The Lady Docs
How a few physicians in Potomac grew their exercise group into a community
On a November evening in the carpeted basement of Dr. Chitra Rajagopal’s home in Potomac, 10 women—all in the medical profession—are taking a weekly yoga class. As the instructor weaves through the group, she gently corrects their poses and apologizes for her cold hands.
“You are in a room full of doctors—we understand cold hands,” one of the women says. Everyone laughs. Some of them try to do a handstand, and those who succeed get some applause.
Rajagopal, an oncologist and hematologist, wasn’t into yoga before she joined Lady Docs, a group of female physicians, dentists, psychologists and others who get together to work out, learn, socialize and volunteer. “I can honestly say if anyone was exercising, I’d tiptoe out of the room,” she says. The other women have inspired her. “If you hang out with them, you have to exercise.”
After yoga, the women roll up their mats and linger to chat over a dish of roasted vegetables and cashews prepared by Rajagopal, a vegetarian. Later, they try on saris to wear to Rajagopal’s daughter’s upcoming three-day wedding celebration. Most of the Lady Docs didn’t know one another before they joined the informal network, which has grown to include more than 80 women, mostly from Montgomery County. Now, many of them are friends. They meet for book club sessions and boot camp classes, go for runs along the C&O Canal and cook meals for the homeless. They swap recipes and fitness tips, and exchange information about trends in health and medicine. They talk about tough moments they’ve had with patients.
The Lady Docs meet once a week for yoga classes, usually at Dr. Chitra Rajagopal’s house in Potomac. Photo by Skip Brown “We are a big group of sisters,” says co-founder Dr. Thu Tran, an OB-GYN at Capital Women’s Care in Rockville and staff member at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center. Tran, 56, says some women in the group used to pass each other in the hospital hallways without realizing they shared similar struggles. “For a long time, we had no one to talk to. Now, when we get together, we have this connection.”
* * *
Six years ago, Tran invited a few of her doctor friends to join her for a workout with a personal trainer at an outdoor tennis court near her home in Potomac. The Saturday morning boot camp took off, and soon the women were organizing Sunday walks and bike rides. The group grew organically, as members invited others to join them, and newcomers brought ideas for activities.
“It helps that it is so exercise and activity focused,” says Dr. Karen Lewis, 45, a pediatrician who lives in Potomac. “All of us are already trying to make time for our own wellness, and if that can overlap with Lady Docs’ activities, then we feel better about taking the time.”
Most of the Lady Docs didn’t know one another before joining the group, which has grown to include more than 80 women. Now, many of them are friends. Photos courtesy of the Lady Docs
As medical students, many of the women learned to be tough and power through their training alone. Dr. Linda Yau, an internist who practices in Northwest D.C. and co-founded Lady Docs, recalls juggling multiple patients and working 100-plus hours a week as a resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She didn’t have a network of female colleagues to rely on for advice and encouragement. “You are seen as a weakling if you ask for help,” she says.
For Rajagopal, 54, whose workdays seldom end before midnight, talking with others who share the same challenges is how she rejuvenates. “I don’t know how long I can go at this pace, and how far I am from burnout, but the group helps me do it better,” she says.
Yau, a Potomac mother of three, says the women in the group can relate to the quest to find a healthy work/life balance in a demanding field. They went into medicine to help people, but many are bogged down by the dizzying amount of administrative tasks. “There can be a disconnect [between] what we thought our jobs would be and what the reality is,” she says. The Lady Docs often talk shop during Saturday morning workouts while they’re paired together at fitness stations. Sometimes they’ll vent about patients who are squeezed into the schedule but still get grumpy about the wait. “It’s stressful when patients complain,” says Yau, 48. “We run a business as well as see patients. You are trying your best to give good patient care.”
Dr. Marsha Seidelman, an internal medicine and pulmonary specialist who lives in Bethesda, says she doesn’t share it with friends if she has a tough case at work, such as a young patient with a terrible diagnosis. But with the Lady Docs, she can open up. (The doctors don’t use patients’ names.) “I’ll talk about how difficult it is. It’s hard to be involved in a case that is so sad,” she says.
At her Silver Spring office, Seidelman can go from seeing a patient with a sinus infection to someone who has a lung nodule that may be cancerous. She sometimes grabs a 15-minute lunch, and later wraps up a full day with consult letters about each patient. Then there’s the endless reading she has to do to keep up with the latest medical research. “So when I—or other docs—leave for the day, I can’t just clear my mind as I drive home and relax for the night,” says Seidelman, 59, another of Lady Docs’ co-founders. For her, the stress comes from the long hours and intensity of her work. The decisions she makes each day can have serious consequences, she says. She may tell a patient complaining of chest pain that it’s indigestion and worry later that it was actually angina preceding a heart attack.
“When I have doubts [about a diagnosis], part of the decision-making includes thinking, ‘Will I be able to sleep tonight?’” she says. The Lady Docs understand that. “There is a feeling that we are all in this together.”
* * *
When Potomac resident Jody Miller was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2015, her fellow Lady Docs supported her personally and professionally. “Before I knew it, they just orchestrated all of my treatment plans,” says Miller, 52, an exercise physiologist and the mother of teenage triplet boys. Some, including oncologists and radiologists, became her doctors. Miller says knowing her health care providers and being just a text or phone call away from them made all the difference in her care.
