From Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine:

Journey to Medicine Spotlight

KPSOM Assistant Professor and REACH Coach Shares What Inspired Her to Become a Doctor

May 06, 2022

Each KPSOM faculty member has had a unique journey to medicine along with varied influences that sparked their decision to become a physician. Here, we highlight Linda Tolbert, MD, JD, EdD, MPH, KPSOM Assistant Professor.

Tell me about your journey to medicine.

I must admit, medical school was not my first choice. As a child, I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist and although my physician parents supported me in my archaeological explorations, their role modeling inspired my journey to medicine along with that of endocrinologist Dr. Walter Lester Henry at Howard University, and other attending physicians there with whom I was so fortunate to train.

My Guyanese mother and Bahamian father met in medical school at the University of Edinburgh. My first five years of childhood were in England and later years in the Bahamas. My mother was an epidemiologist and my father a surgeon. They ended up working in the Bahamas when the Bahamian Government asked my father to return to lead the rebuild of the healthcare system. My father did dual Public Health and Healthcare Administration degrees at Columbia University and became the Chief Medical Officer of the Bahamas, and my mother was his deputy as the Medical Officer of Health. It was amazing watching them work together and accomplish so much in the Bahamas and the Caribbean as a whole. They did a lot with the Pan American Health Organization, a subsidiary of the World Health Organization, and I traveled with them frequently to conferences.

I was 18 when I finished college and despite wanting to live in Europe for a couple of years to learn more languages in preparation to work for WHO in Switzerland after medical school, I went straight from college to Howard University College of Medicine. I met my husband, William, there who became an anesthesiologist. I did Internal Medicine first and secured a Cardiology fellowship, later changing my mind to pursue dermatology, wanting a specialty that I thought would allow me to balance my world and family and that embraced procedures and several of the medicine subspecialties that I enjoyed.

Can you tell me about your role as a REACH Coach at KPSOM?

Because balance, meaning and well-being are very important to me, I derive much satisfaction serving as a REACH coach for the students at our school and co-facilitating "Finding Meaning in Medical Education.” I think it's so important to intentionally seek and create meaning in our lives and to demonstrate gratitude, integrity, and humility. There is a lot of stress and burnout in medicine, and quite frankly, the stress isn't going to go away, so we must find ways to deal with it effectively as whole individuals. It is such a privilege to be on the journey with our students as they discover their wholeness as individuals in the medical profession.

Can you describe an impactful moment during your journey?

I remember 10 years before my husband passed away, he suffered a severe incident where he was tachycardic (the medical term for a heart rate over 100 beats per minute) at 140 for a few hours and his blood sugar was high. He was taken to the closest hospital where they treated him for diabetes and although his sugar went down, he was still tachycardic. Recognizing that something else was going on, I asked to have him transferred to Kaiser Permanente and upon his arrival to the Los Angeles Medical Center Emergency Department, one of the physicians evaluating him was a [Gastroenterology or GI] fellow. He recommended a pulmonary angiogram based on subtle EKG changes he perceived, which ultimately saved my husband's life. Turns out that indeed my husband had a massive saddle pulmonary embolism (a rare type of acute pulmonary embolism that can lead to sudden hemodynamic collapse and death), and the engagement and knowledge of the GI fellow was providential in beginning appropriate therapy and giving my husband more years together with me and our three children.

Dr. Tolbert concluded by sharing, "The beauty of being with Kaiser Permanente is that it's a substantial enterprise offering many different paths to pursue and create impact. My journey over the past 29 years has been incredible with twists and turns, meaningful relationships and tremendous growth. I will be forever appreciative."