As the car sped down the highway, I saw for the first time the famous CN Tower of Toronto in the distance. My naivety regarding Toronto’s downtown geography would not last long, nor would my streak of having never attended a medical conference. I would be spending 5 enlightening and busy days at that tower’s feet, racing from event to event at the 2017 CHEST Annual Meeting. It would be a trip of many firsts, thanks to the help of the Diversity Travel Grant provided by the CHEST Foundation, and it was certainly memorable and life changing for many reasons.
The Toronto Lung Health Experience on Saturday was my favorite event of the trip and really started things off with a bang. Although the rain was ever-present, I was amazed at the number of people who were interested in learning more about lung health. It was a breath of fresh air to see so many healthy people who wanted to “keep it that way” as one participant said. The wonderful atmosphere was full of energy and excitement (not to mention crepes), and it was a great example of how to engage the public in health-related discourse.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous when I first walked in to the conference venue at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre the following day. Would I be able to find my way around? Would I inadvertently miss a talk or presentation that would have helped me care for my patients? Would I have to keep a serious mood for multiple days in a row? Fortunately, I was immediately put at ease when I realized just how excited everyone was to be there, and the helpful staff at the convention center made me feel right at home. I was bowled over by the sheer volume of presentations, meetings, talks, and panels available, but the CHEST Events app made it easy to pick the topics that interested me the most. By the end of the first day, I knew that not only could I survive the conference, but I would leave gaining far more than I ever imagined.
Meeting the mentor that I was matched with, Dr. Scott Manaker, was a very important part of the trip for me. Dr. Manaker and I immediately had a comfortable rapport that allowed me to be honest about my interests and fears. This is especially important as I approach the major transition in my life of finishing training and getting my first real job. Not only did we talk about career aspirations and routes of obtaining my dream job, but we also talked about the “curveballs” of life that are sure to come and how to deal with them. Dr. Manaker clearly takes his role as mentor seriously, and he graciously offered to continue to provide at least monthly support going forward. I very much look forward to our future talks, and I only have the CHEST Foundation to thank for this connection.
The second day was again absolutely packed with events. The presentations at the Trainee Recharge Lounge, like “The First Job Search,” and the lecture on disaster response stood out to me, as did a review on ventilator-associated pneumonia guidelines and ICU airway management. Similarly, the fun events such as NODAL Nemesis kept the mood light. However, by far the most impactful part of the day was John O’Leary’s talk, “The Power of One: How One Attitude, One Action, and One Person Can Change the World.” Having never heard of Mr. O’Leary, I wasn’t sure what to expect when he was introduced, but I left feeling empowered to take charge of my own outlook every single day. It can be easy to become cynical or pessimistic working every day in the ICU, but Mr. O’Leary did a wonderful job reminding me that my daily decisions can impact people for decades. He set a high bar of optimism, and I hope to keep his stories in my heart for as long as possible.
The rest of the trip was similarly filled with impactful experiences. The case report poster session was a real eye opener as well. It’s easy to feel like you’ve “seen it all” when you work as much as a fellow does, but to see all of the rarest cases from all over the world at once is quite humbling. Many notes were taken of course, and now each case that doesn’t make sense back home will have a much broader differential. My patients will surely appreciate my poster experience even if they couldn’t be there to see it themselves. Lectures on practical ultrasound in the ICU, cardiac emergency management, and the modern overdose patient were quite memorable, as was a quick stop again in the recharge lounge to talk with medical students and residents about the pros and cons of a life in pulmonary and critical care. I was also fortunate enough to catch up with friends from medical school and my medicine residency at different points, which were good reminders of how far we have all come (and how far we still have to go).
Lastly, Toronto itself was worth the trip. As the most populated city in Canada by far, Toronto did not disappoint with its world-class atmosphere. The plethora of different and exciting food options, museums (Hockey Hall of Fame being my favorite stop), and captivating architecture left me wishing I could have stayed longer. As my taxi drove toward the airport and away from the now familiar CN Tower, I could only resolve that I would work that much harder to practice all I had learned in those quick 5 days. However, one thing that I knew for sure—this would not be my last CHEST conference.
James Simmons, MD, is a pulmonary and critical care fellow and received the 2017 CHEST Foundation Diversity Travel Grant.