Before exploring the lives of people battling addiction, UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Fong had hoped to become a science fiction writer.
"Toward the end of college in the mid-1990s, I decided that going into medicine would give me a more stable and interesting career," he says.
He wasn't sure at first what he wanted to do within medicine, and had no idea what the life of a psychiatrist entailed. Nevertheless, he found his calling in a specialty that has led to an inspiring line of work, and encourages anyone to pursue the field that brings them the same sense of reward.
A calling in patients' stories
In medical school, Dr. Fong visited the Betty Ford Center, and was captivated by the stories of patients who were treated there.
"I had no experience with drugs or alcohol before visiting the center," he says. "I was enamored by why people do this. I wanted to know more about their lives. I couldn't stop asking questions. That was a clear sign this was the career for me."
When he received his medical degree, the mental health specialty was undergoing numerous changes. A burgeoning field of neuroscience was beginning to prove that addiction was a brain disease, and scientists were learning more about the chemical changes that happen when people consume drugs and alcohol.
Specializing in psychiatry would allow him to affect the lives of the people who fascinated him so much, although he wasn't sure at first what the life of a psychiatrist would be like with a focus on addiction. Today, he is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and supports the Integrated Substance Abuse Program in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Growing a diverse career
Dr. Fong has a precise subspecialty — gambling addiction — but as an academic psychiatrist, he is able to work across all aspects of the field. He divides his time between teaching, seeing patients in the clinic, as well as advocacy for and research in the industry as a whole.
For this reason, no two days are the same. "In the clinic," he says, "I work with patients to make connections between what they're experiencing and what may be causing their behavior. On another day, I may meet with community and state leaders to discuss policy."
As Dr. Fong was given a taste of every area, he realized he wanted to divide his time across all of them — with a special interest in gambling addiction. But to make a true difference in the field and influence the national discussion, he needed to be part of an academic center.
"People's lives are severely affected by gambling addiction," Dr. Fong says. "It has been incredibly rewarding to see changes in the field over time, to see how people have begun to accept that this is a serious problem."
Although medicine wasn't his first choice in college, Dr. Fong believes it is one of the greatest professions a student can pursue. And having found a career he loves so much, the life of a psychiatrist hardly feels like work.
"The fundamental part of medicine goes back to healing and improving people's lives," he says. "We have made huge advances in mental health in just the past decade. It's an exciting time to be a part of the field. There's a need for mental health practitioners who want to create better solutions for our society and our culture that improve people's lives."
By Patricia Chaney