Life in permanent ink

Photo by Jessica Lewis

I pull my junior prom dress out of the closet and pause to reflect on my decision-making skills from decades ago. If there was ever any evidence that teenagers don’t often have good judgment, the dress is proof.

“Does it still fit?” My daughter asks curiously.

Moments later, I step into the dress and triumphantly slide the zipper up. Emerging from my childhood bedroom, I’m immediately greeted by laughter with a hint of derision from my husband and kids. Unperturbed, I spin around and attempt The Moonwalk. The dress makes me do it — it’s a…

How record temps, wildfires, naps, and LeBron James helped me break through my cloudy judgment

Photo by Dan Meyers @GoingOregoning

It’s early September 2020 in the Bay Area. I’m at home, robotically toggling between the weather and air quality apps on my phone, holding onto irrational hope that my every-two-minute screen refreshes yield improvements in either forecast. Coconut, our rescued maltipoo, is panting laboriously and lying prone on the hardwood floor. I lie down next to her, trusting that a creature with all that fur must instinctively know how to seek out the coolest parts of the house.

On a normal day, I would open…

Last month, I reflected on feeling restless and, frankly, trapped despite achieving what I thought I wanted in my career. Here’s what happened next.

St Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco is bordered on its eastern edge by Golden Gate Park. As an internal medicine resident at St Mary’s, I often sought refuge in the park after a long day or overnight call, going for a run to leave behind the stresses of work. People often warned me, though, not to visit the park after dark, when unsavory characters would frequent its groves.

In fact, the guidance was broadly applicable…

When I was six years old, my mom would pick my older brother and me up after school and bring us to John Muir Hospital where she worked as a labor-and-delivery nurse. We stationed ourselves in a room labeled “Fathers’ Waiting Room,” a relic of the days when childbirth was regarded as something women did on their own, and men were given an update once it was all over.

Of course, I didn’t know all that at the time. I simply saw it as home base for my brother’s and my unsupervised afternoon activities until my dad finished his work…

Photo by Andreas Selter

During my sophomore year in college, I struggled in biology class. Despite my rigorous note-taking and extensive study sessions, I always found myself a step behind my classmates and in the curriculum. For someone who’d always been a high achiever in school and only ever imagined myself pursuing a career in medicine, it was a humbling experience.

I started attending my professor’s office hours on a regular basis. He was a stern and serious man who always seemed exasperated with my questions. One afternoon, he interrogated me about why I’d enrolled in the class. When I told him I was…

She handed me the Post-It note with a 1–800 number on it. I stared at it, confused. Earlier in the day, my manager Michael had asked me to get the “conference dial-in number,” for our upcoming meeting and so I’d approached Mary, an executive assistant, for the info.

I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with a 1–800 number. For me, 1–800 numbers were used when you needed customer service or wanted to order an Ab Roller through an infomercial at 2 am (been there). …

I remember the moment where I branded myself “unathletic.” It was the closest I’d gotten to joining a sports team — the first day of high school track and field practice. I struggled with the 400-meter dash and never showed up again.

As a kid, I loved being active. Riding around the neighborhood on my banana-seat bike. Endlessly practicing the cherry drop on the playground bars during recess. Swimming in the community pool all summer long. Roller skating up and down the hill in our cul-de-sac.

As I got older, though, opportunities to play and be active became less common…

When my son was a toddler, he loved a series of books about a dog named Carl. The books are nearly wordless and mostly illustrations, letting readers use their imaginations to tell their own stories of Carl’s adventures.

A quick search on Amazon reveals reviews from other delighted fans, such as:

“the appealing part…is that the story is never the same, since whoever is reading it is making it up”

“allows [readers] to use their imaginations to tell the stories themselves”

“readers can come up with a new story each time”

The author intentionally gives storytelling control to readers, giving…

When people hear about my career as physician-turned-marketer, the most common question I get is “How did that happen?”

My answer? I finally decided to go off-road.

Throughout high school and college, I saw a path ahead of me that seemed so clear: Medical school → internship → residency → practice medicine happily ever after. Being a doctor was something I’d wanted (or so I thought) for much of my life. But from that very first day in medical school, I felt lost. The direction was predetermined yet I felt directionless and less like myself than I ever had.


This holiday season, I’m filled with gratitude for transition and reinvention.

19 years ago, I left my career as a practicing internal medicine physician. For years prior to that, I’d always felt this pull to work on the business side of medicine, but I never took action because I didn’t know where to start. Then one day, even not knowing my next steps and in the face of uncertainty and skeptics, I left clinical medicine.

Mine has been a non-linear journey of transition and reinvention, ups and downs, highs and lows. I began in the healthcare non-profit world, then moved into the biotech and pharma industry, healthcare advertising, and most recently…

Lena Cheng, MD

Physician-turned-marketer, forever in transition

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