Many people use athletics and exercise as a way to de-stress and restore themselves outside work. Joe Nakagawa, MD, is no exception, and he certainly uses rock climbing, swimming, cycling and skydiving to maintain his work-life balance.
However, Dr. Nakagawa has found that his favorite recreational activities are also beneficial in teaching him crucial lessons for the job. As an emergency physician, his work is fast-paced, high-stress and can go from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds.
Dr. Nakagawa and his team regularly save the lives of people who are in traumatic situations. Rock climbing, he says, has ingrained in him important skills such as mental fortitude, self-discipline, suppression of fear and teamwork.
Born in Japan, Dr. Nakagawa moved at the age of 5 with his family to Seattle, where he grew up and lived until he was 18. “Seattle is very outdoorsy, so I’ve camped and hiked my entire life,” he says. “In high school I started going on climbs with friends in the local mountains, and when I came to Southern California for college, I found world-class rock climbing close by. This, of course, piqued my interest, and I started climbing rock much more frequently.”
During the time it took to gain his Bachelor of Science degree at University of Riverside and then his Doctor of Medicine at UCLA, Dr. Nakagawa grew to love all of the adventures Southern California holds for an outdoor enthusiast. He finally settled on the Hill in Rancho Palos Verdes and at Torrance Memorial after finishing his residency in 2004.
Nakagawa’s favorite quick spot to hit on the Hill is Del Cerro Park. “There’s lots of hiking there, though usually you’ll find me on two wheels if I’m at Del Cerro.”
PULSE: You’re quite an accomplished climber—having tackled rock, ice, mountains and even volcanoes. What do you love about climbing?
Joe Nakagawa (JN): I like the challenge, the self-discipline you need to succeed. Success depends entirely on you.
When you are climbing, the mental fortitude, motivation and suppression of fear is what determines if you will succeed or fail. And it is great just to get outside. I’m happy just being out there, even if I never lace up the climbing shoes or boots.
On a roped climb, it’s also about teamwork. Your life very literally depends on the person on the other end who feeds the rope out and keeps you from falling too far if you come off. Something about trusting someone completely and not having to worry about if they’ll save your life or not creates great friendships.
PULSE: Are you ever afraid you are going to fall?
JN: It’s always a concern, but fear usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Concentrating on what happens if you fail often prevents you from succeeding. That said, I’ve fallen and fallen quite badly. It does hurt, but you get over it and keep moving.
PULSE: What is your absolute favorite place to climb, backpack and/or just be outdoors?
JN: I like the Eastern Sierra quite a bit. It’s close, it’s huge and has endless climbing. The scenery is gorgeous, and just walking to the base of the climb is worth the trip. The rock is generally very solid, and the climbing is world-class.
PULSE: What sort of teamwork is involved in rock climbing?
JN: Generally you’ll have a rope team of two for most climbing. One person is on the sharp end of the rope. Their job is to find the route and put in protection along the way. The other person is belaying the rope from below. The belayer follows the leader after the leader gets to a belay station.
Often the two people leapfrog, taking turns leading. Your lives depend on one another completely. If the belayer doesn’t do his job, you’ll likely get severely injured and probably die if you’re far from help.
That type of trust generates deep friendships. Maybe not so much on easy leisure climbs locally, but when both of you are convinced you’re going to die and are relying on each other to tell you you’re not, then things get interesting.
PULSE: What is your largest achievement in climbing to date? Why?
JN: For me it isn’t the height of the mountain or sheer difficulty that determines the value of an accomplishment. There will always be those who climb harder or faster than me who set the higher end of the spectrum of difficulty. I think it’s how you challenge yourself and overcome what is difficult for you that matters.
Most memorable are the climbs that are the most fun! Usually that means there was some mishap or difficulty that wasn’t funny at the time but we can laugh about now. We never remember the trips which were smooth and uneventful, do we?
One of the most memorable climbs I’ve had was a winter climb up Mt. Rainier via Kautz Icefall route. My buddy and I were the only ones on this huge mountain, and we had our share of mishaps like falling into crevasses, running through a crumbling maze of fracturing ice towers, and losing our tent poles on the first day. But we made it to the summit despite everything and can laugh about it now.
PULSE: What is your next big goal or dream climb?
JN: I always like climbing far from home. It’s great to see the world, experience different cultures, trying different foods. It’s invaluable for personal growth. I’d really like to see the Karakoram and Kashmir areas (in Northern Pakistan).
PULSE: When you are not preparing for a big trip or climb, what activities do you do to stay healthy and active?
JN: The best way to get in shape is never to get out of shape. I usually ride bikes—either mountain or road—three to four times a week for a few hours at a time. I’ll usually run once on one of the other days. It’s difficult with my schedule, but it’s important to make time for it.
PULSE: How important is a healthy diet for maintaining strength and endurance for a physical activity like mountaineering and climbing?
JN: A healthy diet is vital. The body is a machine, and it needs fuel to be able to perform. It’s pretty versatile, though, and for short periods it can pretty much do with whatever you give it.
In the long run, though, you need to feed it enough calories to sustain whatever activity you’re going to do but not so much that it stores it as fat that you have to lug around. Long-term, it’s good to get in the habit of eating healthy, but being active does allow you eat tasty, unhealthy things sometimes by minimizing the negative impact.
I drink about a liter of water an hour for most aerobic exercise. Normally I don’t drink a huge amount during the course of a workday. Either I’m inside, or it’s a conscious choice to minimize rest stops.
PULSE: How do you think being an athlete has translated into your work as an emergency physician?
JN: Being in the emergency room is a pretty stressful experience for everyone: patients, nurses and doctors. Having an outlet for the stress keeps it from building up too much in between shifts. Also, being in stressful situations in sports or activities trains you to think fast, stay calm and focus on the tasks at hand.
PULSE: What is it like to play such an important role in your community?
JN: I know it sounds a little cheesy, but I think it’s important for us to give back to the community. In the emergency department, we provide a service to the community, being there night and day to take care of anyone in need, regardless of who they are.
I think my position as a physician gives me a unique opportunity to help the community. Maybe we don’t make huge differences on a societal level, but we do make huge changes to each individual’s life. I like that I can go home each day knowing I made a difference in someone’s life, even if it’s a little difference.