Life Changing Moments: Redefining Success with Dr. Henna Sawhney

Success looks different for everyone. When the system throws walls in your way, it might be time to redefine what success looks like for you. This is what Dr. Sawhney did, and is now using her skills and talents to improve the very same system that stood in her way.

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Henna Sawhney is a graduate of St. George’s University of London Medical Program and currently works  a Public Health Advisor with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Henna is a California native and has a BA in Gender and Women Studies from UC Berkeley which influenced her passion to address disparities in health and medicine. While in medical school, she participated in free mobile clinics providing care to rural and underserved communities in Cyprus and continued these efforts as a volunteer with Remote Area Medical and migrant clinics. While she has not pursued Residency training, she has continued serving underserved communities and has gained licensure in 4 states while working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her background in policy and clinical research have afforded her diverse opportunities to identify, address, and provide solutions to disparities in healthcare and clinical practice.

She plans to continue advocating for the promotion of patient and physician well being through education and sustainable policy change.

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Access the Show Transcript Here


[0:00] Having to think that you’re a failure when in actuality the system is failing the individual.

[0:06] Not the individual failing. There are times in our lives that change the way we see the world.
Navigating these challenges can take insight, trusted confidence, or even a coach. Let’s explore, those moments. In this companion podcast to RX for Success, we will discover ways to learn and write, our own success stories together.
I’m Dr. Dale Waxman, a physician coach with MD Coaches, and this is Life Changing Moments.

[0:39] So today we’re talking with Dr. Hannah Sonny. Dr. Sonny was featured on the RX for Success episode number 118.
In that conversation with Dr. Cook, she shared a shift in her thinking and energy around what she brings to the medical profession.
And I wanted to bring her back and explore that some more.

[1:01] Before we get into revisiting that time, just a little bit of background about Dr. Sonny.
Hena Sonny is a graduate of St. George’s University of London Medical Program, and currently works as a public health advisor with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She’s also the co-founder and is on the board of the American Society of Physicians.
So Dr. Soni, welcome back to the MD Coaches Family Programs and to Life Changing Moments.
Thank you, Dr. Waxman. Thank you for having me here. Yeah, and you can call me Dale.
So if I remember correctly, you’re out on the West Coast, is that right?
Yes, I am. Good, whereabouts again? I’m in the Bay Area, so just about 30 minutes east of San Francisco.
Got it, very good. As I mentioned a moment ago, when I was listening to the podcast, I was, first of all, very inspired by what you were saying in that, and we’ll hear this again in just a moment, in terms of really reframing or recommitting to what really was something that you’re passionate about about what you bring.
And so I think before we, let’s just get right into that recording if you don’t mind, just to kind of replay that for the people who heard it, but also to refresh yours and my memory as well.
So here’s that clip.

[2:15] I’ve never been someone that’s fit into boxes or what typically people see.
I’ve always found another way to reach my goal, whatever obstacles are in there.
I think this really stems from my parents because they came here as immigrants with almost nothing to their name and they’ve built a life for my sister and I.
One of the things I was really struggling with when I didn’t get into residency was that I was failing all their hard work.
And so being able to find another route where I can be happy and succeed on my own terms, is what my mom always says is that nothing succeeds like success.
And success is how you define it.

[3:15] So finding another route and defining success on your own terms.
First of all, just any reflections as you hear this again.
That is really something I’ve been, I struggled to define for a while is what success looks like for me personally, whether it’s individually, what is happiness and what do I want in my, life. So yeah, I think that my experience in pursuing residency was really where I started defining what I wanted my career to look like and my life to look like without having to, think, like I said, I don’t fit into boxes. I’ve never really fit into a box or, you know, then I’ve been unconventional in a lot of ways. So finding out how to succeed even though I don’t look like the typical picture of success to others. That’s really what I was getting at when I was talking about that.
So I wonder if you can take us back to, was there a moment or was there some moments that led to that kind of proclamation, if you will, for yourself?
So this would go back to last year right after match 2021. That was the first year I got an interview for residency.
It was a lot of work and it really ended up just being finding the right person at the right time.

