Shahla Bolbolan –
Anesthesiologist & Medical Consultant

February 10, 2021

Shahla worked with organizations and visited Uganda, Kenya,Rwanda, South Africa, Honduras, Burkina Faso and The Philipines

“The desire to be a physician came early on. I don’t know where it came from, but I just said it early on that I wanted to be a doctor. It was just always the plan.”

Shahla Bobolan grew up in a somewhat rural area of Michigan, with a large extended family living within her mother’s home with her and her three siblings, the expectations for Shahla were not high. The general attitude was if you want to do it, go ahead and do it. But she was driven, and she did not want it. She was extremely competitive from an early age. Though she was born in Chicago, her mother remarried when she was young and she moved to some land her great-grandmother owned in rural Michigan where her mother built a home.

“I was always ambitious. Just a really competitive spirit from the very beginning. I always strived to be the first one done. I was just really ambitious from an early age.” “I played tennis, and then track and field in middle school and even in college. I was an all American shot put thrower. I could bench press 200lbs. I had the state record in Michigan for many years.”

Shahla’s early memories revolve around her own ambition and wanting to be a doctor, and she generally recalls that it came from herself and not from her parents. “I grew up in a house where there were no expectations. There were step-siblings, three cousins who lived with us for a time when their mother passed, and four of us siblings, There was no silver spoon. My mother would have been fine if I worked at the neighborhood gas station if that’s what I wanted. All my ambition was very internal. I lived in Fremont, Michigan. My classmates were farmers, you are ambitious if you make the best jam or to show your pig at the state fair.”

“I really love Michigan because people really worshipped sports. And you learn so much through sports and I really appreciated that. And I really want my kids to be involved in sports because it teaches you things you don’t get in other realms. [For example], it teaches you to take care of your body, eat well, sleep well, exercise. You’re a teammate, you know how other people feel. You strive for excellence for yourself, but also for your teammates. It taught solidarity.”

Shahla graduated as Valedictorian and got accepted to the University of Chicago. She had also applied at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Michigan (getting into all of them), but UChicago won out as her top choice as it was an exceptional school and Chicago felt like home for her. She majored in History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine (HIPS), though she toyed with the idea of becoming a professor of history as doing all the prereqs for Medical School. The University Atmosphere was very intense. Shahla recalls a frigid morning as she walked to class, and was so stressed and overwhelmed with the difficulty and competitiveness of school on her mental health, she thought for a second it might be better for a car to hit her to get out of doing some of her school work. She notes fondly now that the motto the undergrads like to say among themselves is that “UChicago is where the fun comes to die,” and that resonated for her. She said that the competitiveness in her classes, and the need to do well, was necessary. If you want to be a Physician, you have to prove early on that you had the stamina to keep up with all the classes in UnderGrad so that you knew you could do it in Medical School. And while at times, there were so many extremely impressive people letting it be known they were pre-med, and she would keep her ambitions to herself, she knew ultimately that is what she wanted to do.

She also recalls that the University has a Latin motto, Crescat scientia; vita excolatur (“Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched”), and that the constant exposure of Socrates and Plato (or other philosophers, depending on your course of study at UChicago), had an impact on Shahla to be more of a critical thinker. “That’s where I think the world opened up for me from the small town.”

Shahla took time off between college and medical school where she worked in a fertility clinic and also studied for the MCAT. Her main job at the clinic was to count sperm. It was from here that she applied and got accepted into the University of Chicago Medical School. She also got accepted into Michigan State University, but not into the University of Michigan. She recalls that she was excited to get into one school, let alone UChicago. Medical school is so competitive, that she would have been happy with any one of the schools she applied to.

Dr. Shahla Bobolan visits local Filoli

Her experience in medical school was completely different than undergrad. Gone were the harsh competitive days at that same institution. It had done a 180 for her. Now all her classmates were so helpful and nurturing to each other. “We looked at each other as family and looked out for each other. These were the people who were going to treat my family if they were sick ever.”

