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  • Writer's pictureShruti Elango

Interviewing Dr. Stephanie Waggel

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

Dr. Waggel is a dedicated psychiatrist working from Reston, Virginia. A medical doctor, author, motivational speaker, and therapist, she has worked and founded her own private practice, Improve Life PLLC, which prioritizes providing “personalized healing designed specifically to enhance your life” and more, specifically with a focus “on women and adolescent mental health, and helping others overcome tough life transitions.” Due to the fact that she is a therapist and a medical doctor, Dr. Waggel provides unique attention to her patients by providing both aspects of her specialities in her interactions. She has the ability to prescribe medication due to her medical doctor status as a psychiatrist and counsel patients as a therapist, something not seen in a lot of doctoring today. For some background, Dr. Waggel studied and got her MD at George Washington and MS at Chatham University and specialized in psychiatry. Psychiatry itself is such a vast medical specialty and focuses on diagnosing and treating a plethora of mental illnesses, which Dr. Waggel believes holds the utmost importance.

The journey to become a physician was not an easy one. Dr. Waggel has undergone massive obstacles in her journey to get to where she is today. During residency, Dr. Waggel was diagnosed with a mass that was indicated to be kidney cancer. Due to this detour in her life, Dr. Waggel endured stress, anxiety and physical pain due to the mass. Everyone pushed for Dr. Waggel to choose between being a doctor and being a patient, but instead of letting others decide her future, Dr. Waggel decided to become a patient and a doctor. She worked hours and hours to become a psychiatrist and defeated all the odds to become a strong cancer survivor. Later becoming a mother, Dr. Waggel juggled motherhood, her private practice, and inspiring her patients to obtain the help they need.

After obtaining her medical license, Dr. Waggel continued to work in the mental health section of the medical field for more than ten years, and was ultimately named a Physician of the Year 2016 by Medscape. Outside of her normal life as a psychiatrist, Dr. Waggel has renowned published articles: Neuroticism scores increase with late-life cognitive decline (Waggel, S. E., Lipnicki, D. M., Delbaere, K., Kochan, N. A., Draper, B., Andrews, G., Sachdev, P. S., Brodaty, H.) and Design and acceptability of the Aviation Laser Exposure Self-Assessment (ALESA) (Waggel, S. E., Hutchison, E. J.).

Additionally, she spends a lot of her time speaking out to peers and students on achieving life and career goals despite adversity, mental health education, tips for premedical students and medical students, sexual assault, discrimination and women’s health issues. Working with adolescents, young adults, and women living with anxiety, depression, relationship problems, stress, and body image and self-esteem issues, Dr. Waggel has worked in healthcare in 5 countries and is overall very familiar with many cultures. At the end of the day, Dr. Waggel works to decrease the stigma behind mental illness that is present in healthcare and honor those who have taken their lives. Dr. Waggel was filmed for the movie “Do No Harm” which focuses and discusses abuse in the medical education system and has been asked to speak for various organizations such as Public Citizen, Care2, and One Story.

Despite being busy with her work and home life, Dr. Waggel has a huge social media following and remains especially popular on social media. She truly enjoys working with young people as she believes helping them to “overcome barriers in today’s world will make for a better tomorrow” additionally, she believed that “the most successful physicians are the ones active in their community.”

You can find Dr. Waggel at her website or her instagram @improvemedicalculture which she is especially active on, updating future doctors and her peers about her life as a mother, doctor, cancer survivor, marathon runner, author, and private practice owner.

Interview Questions:

“What obstacles did face on your journey?”

“When I was in residency, I was in my late 20s and I was in pain all the time and really sick. I knew that was not normal because I had a medical degree at that point so I could pretty much know when things were bad which eventually led to doctors finding a mass on my kidney. The first doctor informed me that 28 year olds don’t get kidney cancer and I was like that’s not true so… I decided to get a second opinion and they [told me] ‘yes you do have kidney cancer.’… so it’s a good thing I looked into that.

The stressful part about having cancer was having to tell my mom that I had cancer and having to make a living will… and all this scary end of life stuff. But… the worst part were fair weather friends… when things get difficult they are not your friend anymore. Medical training can get stressful and competitive so I had some people who I really thought were my friends but if I needed to miss some time at work to go to a doctor’s appointment [I thought I could count on my friends to cover my shift but] they were like no absolutely not. People got resentful and started to say I was lying about my cancer and that was the worst part, even worse than telling my mom I had cancer because what kind of monster lies about having cancer, I couldn’t believe that people would actually say this about me.In the end I found out who my true friends were as they were willing to be ostracized with me and to stand up for me.

Trying to get through medical training with how competitive it is and if any little setback happens everyone is so good at what they do and everyone has to be perfect all the time so when you get sick you’re not perfect anymore and you become this black sheep and people are afraid to be friends with you. I was really ostracized for a while, that was the most difficult.”

“What are some of your biggest accomplishments/achievements that you have completed?”

“My biggest accomplishment is starting my own private practice. I figured working for other people and with other people wasn’t going to be great whenever I had doctor’s appointments and things like that. So when I opened my own practice, say I have an oncology appointment in 3 weeks from now I just block off my schedule and then I wouldn’t have to work and I’d be able to go and that was really handy.

I could have let all the negative things people were saying about me beat me down and make me think that I’m not cut out for this and I could have given up but the thing that gets me really motivated is when people say that I can’t do something… One of my bosses told me that I had to pick between being a doctor or a patient and I thought ‘You know what I can be both you’re not going to make me choose between one or the other’ and so I opened up my own practice and now I am a doctor and a patient.”

“How do you stay so upbeat and positive day after day?”

“I try to practice what I preach. Compartmentalization, meaning you have to leave work at work and you can’t let it get to you when you’re with your family and stuff, and I know you can say that but it’s actually really hard. Some ways you can do that if do have a physical location where you do your work but it’s difficult when people are working from home so I always advise definitely don’t do work in your bed because its your sacred sleeping place, you got to have your own space… like my office is for work and the rest of my house is home. You don’t want to mix the two… Work is at work and home is at home. Try not to intermix the two.”

“What was the most unusual or interesting job you’ve ever had?”

“CAA, flying with the London metropolitan police, and I worked with flight surgeons in the Coast Guard and even met Neil Armstrong!”

“What is your personal philosophy?”

“When Someone Says You Can’t Do It, Do It Twice and Take Pictures!”

“What advice do you have for prospective medical students/premed students?”

“When somebody says you can’t do something you shouldn’t just say they’re right and not try because what evidence do they have that you can’t do it? Don’t listen to them. And another one is… write down [any anecdotes or anything you learn in experience] in detail and then keep a journal because when you go to do interviews maybe for med school, residency or wherever… you will have a data bank of these little stories to be prepared for any question. If you don’t keep track of your stories everything will blend together and you’re not going to have a good response.”

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