[4:42] But having already gone to match a few times before that and knowing it’s good to be hopeful about residency, but if when you don’t match that fall is really, it’s really distressing, and it can be traumatizing even to some degree.
And so staying rooted and knowing that not matching was still a very big possibility, but to be happy that I got that chance to prove myself to a program.

[5:08] So that was the only interview I got and I felt really good about it.
The program director was keeping in touch with me and I thought, this might be it, but, I was still being realistic.
So after I didn’t match that year, I right away, like you don’t even get time to process when you don’t match.
You find out on a Monday in the middle of March that you don’t match and you have the whole week to scramble for a spot.
And having gone through this scramble a couple of times, I knew it wasn’t, I had a very low likelihood of getting anything.
And then once that week is over, you’re just emailing, calling, doing whatever you can, finding some kind of connection to a program that might have a spot left over.
And you do that up until like June and then July, you start the whole process again.
And that was the third time I was going through that process.
And all I could think is like, I feel like a hamster.
You know, on a wheel just running or spinning in circles and not getting anywhere. When I also saw what the way my mom reacted that year, that was the first year where she was so upset, like she was in bed for a week after that. Like I was upset, but not as much as it was previous years.

[6:21] And I really had made a decision that year that if I didn’t match, I was going to get my assistant physician license and get a job in Missouri and just fly out to Missouri and work there with this license because I’ve had heard so many good things about it. So I had already mentally prepared myself, I guess, at that point that if best case scenario, you know, I get into residency, great, but worst case scenario, what was I going to do? Was I going to go back into this vicious cycle or was I going to change how I was approaching what I wanted to do in residency? And so finding out about this assistant physician license felt like an, open door after many, many closed doors and I didn’t go there because I wanted to boost my resume. Like this was the first thing after graduating medical school that it wasn’t something to, it wasn’t just to get into residency. I was going there for myself because I needed to prove to myself that I could be a physician. Like after like it was three years at that time going through the cycle and hearing people say you know you’re a great candidate you just need to get an interview and then just not getting interviews because of like.

[7:33] There’s a lot with the system and the process that I could go into but for another time but just never getting through to that interview until I found that one program director that gave me a chance and then still not getting it after proving myself.

[7:52] I was really distraught and I just needed to really understand like, am I really capable of being a physician or have I been just fooling myself these past three years? Is it right that I’m not getting into residency? So I went out to Missouri and I was practicing in urgent care, and I suddenly like realized I was running after residency but I could practice without it.
Obviously this is under supervision, it’s not independent practice.
Sure. But for someone in my position, it was still a little taste of what I’d been working my whole life for.

[8:28] And to see that we have this bottleneck with residency that so many people don’t get that chance to get that so needed training to get to independent practice.
And they’re qualified to do it and they’re capable of doing it.

[8:42] Like I had some colleagues out in Missouri that had been doing it for the past five or six years, like since the license had been implemented in the state.
They were one of the first APs and they were still there.
And they trained me and I was like, why are you not in residency?
Like, why are you not already an attending physician? Because they were in such great bedside manner.
They the patients loved them.
They were so good at teaching like they were at least the level of a PGY three, if anything, and just seeing that I wasn’t the only one.
I think this issue of going unmatched became a lot bigger than just about me and my success.
It was about, so what can I do to have a stable career and a fulfilling career, but also how do I fix this broken system?
And that year was really where it all kind of came together last year.
And I had decided that would be the last time I was applying the 2021 to 2022 year, last year.
And if I didn’t get in, I had literally checked every box possible.

[9:50] To get into residency, including practicing medicine in an outpatient facility, pretty much at an intern year, without the inpatient exposure.
And so if I couldn’t get in after that valuable experience, there was nothing else more I could do to get in.
So that’s when my plan B was no longer, okay, what do I do next to get into residency the next year if I don’t match? It was about what is my career gonna look like, now that I’m not going to be pursuing residency?

