Black Women in Medicine

According to Association of American Medical Colleges reports from 2019, only 5% of the active physicians in the United States identify as Black/African-American. Less than 3% of them are women. This number is both staggering and deeply disappointing. Representation—feeling seen, understood, advocated for—matters and plays a tremendous role in moving toward equality in healthcare for all.

As a third-year medical student, I’ve come across several incredibly inspiring Black women who are also pursuing medicine and highlighting their journeys through their social media platforms. They’re versatile, they don’t hesitate to put you on medical school game, and they’re candid when the struggle gets real. They do all this while remaining true to themselves, being unapologetically fun, creative, and lighthearted. These women have served as a source of support for me and many others pursuing the same path.

TGR decided to interview and celebrate three women in particular. They’re each in their final year of medical school and on the interview trail, applying to residency positions to begin their careers as physicians this coming summer. Read below to learn more about them, their trajectories, and what it’s like being a fourth year medical student in the middle of both COVID-19 and the racism pandemics.

Michele A., St. George’s University School of Medicine, @dolcemimi_

1) What inspired you to pursue medicine?

There were a lot of different reasons. My primary inspiration was from my own personal experiences with the healthcare field growing up. My family was not wealthy or even middle class. I grew up on Medicaid. I saw the ugly side of medicine that not too many people discuss. During medical check-ups we were not given the best care but instead were treated as a number. I felt that as a seven year-old. I wanted no other child or family to go through what I had to endure. So I devoted my life to changing that.

2) In the midst of two crises–both COVID and racial injustice–what does it mean to you to become a doctor at a time like this?

I think it is a huge deal graduating in the time of COVID and racial unrest. There is a massive need for Black physicians. To know that I will be able to break that barrier and help my community is so humbling. There is a huge distrust in the Black community toward health professionals. I know that decreasing the racial gap that exists will allow for Black people to begin to trust again, because more physicians look like them and feel like them.

3) What do you want to be remembered/celebrated for?

My tenacious spirit. It wasn’t until this year that I realized how much I’ve been through in my 29 years of life. It has not been easy by any means. But I have never let my circumstance define me or define where I will be in the future. I hope people see my story and become encouraged.

4) What makes you who you are outside of medicine?

Being funny! Growing up my house was always filled with laughter. You can definitely say we laughed to keep from crying. I try and bring as much comedic relief as I can to whoever I meet. I love to have fun and just be goofy and not take life so seriously.

5) We know that COVID has disproportionately affected Black people. Disparities in healthcare accessibility and quality aren’t a new trend. Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share in regards to this topic or as a medical student who’s about to be on the other side of training?

This is not a new issue at all. COVID just shed light on the systemic racism that has led the Black community to be disproportionately affected on many things. The comorbidities that tend to cause patients to do worse with COVID run rampant through our communities. Why? Do we have time to talk about how “ghettos” were created by the government and how less funding is put into these communities, thus leading to less public health education and less healthy food options to be offered? Pero, I digress.

Osose O., Michigan State University College of Human Medicine @Ososee

1) What inspired you to pursue medicine?

My mom is a two-time breast cancer survivor and as I was growing up seeing the type of care she was receiving here in the United States, it had a profound impact on me. And even when her father was sick in Nigeria and he would be brought here to receive care, I would be sitting in the ED eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as I waited for them. I was able to see that they felt their loved ones would get the best care here. I was able to see that for my mom, and she just recently turned 60 so seeing that juxtaposition definitely influenced my decision toward medicine.

Additionally, I had my own experiences as a patient and I realized how important it was for me to see someone who looked like me when I was at my most vulnerable. It was a couple of different pieces from childhood through college that really solidified it and made it feel that this was a calling. I was great at a lot of the skills that were needed to become a great physician so it became very clear for me throughout my life that this was something that I was called to do.

2) In the midst of two crises–both COVID and racial injustice–what does it mean to you to become a doctor at a time like this?

I think it’s important now, more than ever, to have more physicians of color, more Black physicians specifically, when it comes to the United States and the folks that live within this country. And just being more active on social media, I’ve been able to see the impact of folks seeing me. I’ve been seeing the impact of walking into a patient’s room and they say, “Oh my gosh, are you a nurse or what?” and when I say no, I’m a doctor—especially a Black family—just seeing the peace wash over them. I think it’s very necessary to see more folks that look like us and that come from our communities to serve them because there’s just more trust there, naturally.

