Peter Pang, MD, was in the role of interim chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine for less than six months when the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world. Through much uncertainty, his service-oriented leadership is helping the department forge a path forward for learners and patients.
“We had some dark days. But in the end, we did what we always do. We were there for our patients, each other and our learners,” said Pang. “We did it yesterday, today, and we will be there tomorrow. It’s the daily acts, the habits, that best describe who we are, our commitment, and our culture.”
This daily commitment was first demonstrated to him by his father, Yungsoo Pang, an orphan who grew up during the Korean War. Pang’s father endured incredible hardships, growing up in poverty while raising his three younger sisters. In spite of these challenges, he scored first on a national entrance exam, earning a full scholarship to medical school. Pang’s parents, Yungsoo and Jungsook, immigrated from Korea to the United States in 1970 for his father’s medical training.
“My dad has always been my hero,” shared Pang. “His stories have shaped me more than any others.”
Pang grew up in the small town of Newark, New York. He was a mischievous student, performing well in school, but neglected the discipline of good study habits. He chose to study engineering upon entering Brown University then switched to biology pre-med. Brown was a humbling experience as he quickly realized that what worked for him in high school would not garner the same results in college.
“I was not as smart as I thought I was. I was going to school with brilliant people, and that is when I realized how big the world was,” said Pang.
With only one offer to interview, Pang went on to medical school at the University of Texas-San Antonio. He ended up back in Boston for an emergency medicine residency through the combined program at the Harvard teaching hospitals, Brigham & Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. His choice to specialize in emergency medicine was a last-minute decision, Pang said. While in medical school, he wanted to be a cardiologist; that changed after a chance encounter with an emergency medicine resident.
“During the fall of my senior year of medical school, I was in the cardiac intensive care unit at Brooke Army Medical Center for one of my rotations,” said Pang. “One of the emergency medicine residents talked to me about it. He was incredibly passionate, and that’s when I switched.”
After residency, Pang had the opportunity to teach as a faculty member at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Later, he joined the experimental therapeutics group within the Center for Cardiovascular Innovation, led by Robert Bonow, MD, focusing on emergency care for acute heart failure patients.
“By serendipity, my chair had asked me to meet with a heart failure cardiologist, the late Mihai Gheorghiade, MD. At the time, I had no idea he was an internationally known heart failure trialist. One thing led to another, and he became the greatest mentor I’ve ever had,” Pang said. “More than any other person, he is most responsible for shaping my academic career.”
Eventually, Pang completed a KL2 grant at Northwestern and started looking for opportunities to pursue his own independent research. Jeffrey Kline, MD, the current vice chair of research at Indiana University School of Medicine Department of Emergency Medicine, and Pang were introduced on a car ride while driving to the home of a mutual colleague.
“He asked me if I had ever thought about Indianapolis. One thing led to another, and I was offered an incredible opportunity. I love being here,” Pang said. “What I enjoy most about working at IU School of Medicine is the people, organization and mission.”
In 2014, Pang joined the school as a faculty member. In 2018, he was appointed as the vice chair of strategic innovation, a newly created role with the intent to facilitate cross-collaboration across education and research. In October 2019, he was asked to serve as interim chair for the Department of Emergency Medicine. Less than six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Early on, the department set up its own incident command system, superbly led by Chris Strachan, MD, vice chair of clinical affairs. At present, IU School of Medicine Department of Emergency Medicine serves 10 hospitals that see nearly 400,000 patient visits a year.
“It was incredible to see firsthand what we could accomplish working together,” Pang said. “If there was just one phrase running through my head during the beginning of COVID-19, it was, ‘We will make it if we stick together.’”
“As our leader during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Pang has acted as the departmental glue, holding together a group of passionate healthcare providers that hold varying valid concerns and beliefs. Emergency physicians are strong-minded, independent thinkers who are not afraid to share their opinion,” said William Martin, MD, emergency medicine/pediatrics chief resident. “His leadership is based on service and care for the patients we serve, inspiring and developing each of us as individuals, and his vision for the Department of Emergency Medicine as a whole.”
For Pang, leadership is about service.
“He is an incredible leader, one who works alongside us caring for COVID patients on the frontlines and advocates for us tirelessly outside of the department. He is the kind of leader that you want to follow because you know that he cares for each of us and has the department’s best interest in mind,” said Butch Humbert, MD, residency program director.
Emergency medicine and emergency care are at a unique juncture. Pang said he hopes the department will lead the transformation of emergency care.
“Dr. Pang recognized the need to provide a united front within our department and worked diligently to accomplish this as we worked side-by-side fighting this pandemic, while heavily relying on each other for support during this challenging time,” said Katie Pettit, MD, vice chair of education and associate professor of clinical emergency medicine.
Pang continues to work across IU School of Medicine with hospital partners to plan for various contingencies related to COVID-19.
“I am incredibly grateful for the support we received during COVID-19, from the entire IU Health System, Eskenazi Health, IU Health Physicians and IU School of Medicine,” said Pang. “There are so many people to thank who came together to support us. A special thanks to our awesome emergency medicine residents, the brilliant nurses with whom we have the privilege to work besides, and our world-class advanced practice providers.”
When asked about coming to the emergency room, Pang has the following advice:
“Understandably, people are worried about becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2. IU School of Medicine and partner hospitals have done amazing work to establish systems to ensure you receive the right care at the right time. If you believe you are having an emergency, we are here and ready and will keep you and your loved ones safe,” Pang said. “A good rule of thumb is, ‘would I send those I cherish most to our emergency departments?’ I would. I promise we will be good stewards of your trust: we will care for you and your family as if you were our own.”