July Physician Spotlight: Joel Tanaka, MD

Getting to know Dr. Joel Tanaka

Who or what inspired you to become a physician?

My Dad inspired me to become a physician. He was a career Army Medical Service Corps Officer.  As a kid I grew up in and around Army hospitals and was very interested in science, specifically anatomy and physiology, and medicine.  I decided in 7thgrade that I wanted to be an Army Physician, so I took a risk and went to WestPoint, knowing that there was a very small chance of going to medical school.  Thankfully, well before my West Point graduation, I was accepted to medical school.  My Mom and Dad were very inspiring and supportive of Army Medicine - not just for me, but for all Army Physicians, particularly when he was assigned to Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado, as a physician recruiter.

Briefly describe a "peak experience" from your career: interaction with a mentor, memorable patient, etc.

My 3 combat deployments were by far the “peak experience” in my career. I am thankful for the privilege of serving and caring for our nation’s brave men and women who voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way, some paying the ultimate sacrifice.  As a physician, I am driven to serve ALL people, but serving people who willingly risk their lives for others was extra special.

What led you to become involved in El Paso County Medical Society leadership?

Easy one. I thought about that a lot when I was approached with the opportunity to join the EPCMS Board of Directors.  A very good friend and mentor, (then) Army COL Nick Piantanida, told me years ago when I retire from the Army, “Plant deep roots in your community. Be involved in your community.”   After I retired from the Army in 2018, I took Nick’s advice.  What better way for me to plant deep roots in the community I love and adore since 2002, than to be involved with physicians and in physician leadership in El Paso County Medical Society?  

What advice would you give to physicians-in-training who are just starting their careers?

As serious and difficult as medicine is, don’t take yourself too seriously. Medicine is hard, it’s always been hard, but I feel it’s getting more difficult to be the physician we want to be when we go to medical school.  Seek out formal and informal peer support groups. I also suggest you seek out somebody with more experience. Quite frankly, us older physicians should be seeking out you to “pay it forward”. Be humble and receptive to guidance, counsel, and wisdom that others are willing to share.  Give yourself and others plenty of grace. You are taking care of people. It is hard, and sometimes thankless, but the impact on the person sitting across from you in an exam room is real.  I would encourage any physicians-in-training to consider joining a Community Health Center, where your service directly impacts our community’s most vulnerable.

What do you enjoy doing outside of medicine?

I’m a Family Physician and I love my family! My wife, Jackie, and I have been married 30 years.  We have 3 sons that we love to spend time with. Whether it’s traveling, yoga, running, playing soccer, watching sports (live or televised), cooking at home, or eating out, any time spent with family is time well spent.

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