I think that this pandemic just highlighted even more so how our communities—Black and brown communities—are disproportionately affected by a lot of things just because of the systemic racism that this country is built upon. It is ingrained in the way that our cities are laid out, it is ingrained in the way folks are able to access financial resources, transportation, education—all of it—and all of those things have an impact on our healthcare and our health outcomes and our ability to achieve wellness. So I think that COVID has brought that to the forefront, for sure, and it just made it even more powerful and special for me to have the opportunity and the privilege to have made it this far and to be in this position. I’m about to be finishing medical school and joining the workforce and being able to do what I set out to do ten years ago.

3) What do you want to be remembered/celebrated for?

I think I want to be remembered for being the plug. I remember what it was like in undergrad to not have mentors that were in the field of medicine. Mentors that were photographers, that were creatives doing both. So I had to pave that line and figure out how to connect my passions and talents in a way that I could best serve other people. I have benefited now from folks being resources to me, from sharing their wisdom and their advice and their networks with me, so I just want to be a resource to others. I want to be remembered for being the plug and pulling up the chairs for other people, but also for being the light and a source of encouragement and source of hope for other people. By sharing my story so people know that there is nothing they can’t accomplish if they put their mind to it.

4) We know that COVID has disproportionately affected Black people. Disparities in healthcare accessibility and quality aren’t a new trend. Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share in regards to this topic or as a medical student who’s about to be on the other side of training?

When it comes to Black people receiving care in this country, it’s important for every person in healthcare—not just physicians, but from the person at the reception desk, down to the security guard, janitor, and respiratory therapist—to know how systemic racism and history play a role in the lives of patients. And it’s important because we form our conclusions based on our experiences. You’re more willing to give a friend grace if they made a mistake or if they come at you crazy because you understand their background and you understand that there is good on the other side.

When it comes to our patients, because we don’t know their story, our life experiences, and the way that we’ve been taught, and the things that have been ingrained in us growing up in this country and environment, allow us to form conclusions about people before they even open their mouth. That’s heavy in the field of medicine and the disparities and the things that we see. Whether pregnant women are getting pain medications, whether they’re being heard when they have complaints...that’s an issue when it comes to the Black maternal mortality rate. That’s an issue when it comes to providing folks care. If a person comes in from a car crash and they broke their leg, how quickly do we give them Tylenol versus an opioid? If they’re Black do we automatically think that they’re a drug seeker and give them Tylenol [instead]? So I think it’s important for us to educate all healthcare workers, no matter what position, to receive the histories of the communities in which they are working. I think we have a shortage of primary care physicians so a lot of folks hire out of necessity. And just the same way that physicians and dentists have to continue medical education, I think the same thing should be said for nurses and respiratory therapists. The same should be said for them when it comes to education on bias and racism because it plays a role in the outcomes that we see in our patients. And it was very clear when COVID hit.

So I think I’m excited to see what that looks like when I’m on the other side because it’s all about how do we improve the care that we are providing? It’s the team that provides the care, not just the physician or resident—it’s everyone that interacts with the patient that will influence the patient’s experience and the treatment they receive. So everyone needs to receive some sort of education so they can come in and see this patient and are better able to give them grace and see them as human as they go about the treatment process.

Not only do I want to finish my residency program knowing that I am clinically excellent but I also love the art of storytelling. Through photography I want to tell the powerful stories of my patients in a way that can shift the perspectives of their communities. I think this year has made it more important for us to be understanding and compassionate when it comes to the people around us, their stories, their experiences, and their backgrounds. Maybe then we can shift the culture of systemic racism in this country.

5) Anything else you’d like for us to highlight about you?

I always want it to be known that I’m the national president of the Student National Medical Association and more importantly for what it stands for—we have been working to diversify the face of medicine for almost 60 years and we’re not as well-known as we should be. Our mission is to address the needs of under-represented people in medicine and underserved communities across the nation because that tends to be where our students come from. It’s something that’s very near and dear to our hearts. We also want to contribute to the production of culturally competent, socially conscious and clinically excellent physicians. That’s something I’ve been so proud to have the opportunity to work on this year, despite all the obstacles that have come our way.

Kamilah E., New York Medical College, @MedSchoolMilah

1) What inspired you to pursue medicine?

There are a lot of different things that brought me back to medicine. My first inspiration was my parents. It’s very rare, looking at the numbers of Black doctors and the percentages that we have specifically here in the US, but both of my parents are doctors. My dad is an ER doctor in Texas, and my mom, before she passed away, was a physiatrist. They met at UCLA in undergrad, got married and went to medical school.

I think growing up in a medical household, they never tried to force me to become a doctor, they actually did the complete opposite. They actually thought that medicine was so stressful so my parents were like it’s not worth it, try anything else. They pushed me into the arts. I did dance and acting shows when I was younger, so I actually was not thinking about medicine at all. But I think when my mom passed away that really changed a lot for me. It got me out of the fun world of dance and performance and into what really matters in life. That made me dig deep and find out what happened to my mother. And that led me to declare pre-med as my major in college.

