critically ill patients who were essentially dying right before my eyes and I got to be part of saving them! It was a magical privilege to work in the ICU with all the machines and monitors to support the lives of the sickest people in our communities. I trained to be a supportive and guiding force in the lives of my patients but also for their families who watched them day after day while they struggled for life. I saw how life is so precious and so easily taken away. My subspecialty became Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine...the fields of lung disease and critical care. Since many ICU patients are on life support machines called ventilators for breathing, it seemed fitting that the lungs would become my expertise.
For the next 25 years, I worked hard so my patients could live better lives. I poured my heart and soul into my work both in and out of the hospital. I became the Director of Respiratory Care Services and Pulmonary Rehabilitation at my hospital, an honor I did not take lightly. I thrived on teaching and supporting my patients on their health journey. I dealt with severe asthma, lung cancer, emphysema, bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis and countless other lung diseases on a daily basis...and all the deadly sequelae of many of them. The end of lives became a normal part of my day. Many of those lives I cared for over many years. It was difficult to let go of that piece of my life and identity for something completely different.
I became interested in aesthetic/cosmetic skin treatment as an additional career when I was acquainted with colleagues who were learning this type of work. I’ve always had a captivation for skin but never considered it as a specialty. I started taking weekend classes as early as 2002...the year that Botox was first introduced. I attended those classes with many local dermatologists and plastic surgeons who were seeking the first educational opportunities in this arena. There was not much training available back then. I knew as a pulmonary specialist I would be the “outsider” so I sought out credentials and learning opportunities every chance I got. This has continued to this day. I regularly attend conferences, hands on learning, online classes and host trainings at my office. I have learned that being certified doesn’t mean much unless you devote your life to continued education. To this day, there is no official certification in the Aesthetic Medical field. There is a special art form to this work that does not come automatically or naturally. It requires lifelong training and nurturing. For me, the end result of someone being happier or more confident in their appearance means that all of us who interact with that person will benefit. This is a bigger outcome than we think. That outcome continues to draw me in.
For years, I divided my time between the hospital and my clinic seeing pulmonary and critical care patients as well as cosmetic patients. I thought this was the perfect mix of careers.
Then...one night I was working late at my office trying to figure out how I could be a good doctor to my patients when I barely slept or functioned. I was floating through my days without seeing a healthy outcome for myself. I knew I had to make changes in my life. I had to make a decision of only one medical path. I chose to pursue the cosmetic, laser and aesthetic practice full time. So here I am many years later. I feel fortunate to have had two medical careers in specialties I love. I am now where I was meant to be. Every experience I have had in these two careers has led me to this current place. I am fulfilled in my work and accomplishments and look forward to many more years of medical practice.
Valerie Schneider M.D.