Discover what our faculty have been working on, and see the “non-clinical” side of the people in the Division of Nephrology 

March 16, 2018

Take 10: Interview with Dr. Suzanne Watnick

Dr. Suzanne Watnick, faculty member of the Division of Nephrology, previously with Oregon Health and Science University and the Portland VA,
graciously took time to speak with us in her office at Northwest Kidney Centers, where she is Chief Medical Officer.

What was the path that lead you to the University of Washington?

I had a really wonderful opportunity to come to Seattle, as Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington and as Chief Medical Officer at Northwest Kidney Centers. Given my prior work as clinician-educator and researcher, as well as being deeply interested in policy as it relates to patients with kidney disease, I was really fortunate to have this opportunity present itself. 

Luckily for me, there were a lot of people here that I had worked with over, not just years, but decades. People who had mentored me, people who were colleagues of mine, people that I had known and revered from afar. 

Suzanne Watnick, MD

I saw this as an opportunity to not just continue to improve upon the lives of patients with kidney disease, but to be in a new and very broad and deep community that was committed to the health of patients with kidney disease. After coming and feeling my way as to whether this would be a productive move for everybody, I was over-the-moon with the opportunity, and I was really welcomed with open arms. As soon as I arrived I felt immediately comfortable with everyone and very much a part of an important team.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up on the East Coast, in Connecticut and Massachusetts and ended up moving out to the West Coast for my residency, then back to the East Coast for fellowship. I did spend a little time at UCSF as well, doing some fellowship activities. Then, I ended up having a wonderful opportunity in Oregon where I was really able to provide a lot of patient care, and to dip in to a number of different areas that allowed me to embrace the mission that we are all on now, which is to help improve the lives of patients with kidney disease. This mission is achieved through clinical care, research, teaching, all aspects, and pursuing scholarly activities that are so important for innovation. It’s a field that really needs it.

You have lived on both Coasts and been many places. Do you have a favorite? Or a place you would not want to return?

I love to travel! I just went to Madrid for the first time for the Kidney Disease Improving Global Outcomes (KDIGO) Conference about dialysis initiation, which first of all, was a wonderful opportunity from a scholarly perspective, just in and of itself. But, I loved the city, and I loved the people. I felt like I could easily integrate there. I took my 15 year old son with me, and he had never been to Europe before. I love to explore new opportunities, new cultures; and just figuring out how to get along in new places is fun.

So, I can’t say that there are any places that I have not really enjoyed. Every single one of them has allowed me to build both a breadth and a depth, to allow me to have a better perspective on people and work. I can’t say that there is one place in particular that I wouldn’t return to.

It's clear that you love your career, but if you had a dream job in an alternate universe, what would it be?

There are so many things that I love to do.

I love exploring languages. I love cooking. More than anything, I am an avid runner. The favorite thing I love to do in Seattle is to take a long run around Seward Park. It’s just a beautiful little peninsula that juts out into the water, and is a place of true serenity. I think it’s lucky to have little enclaves like that within the city.

I would have loved to become an expert in software engineering. I think that’s a place that would have been interesting for me. 

Pursuing leadership opportunities to help people live better lives would be something that I’d enjoy doing, by encouraging young women in particular to pursue math and science. I think it’s a place that holds a lot of opportunity, and that girls aren’t encouraged enough to do. Even though there are a lot of initiatives out there, I think it’s always great to have a real champion to get folks excited about that. I would love to be able to provide in that way. 

But, I have to say, I really love the kidney. I do feel like I’ve found a place where I belong. So, I don’t think too much about changing professions because I really am the ultimate Kidney Geek!

To use your term, how did you become a “Kidney Geek”? What interested you in the kidneys?

I was a real science and math geek growing up. I didn’t know any other girls like me. It was always me and the guys doing all kinds of science experiments and after school programs. I knew I was going to be a science and math person as an adult. I enjoyed interacting with people too, so what better way to pursue an interest in science, knowing you enjoy that person-to-person interaction, than to pursue the medical sciences. 

I really loved chemistry, I loved everything about it. I majored in chemistry in college, so when I went to medical school I was naturally drawn to whatever medical field could incorporate chemistry with the medical sciences. I think nephrology, more than anything, held that.

So, I started on my path to being a nephrologist. When I was on my fourth year of medical school, during my rotations, everybody knew that I loved nephrology. All the interns and residents would give me the renal patients, patients that they didn’t necessarily find to their biggest strengths, but I loved.

I really differentiated early. I went into internship and residency pretty much knowing that I was going to go in to nephrology. I began to understand what it was like for dialysis patients, and what it was like to provide primary care to some of the sickest and most chronically ill patients that we have, who face many challenges, not only medically but also from a socio-economic perspective. I found that very complex interaction just as fascinating as all the fluids and electrolyte balances that I was thinking about. So, it became even more of an imperative that I become a nephrologist, as I traveled through residency and fellowship. I really do feel like I found the profession that was right for me. 

