It’s a busy morning at the Colbert family’s Hinsdale household. Ten-year-old Nina scampers down the stairs with Gavin, 7, close behind, eager to show off the new toy top he sets spinning across the kitchen counter. Dylan, 15, comes next, heading to the back door where the family’s 10-month-old English bulldog Biggie is barking his request to join in. Their parents, doctors Chris and Carmelita, have a quick chat about logistics before Carmelita, a rheumatologist with DuPage Medical Group, has to leave for her appointments.
With Carmelita on her way, Chris, Assistant Program Director of the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), settles in to chat before enjoying a day off with the kids. Having come through the incredibly emotional and physically draining demands presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, you would expect Colbert to be completely depleted. But this is a man who always looks toward the positive outcome— new potential, new growth, new possibilities, for both his family, his patients and the medical school residents he leads.
“Despite all of the frustration and challenge, this pandemic has been a great opportunity for us to be creative and to shift the paradigm,” says Colbert, “both as teaching physicians, to support learning and keep the audience engaged, but also to provide insights for emergency medicine in the future.”
As an attending physician in the Chicago area for the past 13 years, directing emergency medicine at UIC, chairing continuing medical education for the American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians, and co-chairing the Illinois College of Emergency Physicians spring symposiums, all of this is crucial to Colbert.
“The biggest thing that we have learned through the whole experience of this pandemic is just how resilient we are. There was a point in 2020 when we didn’t know anything. We didn’t know if we were going to bring this home to our families, how this would affect us personally, or the ER in general. All we knew was we needed more ER doctors, and nurses. We were packing ICU beds, trying to create more rooms, and filling waiting rooms for hours. But just eight months later, we are talking about vaccines, and discussing the use of steroids and antiviral medications and anti-clonal antibodies for management. Everything we are doing in ER is different—how we triage, how we navigate patient throughput, and so much more. The entire platform has changed, and we did it under duress. We all got together and worked to enhance patience confidence in what we do, as well as achieving better patient outcomes.”
While Colbert doesn’t think ER doctors are better equipped than other physicians to cope with the current challenges, the realities of ER medicine have trained practitioners to deal with whatever comes their way.
“The thing about ER medicine is that it is always full of navigating and adapting to a wide variety of circles and possibilities,” says Colbert. “You need a good sense of humor, an open mind, and a lot of patience.”
Colbert’s interest in medicine started when he was a young child, fascinated with biology and science. “I knew I wanted to be a doctor in grade school—even signed the yearbooks, “Christopher Colbert, future doctor,” he laughs.
With a father enlisted in the Air Force and grandfather in the Army, a well-disciplined, structured life was generational, and influenced Chris to serve in the military as well. Currently a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, Chris has served as an emergency medicine doctor in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Kosovo, and Japan.
Colbert’s father was deployed eight times during Chris’s childhood—moves that would take the family from Washington D.C., to Texas, Germany, the Philippines, and Illinois.
“Moving a lot, you learn how to navigate social circles well because you have to,” he says. “You are the new kid all of the time. So, I quickly learned the value of listening and open discussion. As corny as it sounds, if you want to relate to someone, bring up something positive that people share. After you establish that, you can say, ‘Oh by the way, my name is Chris,’ and you’re on your way,” he says.
Growing up on military bases, there were always timelines, but there was also a mix of family fun and healthy activity. “My family made time for all of it,” says Colbert. “When I was young, my brother, father, and grandparents would run every morning and do pushups. Weekends my father would make pancake breakfasts which we decided were the best match for cartoons. And there was music! My dad played the guitar and mom liked to sing, so we listened to a rich variety of music in the house from the time I was young on up. Everything from the Fifth Dimension to the Beatles, James Brown, and John Coltrane.”
Because his parents wanted Colbert and his younger twin sisters to fill their idle time with something positive, Chris began volunteering in the hospital with the Red Cross when he was 13. He started out pushing veterans in their wheelchairs, and as time progressed, took on greater responsibility. By the time he was a junior in high school, Colbert was sitting in with medical residents for radiology, assisting the chief radiologist.
“He and I developed a really cool relationship and he mentored me,” Colbert recalls. “He taught me how to read X-rays, and so much more, even writing the recommendation for my admission to medical school.”
But the gift the radiologist gave Colbert upon entry, would stay with him for life. “My first week of medical school, I received a package from him. In it, was a stethoscope with the message: “This is to remind you always to listen. What you need to be a good physician is not the instrument, but the skill of good listening. Listen to your patients, ask the right questions, and remember: There is no such thing as a poor historian.”
Although Colbert initially planned to become a radiologist, his love for patient interaction made him realize he needed to pursue a different path. That turned out to be emergency medicine.
“I fell in love with this unstructured, no-idea-what-comes- around-the-next-corner experience. There is no monotony, and far fewer ‘thank-yous,’ but I love it. The variety of lives you interact with and grow from are exponential. I learn so much from these individuals and am a more open-minded husband, father, and physician because of the people I see and treat.”
Chris and Carmelita often joke about the difference between their work. “People set appointments to see my wife three or four months in advance. But with my patients, being in the emergency room is the very last thing on their list of anything they would want to do. No one wants to be there. When people see my wife, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m so happy to see you, Dr. Colbert!’ But with me, it’s ‘This is the last place I wanted to be!’ And I have to say, ‘You’re right, but I’m here to help.’ It’s very humbling.”
Teaching the young doctors in residency that he works with to accept this, Colbert often turns back to the message from his early mentor. “The best physician is the one who listens before speaking. To find that place your patient is coming from first, and only then let them know that you are going to provide insight and help. That’s what I communicate to the residents. It sounds cliché but it’s true—no one cares what you know if they know you don’t care. Caring is what ensures longevity in this profession, so that you can go home and sleep well at night knowing your job has been done well.”
Looking ahead, Colbert is excited about the work he is doing in the arena of social emergency medicine, writing a book that focuses on this with several colleagues. As part of that work, he is doing what he can to help shift health care disparities in this country.
“I would like to see the day when the resources that are available to my children are available to all children,” he sums. “I’m all about finding the processes we can put into place that enhance mental wellness with teaching, with students, and with patients so this whole health process can honestly move forward. It’s my hope—and I’m currently in the process of redefining what we do as a culture of physicians by introducing new ideas toward this—that as a medical institution we can work for a larger, greater good. Because ultimately, everything leads to the emergency room. It’s not a question of ‘if ’ just ‘when.’ There is not one adult in America that hasn’t been to the emergency room in the last five years, either as a patient, or, with a family member. So why don’t we make this a place where everyone can have a good outcome?”