About Dr. Bilen
Ozlem Bilen, MD, received her medical degree from Hacettepe University School of Medicine in Ankara, Turkey. She completed her internship at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and her residency training at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Bilen completed her cardiology fellowship training at Emory University in Atlanta, having received the Gold Humanism Honor Society Award during her training as a reflection of her dedication to professionalism and patient care.
At Emory, Bilen serves as assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, and is involved in education and patient care in the area of cardiovascular disease. She works closely with the fellowship program of the Division of Cardiology and Emory University School of Medicine by educating medical students, residents and fellows.
Bilingual in English and Turkish and an observant Muslim, Bilen is a strong advocate for diversity in medicine. She is active on social media and uses her Instagram account to demonstrate how it is possible to incorporate marriage and parenthood with a demanding profession. Bilen lives in Atlanta with her husband, an academic oncologist, and their two children.
What made you want to become a doctor?
My desire to become a doctor was driven largely by moral values instilled in me by my faith and my family. The idea of living a life focused on facilitating people leading healthier and therefore happier lives. I wanted to make a difference by connecting with people. I can't think of a more fulfilling job.
Tell me about your med school experience and your decision to come to the U.S. to practice medicine.
During my medical school years, I wanted to explore other countries and since the U.S. was leading medicine and science, I planned a few summer visits here. The mentors I worked with were the kind of doctors I wanted to become, the environment was stimulating, and the traditional hierarchy of medicine was replaced with respect and collaboration, which were the reasons I wanted to pursue further training here.
What was your motivation to pursue cardiology and how have you "broken the mold" of what people often think of as a cardiologist? (Valuing kindness, being approachable, not having to be as aggressive, etc.)
I chose a career in cardiology because heart disease is the leading cause of mortality and morbidity in the world and I wanted to make an impact in patients' lives.
The picture of a cardiologist I drew in my younger mind was someone with a very gentle and caring heart. However, since my medical school years, I frustratingly realized that the culture in cardiology was not always as welcoming as I imagined. The training has long hours, can be physically and emotionally demanding, and very competitive. Also, historically, a cardiologist is associated with a stereotypical image of a white man. Underrepresented doctors, especially women, might be perceived as less competitive or competent, particularly if they display a gentle demeanor. During several of my fellowship interviews, instead of discussing my interests and skills, I was asked questions about my household and family planning given I had two babies under three. I was "warned to change my mind" and handed a survey article by a non-cardiologist friend that talked about "rudest subspecialties," where cardiology was ranked second.
During my interview, Byron Robinson Williams, III, MD, FACC, fellowship program director, told me how impressed he was with my application and skills. Proudly showing the picture sitting on his desk (his successful gynecologist wife and three daughters), he also empathized with how challenging yet rewarding it was to invest into family life during early training years, which put me at ease and later helped me achieve my goals at my best capacity. Divya Gupta, MD, section chief for heart failure and an exemplary, kind, caring, smart and passionate leader, had two babies during her early career years and supported several fellows with young families. My academic mentor, Nanette K. Wenger, MD, MACC, is not only the mother of modern cardiology and mother of three daughters, but she is one of the smartest and kindest people I have ever met. Following their footsteps, I also aim to show that we can create a welcoming, caring and kind atmosphere for our heart heroes as we strive excellence in patient care.
Do you feel that you've had to work harder to overcome any biases (either other people's or your own) as not only a woman but an openly Muslim woman?
Being a young, observant Muslim woman and a mother of two young children, it was a challenge to gain my patients' and peers' confidence, especially during early months of my training. I encountered microaggressions stemming from stereotypes of Muslim women almost daily. For example, when a nurse asked how many wives my husband had, I was mortified.
To overcome this challenge, I learned to tailor my interaction with each person individually and avoid generalizing and internalizing negative interactions. I aimed for excellence in clinical work and my personal interactions, which in my mind was the ultimate way to change misperceptions. I worked during my sick days. I missed my sister's wedding when I was in CCU simply because I didn't ask to take time off that would burden my co-fellows. I avoided conflict and if there was a conflict, I resolved it. I spoke up when I needed to, but I always put a warm smile on my face because that's how I wanted to be remembered. I read literature and did well on exams. I represented my program at the national jeopardy competition.
All this effort paid off. The voice of a mentor, Dr. Joel Felner, will always ring in my ears: “You were the best fellow I have ever trained.” My program director’s closing statement at my pre-graduation meeting still brings tears to my eyes: “Ozlem, with your patient-care skills, intelligence, professionalism and personality, you lead your class.” I was subsequently offered a faculty position at the division where I was trained while still a second-year fellow. I am thriving in my new position as an assistant professor of cardiology. I deeply feel that the misperceptions have changed, and life has "normalized."
Tell me about your advocacy and mentorship, particularly for minority women, to pursue a career in cardiology. Why is it important for you to champion others?
In the Middle East, we live in a traditional society with male dominance. Once medical students and residents start making career choices, women, but not men, face several challenges. They are expected to find career options that would allow them to prioritize their family life. They are expected to give up their career if they need to. I wanted to change this perception. We need to build a gender-neutral society. I am happily married to another doctor, my children (5 and 7 years old) are thriving and I love my career. Work and life mutually coexist. Doing things we love make us happier and better parents. I want to stimulate other women of ethnic background to achieve their goals and dreams.
Tell me about your family, and how you and your husband manage the demands of home life.
My husband, whom I married 11 years ago, is a busy academic oncologist. We have two children and work-life balance was challenging particularly during their infancy. We were both completing our residency training. There were days we didn't see each other due to heavy call schedule. Childcare was difficult to afford. We were away from home and our families needed to travel overseas several times to help us. There were times our relationship got tense because we were stressed given time constraints and responsibilities.
As attendings, we have more control over our schedule. We can afford delegating house chores (i.e., shopping, child transportation, laundry, cleaning, cooking) and focus solely on parenting when we come home. I wake up at 4 a.m. and start the day with prayers/meditation/self-care, which helps me maintain my sanity. We have a well-balanced and loving marriage, which I think is the foundation to raise happy children. We have family teatime every night when we read and pretend play with our kids.
Describe being a role model for your children.
As busy parents, we often worry that we are not enough for our children and when they experience problems, we tend to blame ourselves. Over time, I realized that every child is born with an amazing potential and unique personality and the foundation of parenting is being a good role model instead of controlling. Children are like sponges and they absorb us. They need to see happy and loving parents who also have a healthy way of resolving their problems. If we can just focus on attachment parenting and maintain a loving tone in the house, kids can find the way.
Our days can be unpredictable and stressful. The solution we found is to prioritize our self-well-being to show our children healthy role models, even if this sounds selfish. With spending more time on our well-being, we can get better at role modeling.
What do you think is the most challenging part about being a doctor and the biggest misconception? (time in school, finding balance, finances, administrative duties, selfcare)
It takes six or more years of training after medical school to become a cardiologist. During these early years, many young doctors are at reproductive age and start making families. Childcare and work-life balance during these early years was the biggest challenge I have faced. But as we transition to attending life, we have more control over our schedule ad increased income so we can delegate house chores and prioritize what is important to us. There is light at the end of the tunnel!
What is your advice for a young woman considering a career as a doctor?
Go for it. Whatever makes you happy and fulfilled. If you show passion, you will earn respect. Remember, happy people with a passion make good doctors, parents, friends, daughters and humans.