40 Under Forty honoree Jennifer Eng-Kulawy ’06 never imagined that her work as a pediatrician would take her all over the world. But when the opportunity came to join the U.S. Navy, she took it, and it’s been an adventure ever since.
While her journey may have begun at Stony Brook, her work since has gone far beyond campus, with international medical trips around the world including Japan, Australia, Southeast Asia, Central and South America.
As a student at Stony Brook, was it always your intention to eventually work as a Navy pediatrician?
It wasn’t. My father is a general pediatrician, and I had always wanted to follow in his footsteps and be in the medical field, but I never thought I would join the military. I’m not from a military family. I grew up in the same house that my parents still live in today, so I never imagined that I’d be moving around the world for my career. But I’m enjoying it for sure.
How did Stony Brook play a role on your journey?
Both my parents are Stony Brook alumni. I also met my husband at Stony Brook. We’re Seawolves through and through. I grew up hearing about Stony Brook from my parents and hearing about how it was covered in mud when they went. I remember my mom telling me that she kept losing her boots because they’d get stuck in the mud. She also told me about the Bridge to Nowhere and how they always wondered where it would wind up leading. Then, when I went to Stony Brook for an interview, she finally got to walk the completed bridge before it was taken down. The campus was so beautiful, and we were so in awe of what it had become. I guess you could say a bunch of Stony Brook alumni have inspired me along the way.
So, how did you decide to join the Navy?
While I was at Stony Brook, I took my MCATs in preparation for applying for medical school. After I took the test, I got this little card in the mail from the Navy promoting free medical school. I mailed back the card, and I ended up meeting with a recruiter. I was hesitant at first. It’s a very big decision. I was worried about them potentially taking me out of medical school. We were still at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan at the time, but the program is great because you’re in the inactivated reserves during medical school, with no possibility for them to pull you out of school without your consent. After that, you match with an accredited residency program before you start working in whatever field it is that you decide to go into. So, I’m really glad that I did it.
What has it been like practicing medicine across the world?
When I was at Stony Brook, I went to Australia to learn about their healthcare system. Then, in residency, I got to spend six weeks on the USNS Mercy, which is one of the hospital ships for the Navy. I got to go to Indonesia and the Philippines to provide medical care for children. Then, right after residency, I was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, which is an hour south of Tokyo. I spent three years there working on a military base. I got to know a lot of the Japanese physicians that I worked with, so it was an amazing experience to live there. Most recently, I got back from a five and a half month deployment to Central and South America, where we went to 12 different countries and provided medical care to the local population.
It’s been incredible to see the scope of medicine throughout the world. In a lot of these countries, they do things very differently than the way we do it in America. It does make me appreciate some of the things we have. Still, it makes me realize that although something is different, it’s not necessarily wrong or worse in any way — it’s just a different culture, a different perspective on how they practice medicine.
What does a ‘typical’ day at work look like for you?
A typical day for me has changed over the last decade since I graduated from medical school. The residency is a whole beast in of itself. There’s no such thing as a typical day during residency. But, now I’m a pediatric hospitalist, which means I specialize in taking care of children admitted to the hospital. I’m working one-third of the time on inpatient and two-thirds in a general pediatric clinic. Right now, my typical day is similar to most general pediatricians where I see patients during the day, make referrals and do evaluations. The only difference is that for about a week at a time, every third week, I’m responsible for the inpatients, which means I take care of the admitted patients, I do all the ER consults, and then manage newborn infants. I get a good variety, which I enjoy, but it’s very similar to non-military pediatricians.
What are some key ways that your jobs differ from a non-military pediatrician?
For my last deployment, they gave me six days’ notice, so the job continuity is certainly different. I also wear a uniform every day. I think I’m fortunate in the fact that the health insurance that the military provides is phenomenal, so a lot of my patients have more resources than others in the country. Then, there’s the fact that I had the opportunity to move from Japan to California to Virginia. I like having the option to figure out what I want to do next. One of my close friends is going into an aerospace medicine residency and learning how to take care of pilots and astronauts. Having those kinds of opportunities is amazing, and I don’t think that exists for doctors in the civilian world.
What is it that you’re most proud of in your career?
Personally, the thing I’m most proud of is obviously my two kids. I love them dearly, and I’m so proud that they’re good people. In my career, on the other hand, I’m most proud of serving my country. There are a lot of ways that people can become doctors. I went to a civilian medical school, and I have worked with a lot of civilian doctors, and I think there’s just this different mindset when you’re active duty. It’s more than just a job, it’s a career, and you have this instant connection to other people in the military. There’s a level of dedication and sacrifice that goes into serving your country. I’m proud of that fact. Not many people can say that they’ve served their country and I’m proud that I can say that I have.
What advice would you give to a student looking to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t pass up an opportunity just because it’s scary. I didn’t come from a military family – I didn’t know anything about the military. I never dreamed that I would enjoy putting on a uniform every day and moving so frequently. It can be very scary. People always question how I can live without knowing what’s coming next, and it can be difficult to understand. There is a level of fear of the unknown, but there’s also a level of security. I don’t have to choose a job to do for the rest of my life. I have options all over the world, whether it’s working in global health or mentoring students. It’s nice having that freedom, even though it means signing a contract and putting on a uniform.
I will also say that it’s OK for your dreams to change. In my life, the best opportunities that I’ve had came when I least expected it. So, don’t pass up an opportunity just because it’s scary, because it could change your life forever. It could take you to places that you never dreamed possible.