Beyond being a physician, you are also a patient advocate. How did that interest come about?

As I pursued a fellowship in clinical research with the Robert Wood Johnson foundation, I learned what it was like to marry medical innovation and science with public policy; to roll out initiatives that are important to patient’s lives in a broader arena. I think that was the place that laid the seeds for me in public policy, but it didn’t actually blossom for another decade.

It wasn’t until I was somewhere in late junior faculty that I was able to learn more about policy on a national stage as it related to patients with kidney disease. I began to understand what it was to speak on behalf of our patients on a national level, and how important it was to interact with governmental facilities like Medicare, to get in on draft levels, to make sure that our voice is heard on behalf of our patients, since the federal government funds a substantial proportion of care for patients on dialysis. I began to recognize that patient’s voices are not always heard.

Kidney disease is a relatively silent disease. We need to change that. I think that is an important part of the future for nephrology. We need to seize hold of the opportunities for innovation; we need to make our voices heard in the national arena; we need to make sure that there is a pipeline of scientists and care providers; to let people understand that the field of nephrology can be a really exciting one.

What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment at this point in your journey?

My greatest accomplishment is something you cannot attribute all to me. It is my two beautiful boys, ages 15 and 12. They love life, and they’re good kids, and well balanced. It’s great to see the world through their eyes.

I think it’s a good example for my sons to know that even if there are some big challenges in your life, it’s good to work to overcome them; to do what you think is worthwhile. It’s a conversation that the kids and I have around the dinner table all the time; to try to pursue something that is a passion for you that will make a difference for other people. I think being able to live that out really makes these challenges that we all face very worth it. 

So even though this position is a challenge for me to balance between the kids, it works. It works for all of us. And the kids respect me for being able to do something that I love, and it’s teaching them a good lesson, that they can overcome even big barriers to do what they think is important.

How do you spend your free time? Do you have any favorite music genres? Do you play sports?

Just as I am eclectic in my love of nephrology, I am eclectic in my love of music! I love everything from Joshua Bell playing a Mendelssohn concerto, to indie rock, jazz, and the pop music that my 12 year old subjects me to. Also, by having a 15 year old who only listens to and plays classical music and composes, my classical music repertoire has expanded substantially.

We were forced to play sports when we were kids, and like I said, I am an avid runner, but over the past five-plus years I’ve become the assistant soccer coach for my 12 year old’s team, and so it’s getting to the point where the kids are now faster than I am. It was a little bit easier to herd 7 year olds than it is to herd 12 year olds. But, I have to tell you, it teaches you a lot about life and leadership skills when you are herding a team of pre-pubescent boys. It’s one of my hidden talents.

What, if anything, irritates you?

I think I am pretty understanding; I mean, maybe we don’t know what is going on at home for a person, so that is why they couldn’t make it to a meeting…

It takes a lot to irritate me, so I would say that if you do find me upset or irritated about something, you should take it seriously. It doesn’t come easily for me to be upset or annoyed by something. I usually find it is not worthwhile to get upset by the small things because there are much larger issues at hand. 

I do think it is important however, when things are not going well, to be clear and up front about it. To not hide the things that are challenging, but to point out when something is really a concern, to make sure to sit down in real time to address issues that could potentially be remedied. 

We are all eternal students. You can fly through residency and fellowship without getting constructive feedback. Once you are out of training it’s hard to get that kind of feedback, so I think it’s important to provide that to people. It is very important to have a balanced view when you’re being a mentor, in order to nourish the next generation of nephrologists, who we are so desperately in need of.

If you could invite anyone to dinner, living or dead, who would it be? Who inspires you?

I think I would like to have an evening with the Dalai Lama. I see that person as a very well balanced, thoughtful individual who has many large problems, that are internationally based, put at his feet, and also has a litany of major concerns that confront him on a personal level every day. 

He needs to sort the wheat from the chaff. He needs to really get at the root of a concern and understand where it’s important to focus energy, or not, and what’s worthwhile to get hung up about, or not, and when to pay attention to issues that may or may not really make a difference in the long run. It would be great to understand how a person like that achieves balance and an appropriate mind set, not just to give reverence to the past, but to live very much in the present to also inform the future.

You have to understand that there would be a lot of other people that I would love to talk to. Marie Curie would be someone I would love to sit down with. Or Ella Fitzgerald. There are so many people that I would find fascinating, to try to understand just what it was in their life that gave them inspiration, or spiritual nourishment. 

To see this life with open eyes, and to recognize that we only have one, and that we are only on this planet for a very finite period of time, we need to try to do the best we can.