The group provided emotional support, as well as meals and gift cards. “When I wasn’t feeling well, I knew they were there,” Miller says. Throughout her illness, she was able to chat with other Lady Docs during hikes, and she continues to be active with the group now that the cancer is behind her. “I felt very fortunate to be surrounded by this very, very caring, warm, generous group of women.”
Lewis has tapped into her Lady Docs network for referrals for her patients. A 21-year-old with diabetes was reluctant to leave Lewis’ care when she aged out of Lewis’ pediatric practice, but made the switch after Lewis recommended an endocrinologist and nutritionist she knew from Lady Docs.
Beyond helping one another, the Lady Docs share their knowledge and insight with others. Education and community service have become a big part of their mission. They recently established a scholarship and informal mentoring program for low-income, first-generation premed students at Georgetown University, and recipients are invited to shadow the doctors on the job. Last June, some of the Lady Docs brought their spouses and children to help prepare a meal for the homeless at DC Central Kitchen. In August, Lewis and several other Lady Docs participated in a health fair in Hyattsville, where they handed out wellness materials and healthy snacks, checked blood pressure and taught dental hygiene, and spoke on topics ranging from vaccinations to mammography.
“What draws people to the group is the sense of how important it is to lead by example,” Lewis says. “Sharing information, teaching, being accessible. ...There is a sense of power in numbers, and we feel called to take on some leadership responsibilities.”
The women have developed a website, ladydocscornercafe.com, where they post exercise and wellness tips, nutrition news, recipes, and updates on medical research that they’ve often shared with their patients. Seidelman, a mother of two whose husband is an anesthesiologist, recently wrote an entry about a lifestyle medicine conference she attended, and her thoughts on moving to a plant-based diet. Tran is known for her reflective blog entries about current affairs, calls to community service, and inspirational words of empowerment. The Lady Docs also post about books they’ve read—some medical, others political or fiction.
Last fall, they had a long and emotional discussion about Between the World and Me, a series of essays about race in America by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Despite their ethnic and religious differences—the group includes Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Jews—the women discovered common ground and talked about ways to help their children grow up to be kind and open-minded, says Dr. Judy Song, a radiologist who led the discussion.
“All of us want to do better in raising our children,” says Song, 45, of Bethesda, who has two teenage girls. “Hanging around these women makes you want to be a better version of yourself.”
Reading The Lotus and the Storm by Lan Cao prompted some Lady Docs to share stories of their assimilation into American culture. Tran was one of the last Vietnamese who left Saigon from the roof of the American Embassy in 1975 before South Vietnam fell to the communists. After meeting her through Lady Docs, Lewis invited Tran to share that experience with her daughter’s fourth-grade social studies class during a unit on immigration.
* * *
Last July, Dr. Jattu Senesie put on a workshop for her fellow Lady Docs called, “Saying Yes with a No.” Her message was simple: Taking care of yourself is essential to taking care of others—it’s not selfish. Senesie said she was never able to achieve the balance she wanted, so she left her OB-GYN practice six years ago. Now a life coach with a consulting business called Essence of Strength, the 41-year-old North Bethesda resident says high-achieving women need to shift their mindset to avoid burnout. “Women physicians tend to be altruistic and think about taking care of other people,” she says. “At the end of the day, you have to do what is right for you.”
In a blog entry from last fall entitled “Physician Burnout: Confessions of a Former Workaholic,” Tran posted about a meeting she attended at the Montgomery County Medical Society, where a speaker wanted to know how many people in the audience had gone in for their yearly health checkup. “Only a few, in the room packed with more than a hundred physicians, raised their hand. It was not a surprise to me. I was among the majority who did not raise my hand,” she wrote. Tran went on to say that she hadn’t had time to see a primary care physician and had been so busy with work that she was following her own cholesterol and glucose levels. “I mention my need for an eye exam on and off to my friend and ophthalmologist Dr. Holly Gross when I see her at boot camp or yoga gatherings, who even offers to do my eye exam during the weekend,” she wrote. “I will soon take her offer...sometime soon.”
The Lady Docs, pictured at a book club meeting in September, get together to work out, learn, socialize and volunteer. They meet for boot camp classes, go for runs along the C&O Canal and cook meals for the homeless. “It helps that it is so exercise and activity focused,” says Dr. Karen Lewis. “All of us are already trying to make time for our own wellness, and if that can overlap with Lady Docs’ activities, then we feel better about taking the time.”
Rather than viewing the group as another time commitment, the Lady Docs have found that coming together is actually energizing. An online community can be supportive, Senesie says, but gathering in person is good for the soul. Song recently found herself counseling one of the Lady Docs’ daughters, who was stressed out about applying to college. “We are all able to give each other’s kids sometimes better advice than we’d give our own,” she says.
Seidelman, who describes herself as an introvert, says she never took much time to socialize before Lady Docs, but now recognizes the power of being inclusive. “We are all type-A personalities,” she says. “In a group like this, everyone feels a lot more average and normal, and in a way it is comforting. We have always been go, go, go, get things done. …It’s a good opportunity to slow down and just have a girls get-together.”
Caralee Adams is a freelance writer in Bethesda who covers education, health, parenting and other issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.