RJ Sontag, MD, inherited the gavel of EMRA President in October. Learn more about his goals, experience, and outlook.
RJ Sontag came to emergency medicine after working first in public service and advocacy, and he has merged his interests in medicine and policy. As a previous chair of EMRA's Health Policy Committee, Dr. Sontag focused his president-elect year on supporting and facilitating the growth of EMRA's community of committees. He now turns his attention to strengthening the EM community as a whole by strengthening and supporting the trainees' experience.
What's your first priority as an EMRA board member?
EMRA has your back always, and COVID-19 can’t stop us from supporting you. Our goal of helping you become the best doctor you can be, the best leader you can be, and to help emergency medicine become the best specialty we can be must not cease during this era. We're working to get medical students clear, consistent information about the application cycle so you can match to the residency of your dreams. We're helping residents get strong education without dilution from other learners. And we'e partnering with organizations like ACEP to help our graduating residents keep the jobs they've signed contracts for.
Where do you want EMRA to be at this time next year?
When I close my eyes, this is what I imagine: I see us hanging out together, vaccinated and safely mask-free, spending time growing as young physicians-in-training. We'll see the smiles that have been trapped behind masks, both on-shift and off. We’ll have spent this time building a more diverse workforce that reflects our patient population. We'll have job offers that our future employers will honor, wherever we want to live–urban, suburban, or rural–without fear that we'll be replaced by non-physicians.
How can EMRA members participate in our progress?
EMRA Committees are an amazing way for you to learn more about the subjects you’re passionate about. They're also an excellent path for leadership development. Joining is free and easy, and more than 6,000 EMRA members have already joined committees ranging from Admin & Ops to Wilderness Medicine.
How will you evaluate your success as EMRA President?
We thrive as a profession when we're engaged and diverse. We hope that we create exciting new ways to help you thrive, rather it's with the electronic version of the EMRA Antibiotic Guide on MobilEM, or through an EMRA Committee, or with our wildly successful year-round virtual programming. We need to continue to diversify as a specialty, rather than continuing to become more white and more male. That takes action, like mentoring underrepresented medical students, developing diverse leaders, and recognizing the efforts of those who meet this mission.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
It's never too late to reinvent yourself. When I turned 30, I had a professional crisis. I was working in politics with an impossible goal to truly make the world a better place. But when my boss lost re-election, I became jaded by a political process that allowed good people to lose. Rather than work for his opponent, I quit my job, finished my pre-reqs, and applied for med school. I'm now 40, and I wouldn’t change a thing about my path. I strive to make a world of difference on an individual level with every patient encounter. I also gained experience in political advocacy and policy development, which helps my patients and my profession.
How do you recharge after a tough shift?
Conversation is the very best way for me to get my mind off of a stressful shift. I try not to burden my husband with the truly traumatic things we encounter on a daily basis, so I often turn to my co-residents or EMRA friends to talk it out. If everyone's asleep, I like to bury my emotions in junk food and get lost in episodes of Schitt's Creek or Arrested Development. It's a nice mix of healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms!
What is something people don't know about you?
I studied theatre in college. I got a scholarship to major in physics and pre-med, but fell in love with the stage and decided to switch majors. My parents flipped. Absolutely freaked out. Unfazed, I even tacked on a minor in film. It took me a while to realize I was lousy on stage, but I honed my organizational management skills by working behind the scenes to support those who actually could perform. EMRA is a continuation of that path; I love working behind the scenes to support young physicians as they follow their dreams.
1 skill you want but don't have (yet):
Singing. I wish I could belt out a tune, or even get near the right pitch when I'm singing. I love medicine now, but if I actually had a decent voice, I never would have left the theatre. A great voice is also one of my favorite qualities in other people, and it's one of the first things that made me fall in love with my husband.
1 skill you could do without:
Sarcasm. I love to make people laugh, and my sense of humor tends toward the dry and dark. I'm always quick with a joke, but it gets me in trouble. Not everyone shares my sense of humor. It's worse during this pandemic, when the smirk that gives away that I'm joking is hidden behind a mask.
Does pineapple go on pizza?
Of all the outrageous pizza toppings, I don't know how pineapple got such a bad rap. Listen, I don't love it. I don’t order it. But I'm much more bothered by BBQ chicken pizza. Or broccoli on pizza. Or shrimp. People actually put shrimp on pizza! Surely we can all agree that that's where we need to put our energy.
Favorite comfort food (or drink):
My grandmother's sauerkraut balls. They're crunchy, savory, creamy, and so unique. I order sauerkraut balls every time I see them on a restaurant menu, but I've never found anything quite like these. If you're one of those people who turn their nose up at the idea, you have no idea what you're missing. These are little morsels of perfection.