[10:25] Hi, I’m Rhonda Crowe, founder and CEO for MD Coaches. Here on Rx for Success, we interview a lot of great medical professionals on how they grew their careers, how they overcame challenges, and how they handle day-to-day work.
I really hope you’re getting a lot of great information.
But if you’re looking for an answer to a specific problem, management or administration challenge, or if you’re feeling just a bit burnt out, like maybe you chose the wrong career, well, then there’s a faster way to get the help you need.
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[11:10] Get the support you need today. Visit us at to schedule your complimentary consultation.
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[11:27] We’ll get back to our interview in just a moment. But right now I want to tell you a little bit about, Physician Outlook. If you haven’t discovered this remarkable magazine, please do so very soon.

[11:39] It was created by physicians for physicians to showcase the intersection between clinical and non-clinical interests. Whether it’s writing, painting, cooking, politics, and dozens of other topics, Physician Outlook gives a physician perspective. It’s available online and in print.
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I just am curious, is there a way for you to encapsulate how you define success now?
You know, what you said is you had sort of defined it by more of an earlier, a conventional kind of way, like I get into residency and do the more traditional things.
And because of this transformation, you…
Have a different way of defining it for yourself. Could you share that with us?
Well, for me, it’s now the advocacy of work I’ve been doing with American Society of Physicians.

[13:06] Like a career, in terms of a career, I have experience now in public health, clinical medicine, and research. And so whichever field I end up pursuing and going long term.

[13:18] That will be in terms of my career and success in that career. But in terms of like, what I’m defining a success now is making a difference. You know, letting this toxic cycle and this kind of corrupted system continue and finding a way to ensure that nobody has to go has to go through what I went through every year I applied to residency and knowing so many people go through that and having to think that you’re a failure when in actuality this system is failing the individual, not the individual failing. That I’m putting all that energy into our advocacy group, our American society physicians, finding new and innovative ways to possibly train our physicians for the next generation because we have a shortage and we have a need. But it doesn’t look like the federal government has been doing much to fix the root cause of the problem of why we have this shortage, even though there’s been bills for the past five or six years to increase residency spots, they haven’t done stuff to actually increase residency spots.
So for me, it’s about educating the public and getting these policies through and maybe some other innovative ways to train these doctors that are in this limbo that have been failed by the system and better the entire process.

[14:45] I focus more on unmatched because that’s my experience, like having been unmatched and the most majority of the people we work with.

[14:55] I’ve heard things from pre-medical students to medical students and of course practicing physicians. There’s problems at all throughout the spectrum of medical education and practice.
So for me, successes, it’ll be these little instances, you know, like little things, little steps forward in the process and making that progress to a better system for education training. Yeah. And I also heard in the earlier podcast, not just about training the year, a real advocate for just health of our population. I mean, I think it’s some of your, public health experience, but this is a the American Society of Physicians is more than just, physicians. It is also community members and interested people who are committed to improving the health of our citizens here. Yes, definitely. And I feel the more people we have from these, communities coming together to work on it. We have a lot of us from American society, or ASP, as we call ourselves. We all come from very different backgrounds and we’ve all been unmatched.
We know the problem with the shortage of physicians and getting to practice, but a lot of us have had.

[16:07] Have worked in our own communities and seen the problems there. Muhammad Khalif, who’s president and of ASP and who really brought us together.
He’s done a lot of great advocacy work in Washington. Another colleague of mine, Waliat Ajicef, she’s a psychiatry resident and she’s very much into mental health and does a lot with her own kind of side business, you could say, on improving mental health and life coaching.
And I could name so many things that we’re doing outside of the spectrum of ASP and we’re looking at ways to support those efforts and find others like.

[16:46] Because we don’t, we won’t know all perspectives of medicine, especially the patient perspective or others that have worked in healthcare and hearing about their stories and, their struggles within medicine is really what we want to, highlight so we can find these solutions and work together to improve the system. So what if we could kind of rewind Now, Hannah, back to, it sounds like there’s a series of things, the experiences, things that happened as well as experiences that you took on that gradually, at least, gradually, maybe a little more rapidly than that, kind of shifted the way that you shifted your focus and your thinking.
Were there any people involved in connecting with that made a difference in terms of shifting how you were thinking about this.