I also had a few other things that I realized. I did like science but also liked social science so I was technically a sociology major, but I was also taking pre-med classes at Chapman University which is in Orange, California. That, and an opportunity I had to perform Vagina Monologues opened up the world of women’s health to me and made me realize I was super interested in OB/GYN, which is what I am actually applying into right now. It’s kind of a long answer but with everything together—my parents being doctors, my mother passing away, me loving women’s health—it just kind of is the perfect field for me, and medicine is the perfect career for me.

2) What do you want to be remembered/celebrated for?

I want to be remembered for a few different things because I find myself to be pretty multi-dimensional and I don’t want to lose that capacity that I have. So although I’m reeling farther into my career where I need to be a lot more focused and sharp—and with how many sheer hours I’ll be working it will take up 80% of my life—I want to make sure that last 20% is being absolutely who I am to my core. That means being a genuine, caring person that loves everybody, that wants to be the plug for everyone, that wants to still enjoy life to the fullest. A lot of things go back to my mom passing away, but when that happened a lot changed in my life and I realized life was not worth living unless you were happy and I want to continue that. I want to continue to inspire others with that as well.

I want to make sure I’m seen as that person who has given their all in the most amazing profession in the world, which to me I think is OB/GYN. It encompasses all the things that I love about medicine. We’re not only teaching preventative health measures, but we’re also surgical geniuses and we’re able to know when we need our patients to be in the OR and we can do those surgeries ourselves. We can step outside of our role and become advocates in so many different ways—education, research (especially translational research), and also legislatively and by representing women to make sure that laws are passed to make sure everyone has equal opportunities.

3) What makes you who you are outside of medicine

I think this is a really big question and one I get a lot now that I’m on the residency interview trail. Another way I have been asked this is how would a group of friends describe me? And I think they would describe me as hardworking and “balls to the wall,” someone who leaves everything on the table. If I’m passionate about something I don’t need others’ approval, or I don’t need second, third, fourth guesses because I think that life is way too short to be sitting on an idea that you can execute yourself. I’m not afraid to pursue even the craziest ideas that I’ve had.

4) We know that COVID has disproportionately affected Black people. Disparities in healthcare accessibility and quality aren’t a new trend. Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share in regards to this topic or as a medical student who’s about to be on the other side of training?

I understand those numbers, and I definitely believe them. I think it’s unfortunate because you have people who are really ignorant to that idea and let’s just say they aren’t hiding under a rock. They know these facts. Some of them absolutely deny it and say there is absolutely no way and that it’s people spewing numbers from the CDC but that is all BS. I’ve definitely seen how those numbers could be true, especially because I have been in some of the craziest hospitals from inner city Bronx hospitals, all the way to the bougie hospitals in Westchester. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen all different patient populations up and down New York.

What I would say is that the hospitals I have been in, as under-resourced as they are, the doctors are more open to talk about it and things are getting a lot better. When I’m on a team and I see someone that should be getting better care or things where I’m like, I don’t know if this is right, I’ve had to step up and explain things a few more times to make sure that people get the care that they absolutely deserve.

I think as a medical student it’s a little bit harder because you’re inserting yourself into a situation where there’s a lot of hierarchy and a lot of history. As much as you want to say that you would be that med student jumping off a hill to save somebody, it’s actually an extremely intimidating system and people almost warn you to really make sure that if you report something, that it is absolutely going to change something. I think that the culture of medicine makes it hard but things are moving, things are changing, and I know as a doctor I’ll have a lot more power and autonomy to make sure that my patients, all patients but especially my Black patients, get the care, comfort and excellent treatment they deserve.

5) Anything else you’d like for us to highlight about you?

Follow me on my blog @medschoolmilah. If I had to leave any words of inspiration it’s just to make sure that you stay true to who you are, even if it’s a complete change in what you thought life was going to be. Because for me, I thought I was going to be a Broadway musical star and here I am applying to one of the hardest fields in medicine. That was all because life’s journey led me to where I needed to go because I truly believed that I had an angel watching over me who’s going to make sure whatever decision I make is going to be the best one for me. And I didn’t let failures be the reason why I pivoted. I didn’t let the failure stop me from taking the MCAT again because I didn’t do so well the first time, or having to do a year post-bac because my grades weren’t so good. And that’s because I stayed true to who I was. So it don’t matter how long it take to get there, it don’t matter if you have kids, what your income is. Don’t let nothing stop you.

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