The following manuscript was submitted to the September 2019 Women in Medicine theme issue.
Editor’s note: The author’s identity has been withheld by the in-House Editorial Board due to the sensitive nature of the article.
“What did you do on your year abroad?” my attending asked, having learned that I graduated a year early from college and had traveled before starting medical school. He was well known worldwide for making significant advancements in his field — I had spent the last night researching his articles, reading about him in the press, and watching YouTube videos of his conferences. This was my first time meeting him, and my excitement was visible.
“I spent the first semester in France where I studied the language.” I was about to say that I spent the second semester in my home country in South America doing research on Chagas disease when he interrupted by saying, “What a waste of time. What did learning French ever help you with?”
My mother spoke five languages and lived in three different countries by the time she was fifteen. Her father worked for the Organization of the American States, so her family moved often. As a child, she loved traveling and connecting with people from different cultures. She imparted this type of appreciation unto me. While in Europe, I saw a Marc Chagall exposition in Nice and later contemplated the famous cupula he painted at Paris’ Opera Garnier. I visited a Mirot exhibit in Barcelona and walked through Gaudi’s masterpieces. I spent two hours in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and marveled at his genius. I read French books and poetry. It was like being let into a secret. There were words that wouldn’t translate into English or Spanish. These new ways to describe the world lent French literature a type of magic that I felt lucky to know. I did all these things with the company of other international students from all walks of life and ages. They became my family away from home and I grew to immensely appreciate the cultural richness we embodied. Spending a semester to focus on art and travel gave me a better understanding of the range of human experience and this proved instrumental in helping me better care for patients.
All this passed through my mind after hearing my attending’s question. Nonetheless, I didn’t respond. I felt somebody who asked a question like that would have a very difficult time understanding the significance that semester had for me. You see, to me his message was clear. He saw no value in learning about customs and cultures different from his own.
On a separate occasion, while sitting in a conference room waiting for a patient case to commence, my classmate, our attending whom I will call Dr. Dickinson, a colleague of his, and myself, began conversing. We were all wearing scrubs and sneakers. I was the only female and minority in the room. Suddenly, Dr. Dickinson turned toward me and said, “I have never understood why women wear heels. It is so stupid. I think they only do it so they can be carried around by their husbands after their feet start hurting.” I looked over at my classmate. I think I was hoping for a look of camaraderie that might say, “I’m sorry.” But, I didn’t get anything.
As the month progressed, my excitement at rotating with Dr. Dickinson extinguished. His ignorant comments were exhausting and made it difficult to focus on his teaching. The first day of the rotation, one of his secretaries asked my classmate and I for our phone numbers. “Transplants can happen any time of the day or night. However, because it gets very crowded, we can only have one medical student observe at a time. So, if we get a transplant we will call one of you at random. If we get a second transplant, then the other will have a turn.” On one particular day, at around 4 p.m., my classmate was exiting a surgery case and getting ready to go home when he ran into a fellow. She invited him to a transplant case that was about to begin. The case I had scrubbed into ended about an hour later. I didn’t see him or the fellow on my way home. The next morning, while on our way to meet with Dr. Dickinson, my classmate excitedly told me all about the transplant, which had run well past midnight. Dr. Dickinson greeted him, “I heard you scrubbed into a transplant. That is fantastic!” Then he turned to me. “Where were you? Getting your beauty sleep?”
Throughout my career, I have frequently had to wrestle with derisory attitudes from supervisors and even classmates who perhaps think that my gender and ethnicity do not make me worthy. Sometimes it feels like the attitudes stem from a kind of fear at being confronted with a presence that is nothing like that of the white, privileged, and male presence they have grown accustomed to and feel safe in. I wonder if this explains why many times I have felt my colleagues create walls to separate me from them. Walls of, “I can’t see myself in the way you look, the way you talk, or the way you act.” Walls of, “I can’t identify with you and you can’t belong where I belong.” These walls can take the form of pointed misogynistic comments, like Dr. Dickinson’s. More often though they take much subtler forms, like the apathetic stare I received from my classmate while Dr. Dickinson directed blatantly chauvinistic words at me. However, I have also found mentors that have helped me push past those walls by listening to my experiences and encouraging me to move forward. Wonderful mentors who have also shared with me similar difficulties of their own, reminded me that I am not alone, and worked alongside me in projects related to addressing gender and racial bias in medicine.
Now a senior resident, I have written this narrative both to shed some more light on these difficult realities and in the hopes it can serve as a tool to any reader currently facing a wall that needs leveling. To you, dear reader, I say walk on.