[17:36] I think the first one was when I first virtually met all our co-founders for ASP. So I went on this little brand, as Muhammad explained in the previous podcast on Twitter, and that’s how he and I connected. And he brought in others that we were all in a similar position, but were really into advocating and making change. And just hearing Muhammad’s story about what he went through with, applying for residency and how he changed his mindset about it. And really that support I got from the nine of us that started ASP, it was the first time I felt like I was not a failure, you know, like I realized this was bigger than me and that others were struggling just as much or even more than me, but they were finding a way to utilize that anger and frustration to make actual sustainable solutions to those problems, rather than just letting it fester in them and bringing themself emotionally and mentally down.

[18:38] And they really inspired me, like every one of our, I am very fortunate to call them friends now.
They all have such inspiring stories and are doing so much and inspire me every day.
And I think one other thing was, one of my best friends from college, I had been talking to her about my, just how upset I was with the process.
And the day I decided I’m done with this, I’m not gonna be pursuing residency, and I told her that.
She said, that’s really great because just because you have a degree or something doesn’t mean that has to be your career.
That doesn’t necessarily have to be the thing that makes you money or is your nine to five job.
You can always do something with medicine, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a practicing physician, to be successful.
And just hearing her say that really put into perspective that do I really need to go through residency and practice to have a fulfilling career? And I realized I…
Don’t and it’s not because i don’t value residency or don’t want to go into residency.

[19:47] It’s that i’ve been doing a lot of the clinical work even without residency at this point you know like working as an assistant physician and then prior to that.

[19:56] My volunteer work with local medical reserve core and remote area medical I was practicing medicine to some extent. Obviously, there’s supervision and you have to make sure you’re not working out of your scope or doing anything illegal that you’re not allowed to without a license.
Really, I was still practicing medicine in the way I wanted to, which was helping underserved communities.
And you’re not navigating this whole issue of, does their insurance cover it?
Is this something the hospital will allow? Which a lot of practicing physicians say, they serve two masters now, right? There’s the hospital administration and the patient, and you can’t do that.
But these volunteer organizations, the only master is the patient, and that’s what we’ve been taught as physicians to do, is to treat patients and listen to patients.
And it’s so fulfilling, I don’t need to get a paycheck out of it.
So for me, like I can still practice medicine, but on my own terms.
And then in terms of a career that can be like, now that I’ve experienced in research and public health, I could be making an even bigger difference than working in a clinical or outpatient.
Like you still make a difference at the individual level with those, but this would be more population health or innovative care, which I feel clinical medicine is not as receptive to innovation as public health and research is.

[21:22] We’re kind of stuck in our own ways a lot of times until someone proves that it’s really wrong.
There’s several years of seeing it in the literature as a paradigm shift.

[21:31] Exactly. So yeah, so that’s where really finding this community and then my best friend, like, just saying that out of nowhere really.
And my family’s support, like seeing how they’ve, even their thinking about what residency means or pursuing residency means and what success looks like as a physician really allowed me to get to where I am now, and my idea of what is success.
You mentioned in that earlier broadcast about that, the sense that you had about disappointing your family, and how did that evolve?
Seeing my mom first that match week, how much it affected her.
Like my mom, she’s like the strongest woman or strongest human being I know.
I’ve never seen her get depressed or sad. Like she’s faced every adversity like head on, and seeing her that week in match 2021.

[22:28] Where she was upset and felt like at a loss. Like I always told her, I was like, if I lose faith, it’s fine. But if you lose faith, I don’t know what to do because she’s just been such a strong support.
That’s how she is in our family.
She’s been the same for my father and my sister as well.
That really made me think like this is not just affecting me now, it’s affecting my loved ones. And I really didn’t want, like my mom doesn’t think of me as a failure and neither does my father and my sister.
But there’s a lot of people around us in the community that have like hinted at that.
And I know a lot of unmatched, they go through that. They hear maybe not from their support system, but from those around them that they’re not good enough because they haven’t gone to residency or they failed because they haven’t gone to residency.
And for all we know, they could be quite capable, but the system is structured in a way that, that it’s a lottery system at this point, it’s not really on capability.
And so when I saw that happen to her, that felt more like a failure than not getting into residency is the fact that this started affecting people around me, people that cared for me.
And that wasn’t worth it for me anymore. It was really, I think that match 2021 was really when things came into perspective is, is it feasible what I’m doing?

