Clinician Spotlight

Catching up with Catherine Allan, MD

Catherine Allan, MD, is the associate program director of SIMPeds, Boston Children’s Hospital Simulator Program and the medical director of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU).

How did you become interested in pediatric cardiology?

I was treated for a congenital heart defect in an era when surgery happened much later than it does now. So, I remember being limited as a young child and then experiencing a dramatic improvement in my quality of life after open-heart surgery.

That first-hand knowledge of what a big difference medical care can make is what inspired me go into medicine. In my second year of residency, I briefly considered specializing in anesthesia, but in the end I stuck with my long-term goal of being a pediatric cardiologist.

It’s not always appropriate to share my story with families, but I think my personal experience gives me a different sense of empathy for my patients and their parents.

How do you juggle your different roles at the hospital?

I love my clinical work in the CICU. When I’m on service, I throw myself into that work completely. As an intensivist, it’s important to have something outside of the unit that you’re really passionate about as well, because the clinical work is so intense and the hours are so difficult.

As the associate program director of SIMPeds, I do a lot of work broadly across the hospital with curriculum development, debriefing and faculty development, but my particular academic interest in this area is using simulation to optimize clinical processes, environments and equipment. My work as medical director of the CICU may not be simulation-based, but it involves the same way of thinking through systems and processes. The two roles are very complimentary.

I’m very happy with where my career is now. Everything I’m working on now feels related and interesting, and impacts patient care and safety.

What do you love about the CICU?

Even though people think we don’t have any continuity of care in the CICU, the reality is that we see many of our patients over and over again because of the specialized care we provide. We get to know these families really well, even those that come from very far away.

Last year, I met a young woman at a volunteer event for the American Heart Association. I took care of her during a crisis situation as a first year fellow, and now she’s in her 20s. I remember her and her mom very well, and her mom remembers me. After being part of such a difficult period in her life, it is great to see her thriving. It’s remarkable to be able to have those experiences.

What is challenging about the CICU?

Working in the CICU is a physically grueling job with a lot of sleep deprivation, so to be able to get through, I have to take care of myself and stay in shape.

A few years ago, inspired by a friend, I set a goal to complete a short triathlon. I’m not a natural athlete, but I finished and since then I’ve been focusing my health efforts more and more on triathlons. I’m not fast, but every year I see incremental improvement. I enjoy the training and racing, and the need to plan and be organized to fit it into my busy life really appeals to me – I’m hooked!

What excites you most about the future of pediatric cardiology?

Our field has had huge leaps in clinical progress over the last 40-50 years, and yet there is so much we haven’t figure out yet – both clinically and in terms of how we practice medicine.

I believe the improvements we’re going to make now will be because of many small changes, and not necessarily because of one "aha" moment or one individual. The work I do with simulation and process improvement in the CICU acknowledges the importance of incremental change. When everybody on the team works together to support or improve a process or a clinical problem – we can impact outcomes.