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Longhorns Rising

Longhorns Rising


Left to right: Garima Arora, MD, Connie Zacijek, MD, Melissa Allen, MD, and program director, VineethP. John, MD


Amid all the Super Bowl-esque hoopla of this year’s annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association was the final round of a national competition among residency programs to demonstrate superior psychiatric knowledge. The several month competition, MindGames, pitted program against program on timed multiple choice exams on a diverse range of psychiatric topics, including theory, psychopharmacology, psychotherapy, geriatrics, addictions, and forensics. The highest performing 3 programs on the multiple-choice exams were invited to participate in a live competition on Tuesday May 8th in the Grand Ballroom Salon of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

With the rock band composed only of psychiatrists and aptly named Pink Freud playing, the finalists took the stage in front of several hundred audience members. Not only did the competition take place at psychiatry’s biggest meeting, one of our profession’s greatest minds, Glen Gabbard, MD, moderated the competition.

This year, 2 of the 3 finalist programs would not be surprising to most people familiar with the psychiatric landscape: Cornell and Columbia. The programs at both medical centers would immediately be included in anyone’s list of top residencies. The third team in the competition, the University of Texas at Houston, may be a surprise to some. UT Houston’s appearance in the finals in Philadelphia certainly provoked images of America’s most beloved underdog who hailed from the host city, Rocky Balboa.

Before the competition, I wanted to learn more about UT Houston’s team to see if they had any chance of winning the 2012 MindGames Championship. When I called the residency program director, Dr Vineeth P. John, I could hear the smile all the way across the phone as he described how proud he was of his team, “Everyone gets their 15 seconds and this is our 15 seconds! I am so proud of how hard all of the residents work here and I am glad that our residents are getting such positive attention.”

Given the obvious excitement, I had to hear how he found out that his team had made the finals.  He told me, “I was at AADPRT [American Association of Directors of Psychiatric Residency Training] in San Diego. I was sitting in one of the aisle seats and as soon as I got the news, I ran out to call the team. I managed to speak with all 3 of them within the next 10 to 15 minutes before coming back to my seat. It was a truly a grand experience.”

The 3 women who make up the Texas team are Drs Garima Arora, Connie Zacijek, and Melissa Allen. Dr Arora is the lone PGY3 on the team and Dr John says she is a “quick thinker gifted with a photographic memory, also blessed with many many eclectic interests.” Per her training director, “a consummate scholar and a quiet genius,” Dr. Zacejik, a PGY4, has fast-tracked into being a Child and Adolescent Fellow. Team captain Dr Allen is Chief Resident and will be joining the faculty of her program following her graduation in June. Her program director describes Dr Allen as “a natural leader with extraordinary tacit awareness.”

When I asked all of the team members directly if “Don’t Mess with Texas” is the message they wish to project during the competition, Dr Arora who grew up in India responded, “Well, after 3 years of residency, and my first pair of cowboy boots, I can safely say, yes.” Dr Allen, the only member who was born and raised in the Lonestar state, answered “Absolutely! Texans are bred for competition and we can’t wait to show how tough we can be.” If Louisianan Dr Zacijek finds a career in psychiatry unsatisfying, she likely would make a very successful diplomat because when I posed the same question to her she answered, “Well, we work hard and will be as prepared as possible. . . . We’re up against strong teams and certainly do not underestimate them.”

They credit their success to the work they’ve been doing at the Harris County Psychiatric Center, a 200 bed free-standing inpatient hospital in Houston—an environment where skillful application of psychiatric knowledge is demanded. The team members also mentioned their opportunities for interdisciplinary research, department-wide enthusiasm for learning, as well as the diverse patient population as factors that have furthered their training.

Given the focus on developmental theory in the competition, there is no doubt that Dr Allen’s commitment to parenting—she noted her frequent use of “Freud, Erickson, and Mahler” to ensure that her 19-month old daughter is meeting developmental milestones—also helped the team during the preliminary competition.

When asked for a brief description of the residents in his program, Dr John responds that the team is a representative sample, “The residents are a fun-loving, hard-working, very authentic group” who “blend compassion and intellectual curiosity.”

So, who won? All the teams competed in a way that was a credit to their programs and their faculties–they answered complex questions with blazing speed. At the end of the night, to the delight of the audience, the 3 women bedecked in football jerseys from UT Houston took home the MindGames Champions trophy. Of course, in retrospect maybe the victory of the UT Houston team could have been predicted: Dr Zacijek shared that her team had a decided advantage as she is expecting her first child and says that therefore her team “technically had 4 members.” 

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