[23:50] Do I really want to keep going through this process and is it going to be worth it in the end?
So if I’m hearing you, she was she and others in your family were.

[24:01] Really supportive about your stated goals, your stated goals, I want to get into residency, and then it was just devastating for her in ways that it was similar for you when that didn’t happen once again. And then that sounds like that enabled some shift for you as well. It’s like, this is, this is affecting more than just me, you know, whether I’m, whether this small thing getting into residency is happening or not?
Yes, definitely.

[24:31] So how is she now?

[24:33] Oh, she’s great. I mean, I think my mental health is a lot better than it’s been in years.
I can focus. I’m thinking more clearly about what I want to do and how I want to do it.
I have not applied for residency this year, and I know applications go out next week, and, and I haven’t even thought about it.
I think it has been the most freeing experience I’ve had because my relationship with pursuing residency ended up becoming a toxic relationship.
It wasn’t anymore about this is a stepping stone that I need to get into.
I was putting too much on getting into residency.
Maybe later on in the future, I may go back and try, But at this point in my life, it’s not worth the mental, physical, emotional distress.
It’s become, you know, I feel like I have PTSD because I remember last year, the last you’re applied.
Right after registering, it was just pay the fee to get the application.
I was in bed for a month after that just because I paid the fee, because I knew what was coming.

[25:44] And this year, I just not thinking about it. It was the right decision for me at this point.
It sounds like you are professionally very fulfilled right now.

[25:53] Yes, yes, I am. I am not nowhere near where I want to be, but things are looking up for me.
And I think that’s what it is. I’m in a place where the sky’s the limit. It’s I don’t feel blocked, Which is what was happening with residency. It just I felt like this was an obstacle not necessarily, You know just a little and it’s not an obstacle It was like a brick wall that wouldn’t come down like obstacles You can get around you can find ways around but this was just like this path is no longer open for you, That’s what it was feeling like.

[26:27] Well Hannah, thank you very much. I wonder if there is, just as we’re closing our conversation right here, are there some things that you would like listeners to know? Are there some things, some lessons to impart to the people who are listening to this that you’ve learned along the way?
I think the biggest thing is that to not make judgment of others when they don’t fit into these boxes or these perceptions of success that we have within society.
Success looks very different to everyone and a fulfilling life and career also looks very different.
So for me, the biggest value of success is happiness. And if someone is happy, they could, you know, they may not be making a lot of money or they may not have a family or they may not have things that we think define success.
But for them, that is success.

[27:24] And so the greatest measure of success is really happiness. It’s this freeing feeling that the world is your oyster, like they say, that you can do whatever you want and You the choice is yours. You know, you have that atomic autonomy and liberty to do what you want to be happy.

[27:46] Now that’s something I struggled with is because I was allowing others judgment to define.

[27:51] Whether I was succeeding or failing rather than defining it myself. It’s a beautiful.

[27:58] Last statement This podcast I really want to leave it there and have people hold on to those last words so, Dr. Henna-Sani, thank you so much for coming back and helping us kind of dig a little deeper in these these moments that.

[28:16] Shifted you to really feeling very professionally fulfilled right now and.

[28:21] Really appreciate you coming back with us. Thank you and appreciate you giving me the opportunity to speak about this. I.

[28:30] Really enjoyed talking with Dr. Henna-Sani I was very inspired by this discussion.
And here are my takeaways from this episode.
The central theme in this conversation is how we define success.
There are many social influences that get into the mix of whether we feel successful or not.
Ultimately, as Dr. Saini discovered, we need to claim our own individual definition of success.
Well, some other pearls from this discussion.
Number one, reframe the obstacles to your forward movement or as she said, brick walls, as opportunities to clarify your values and your definition of success.

[29:13] Number two, turning to others during these life-changing moments, like for instance, a coach, can assist with that clarification.
Dr. Sani did and one of her others, her close friend, helped her realize my third takeaway.

[29:29] Just because you have a degree in something doesn’t mean it has to be your career.
You can always do something in medicine, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a practicing physician to be successful.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the biggest measure of success is happiness.

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