By Joy Ayemoba
Today I am fewer than six weeks from completing my intern year. Like many of my peers the transition from medical student to physician was a difficult one at best. The excitement to don ‘the long white coat’ was tempered by my realization of the new responsibility and expectations that came with my new apparel. As students pursuing surgery we were told the hours would be long and the work physically demanding. Yet, despite all the lectures on burn-out and sleep deprivation, I wasn’t fully prepared for the mental and emotional toll that comes with this work, especially as a Black woman.
Starting residency during a summer in which the whole world felt as though it had been set ablaze, I entered my intern year with heightened sensitivity to the racial and socioeconomic disparity that exists within this country. As more Americans were faced with important conversations regarding race and inequality, I was ushered forward by a wave of optimism. I watched people across the country take a knee and boldly wear pins professing that Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter, and Love is Love. I hoped to see a healthcare system that shifted with the forces of society, but the reality is that COVID-19 worsened the gap that exists between our most vulnerable and most privileged populations.
Although I did not see the height of the pandemic, I witnessed its wake. I encountered Black and Brown patients who slipped through the cracks of our healthcare system. Countless elective surgeries were delayed. I wonder what future studies might show regarding delays to intervention amongst patients who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). This year, I have cared for several patients who have been labeled as ‘difficult’ when the reality is far more complex. Some of these patients have been hurt by a healthcare system they feel was not built for them. Others may feel further validated in distrusting the system when faced with reports of limited access to vaccines within their communities, despite being those most hard hit by this pandemic.
As someone who finds strength through their compassion, learning the fine line between empathy and overinvolvement has been a constant challenge. I have felt frustration with a system that moves slowly. The significance of being a Black woman has weighed heavily on my shoulders. My identity has motivated me to work harder but has also carried a weight of expectation that has greatly shaped my intern year. At times, I have felt small and upset with myself and the system, and yet, there have been days in which I have stepped into an operating room full of women and BIPOC and felt a renewed sense of purpose and motivation. I am reminded in the presence of these incredible women how much work I need to put into my training to stand alongside them as harbingers of change.
As the clock winds down on my intern year, I’m thankful for the lessons I’ve learned, the friendships I’ve made, and the opportunities for self-improvement. As I prepare myself for next year, I am more hardened, more tired, and more hopeful as I look to the new challenges ahead.
Joy Ayemoba, MD, MSc, is originally from London, United Kingdom. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago. After obtaining her BA, she returned to the United Kingdom to complete her graduate degree in Social Epidemiology at the University College London (UCL). She then worked as a research statistician/epidemiologist at UCL before enrolling at Tulane University School of Medicine. At Tulane, she developed an interest in General Surgery and further understanding the relationship between surgical outcomes and health care inequalities. She is a General Surgery resident at New York Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.
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