As she started Medical School, she thought she would be OBGYN, and thought that up until the rotations in specialties. The experience was nice, but she was not gung-ho to pursue it. In particular, it was not the lifestyle she was after. Her rotation in Anesthesia, however, was a very different experience. “Anesthesia is very pure. It’s pharmacology. It’s physiology. You do a surgery and you’re done.” This was actually right in her wheelhouse because she had a goal to travel. She didn’t necessarily want to settle and build a practice and client base for herself. She was thinking (and then eventually did several times) she could do Doctors without borders for a few weeks or months at a time. She could go help and teach, but she was not needed long term either. “I could go to Africa, I can go to Antarctica, everyone’s physiology is the same.”

Dr. Shahla Bobolan

When it came time for Residency, she was directed to UCSF by her advisor. And due to the rigor and prestige of the program, she matched with that school. “It’s not the most friendly, but it is top tier.” Anesthesiology and her program had a 4-year residency, with three years in the San Francisco campus, and one year interning in “something else.” So she did one year of Internal Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She chose that because they had a lot of electives which she saw as a great year to grow and learn about medicine in practice broadly.

When it came time to start working as a resident, she earned about $40-$50k a year. San Francisco is a very expensive city to live in, but she did not struggle to pay her bills and live within her means. Though she would soon be making more than that when she was offered a job in nearby Burlingame, she continued to live well below her income. After a stint of several months serving and working in Uganda teaching Anesthesiology, she came back to the Bay Area a little over a year of working, she had saved enough to buy an entire apartment building of 4 units in San Francisco (this was 2009 and part of the mortgage crisis when real estate prices dropped dramatically all over the country, but the Bay Area too). She lived in one of the units and rented out the others, basically living for free in San Francisco.

“My value system is not in line with excess. I was always very conscious of money and knowing how much things cost and not getting too much. Even if you handed me $100k, I would not buy a Hermes bag. That’s just not what I do with money. I’m not into excess and I’m not into super luxury.”

Shahla’s work paid well, and living below her means, and continuing to work a lot, helped her buy two other apartment buildings that she rented or fixed up when the renters moved out. She traveled some for leisure, but she did a lot of travel service trips. And her work-life remained phenomenal at Mills-Peninsula Burlingame. She actually worked for a group that contracted out to the hospital. This is opposed to working directly for the hospital. Due to this work setup, as well as just the general location of being in an affluent area, she says the quality of care and the quality of doctor support was very high.

Recently with the Pandemic, she had time to take into account her life. The hospital shut down most procedures outside of emergencies during that time. During that time she got to spend more time with her twin daughters who were about 2.5 years. She decided to look into other work that would give her more flexibility so she could be with them. “As a physician, I just couldn’t make appointments and guarantee I could be there. If a patient needed me, I couldn’t leave.” She had friends who transitioned from medicine to biotech, and one particular friend encouraged her to look into it. She told her about the work, told her specifically what to apply for, and helped link her with an opportunity at Gilead Sciences. This is a local Biotechnology company that has done groundbreaking work for AIDS research. Her role title is “Safety Physician,” and she assists in monitoring all the trials to ensure ethical standards and safety for all involved in the trials of new medicines and vaccines. Currently, her work is focused on AIDS research, and she feels very good about her service to support that. And yes, she makes good money doing it.

Shahla visits Italy

How does she do all that she does? As she learned the ropes for property management, she initially used a service to help her as each issue went through her anyway, she took control over most issues herself. Everything is electronic, and she just needed sources for good plumbers, electricians, and eventually, contractors to help redo things, she could just use technology to do most things herself. She works as a doctor still, helping out in the hospital now that there is a high demand again. And she works for Genentech from home and sees that continuing for a while. Now she can have lunch with her girls and take them to the park during the day in between meetings when she is not at the hospital. She is focused more on life enjoyment, and spending time with her family.