Family medicine resident by day, masked crusader by night, Dr. Alex Ma has a diversified resume. Although the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV graduate doesn’t don a Spider-Man suit to fight crime, he has taken on the equally noble task of bringing smiles to children in hospitals.
When he’s not occupied with his duties as a second-year resident at the Valley Health System, Ma volunteers with Critical Care Comics, a Las Vegas nonprofit with the mission of bringing joy to pediatric hospital patients by donning superhero costumes and donating comics and toys.
As Ma remembers it, he got connected with Critical Care Comics “the same way that I get into a lot of things; it was kind of an accident.” In 2019 – when he was a third-year medical student at Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine – Ma encountered a cast of colorfully-dressed characters while he was working in a local hospital. A lifelong comic and video game fan, Ma was intrigued and reached out to the nonprofit, asking how he could get involved.
“In residency, you have even less free time than the limited time that we have in medical school, so it's easy to get complacent and not want to do anything in residency, let alone community-based activities. I find that volunteering keeps me engaged; it really makes me go out and interact with people. It's something that I try to do at least once a month, sometimes multiple times per month,” says Ma. “It really lets me have an opportunity to express myself in a way that I really don't get to on a daily basis.”
For Ma, embodying the character of Spider-Man – more specifically, Miles Morales, an iteration of the superhero from the 2018 film Into the Spider-Verse – allows him to connect with patients over a shared interest in comics, a pop culture arena that has ballooned in popularity over the past several years. “Things that I got chastised for liking when I was 17 years old suddenly are the cool things in 2022,” Ma muses.
Ma sees that these connections also strengthen relationships within his work and residency program.
“I bond with my office staff, I bond with my patients, I bond with nurses in the hospital over things that have nothing to do with medicine. I think that's such an important thing. There's this sheer amount of things that we don't have in common with people anymore. There are 14,000 streaming platforms; we're all watching different things. So it's nice to say, ‘Okay, I found this one thing in common with a person,’” Ma says.
Not only do patients appreciate the warmth and energy Dr. Ma brings to the character, but so do his fellow volunteers.
“Over the past three years of volunteering with Alex, I have always been impressed with his ability to use his free time to give back to his community through Critical Care Comics. Stepping back into medical facilities on his days off to spread a little joy through volunteering is the mark of a real hero. We are so fortunate to have someone as kind-hearted as him on our team,” says Katrina Chapman, director of human resources for Critical Care Comics.
As Chapman notes, Dr. Ma has logged a considerable amount of time in hospitals over the past several years, including a stint at Humboldt General Hospital in Winnemucca, Nevada, population: 8,600. Ma was paired at the hospital through Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine’s family rural medicine program, which sends two family medicine students to Winnemucca per year. The experience was a highlight for Ma’s medical education.
“I got to do a work rotation in Winnemucca, and I just fell in love with family medicine there. I decided there were a lot of things that really appealed to me in that field, such as having long-term relationships with patients,” says Ma.
Ma’s time in Winnemucca also stretched him as a medical student and gave him opportunities to learn in a hands-on environment.
“It was really amazing. I got to work the hospital floor, which was only around 15 beds, and the intensive care unit (ICU) there was only two beds,” Ma recounts. “I would have the supervising doctor say, ‘Do you want to do this injection on this patient?’ ‘Of course, why wouldn’t I?’ ‘Want to take this mole off somebody's knee?’ I hadn't really gotten to do any of that back in Vegas just because sometimes you don't see those kinds of patients in the clinic. Every single thing that traditionally you’d see a specialist for, up there it was basically the primary care that was managing it. So I just found that really fascinating.”
Beyond his time at Humboldt General Hospital, Ma credits his close relationship with his family as one of the reasons he decided to pursue family medicine as a specialty.
“I found that one of the big things that also really drew me to family medicine was having my immediate and extended family getting older,” Ma says. “I find that family is the one thing in the end that will always value you and back you up. You can always go to them for anything.” In addition to volunteering with Critical Care Comics, Ma says that maintaining close contact with his family, most of whom live in Las Vegas, “keeps me grounded in residency.”
While his family keeps Dr. Ma grounded, you can find him, as Miles Morales, swinging through the air in – or, at least walking through – hospitals all over the Vegas Valley as he spends his free time with Critical Care Comics, bringing laughter and wonder to those hospitals' youngest patients.