Physician finds work-life balance 20 feet above ground

UCLA Health article
Mari Provencher

Dr. Edward Zaragoza performs acts of aerialist derring-do at the Cirque School in West Hollywood.

When he’s at work, Dr. Edward Zaragoza can be found studying an array of computer screens in an otherwise dimly lit room on the third floor of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, intently focused on images of human bone, organs and tissue as he looks for any anomaly that signals trouble. When he's not at work, Zaragoza might just as easily be found 20 feet above the ground at the Cirque School in West Hollywood, performing balletic acts of aerialist derring-do.

“It’s playful,” he said, with a wide grin. “And playfulness is one of the strongest parts of my personality. It’s actually a part of my work ethic.”

The sight of Zaragoza performing — shirtless and in Spandex tights — is riveting: syncopated movement of his limbs, torso and head as he sways and cartwheels in midair while hanging onto ribbon-like bands of silk fabric.

This delicate midair dance infuses balance in Zaragoza’s life and helps to relieve the stress of his work as clinical director of imaging informatics and chief of acute care imaging. There can indeed be a good deal of daily stress that needs to be relieved. Analyzing the most cryptic of imaging details, he observes anomalies that often have life-or-death implications for patients. Such intensity can be exhausting.

“You want to look through the hypotheses of what could be wrong as quickly as possible and do an investigation to determine the one that’s right,” he said. “And then you can set a patient on the path toward treatment.”

For Zaragoza, performing aerial ballets as a means of stress relief is so purposeful and fulfilling that he is at Cirque School several nights a week. “There is risk,” he said, “but the reward is great.”

Not given to youthful recklessness, Zaragoza didn’t play sports in school and recalls that the most daring thing he did as a kid was to jump from the low roof of his boyhood home in Buellton, California, into a thick and bouncy bed of ice plants. However, he mused, “If I had discovered Cirque when I was in medical school, I probably would have been attracted to daredevil stuff.”

But today, risk is a common denominator in his life. It’s as inherent in his up-in-the-air acrobatic routines as it is in medicine. But what motivates him is role-modeling a healthy lifestyle, not the thrills intrinsic in taking risks. “One of a physician’s duties is to be a good role model,” Zaragoza said. “In yoga class or at Cirque School, there are people who pay attention to what I do and how I live — how I eat, how I take care of myself.” It is important, he said, that physicians not be in a position of telling patients to do something that they wouldn’t do themselves.

Would Zaragoza advise someone to follow his example and learn to contort his or her body into an airborne lotus position? “No need,” he said. “But people want miracles, in a bottle. They want pills that will regulate their weight, hormones that will make them muscular, injections to shape their faces. I’m not saying any of that is wrong, but there’s an old prescription for overall well-being that’s very simple: diet and exercise.”

And they need a means of release, a way to shed the stress that naturally accumulates over the course of the day or week, he said. He certainly had such a need. “If you do radiology, you’re an intrinsically visual person,” he pointed out. “When I first started studying radiology, I would follow these images of chest X-rays and what fibrosis looks like, and I was assimilating all this content so immersively and intensely that I’d have dreams with X-rays in them.”

Obviously, that’s not an efficient way for anyone to get a good night’s sleep, especially a doctor whose focus is such a vital tool. He initially found his release, in his 30s, in physically demanding spinning sessions. “It’s great for the heart, but it’s got this downside of creating bad postural habits that I already had from sitting at the computer all day,” he said.

That’s when he turned to yoga and Cirque School, in 2005. “I had just gotten to a point where I wanted to do a handstand so badly — wanting to put my hands on the ground and feet in the air and achieve balance,” he said. He sounds rhapsodic as he visualizes the sight in his mind’s eye. “It would be tragic if I couldn’t bring that sense of joy and balance into my life and work.”

His efforts to achieve joy and balance are a work in progress. He still hasn’t mastered a back flip. “Not yet,” he said. “Maybe that will come.”

This story was originally published in the summer 2015 issue of UCLA Health's U Magazine.

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