The current trend on social media in the world of medicine is #mypathtomedicine. This is an age old question all medics, and potential medics, are asked. It is an opening question at medical school interviews, and, as I am finding out, at postgraduate interviews, at funding interviews, at speciality job interviews…. Why medicine? What drew you to surgery? Have you always wanted to be a doctor? When did you know?
I did not have an eye-opening, career-defining moment. I was born and grew up around Lake Victoria, in Sub-Saharan Africa, and I had the childhood that children read of in story books; that in which I spent afternoons under the hot sunshine feeding giraffes, and evenings on the lake shore hearing tales from people in all walks of life and from a spectrum of cultural backgrounds. Yet, all around me I was exposed to great disparities - unaffordable health care for those whom were desperately sick, shunning of people with disabilities, ethnic cleansing in the town where I grew up…. It carved in me a great sense of injustice, and the need to try and change what I think is one of the greatest downfalls of mankind. Perhaps, over time it instilled in me the subconscious desire for a profession in which we act both in a role of leadership and in servanthood. And so, my life decisions were starting to be influenced by this underlying notion. A brief example- when I was a teenager and moved to England my parents padded me up with warm winter clothes. That summer, I returned to Kenya and gave all of my warm, soft, cushioned clothes to my parents’ gardener. It was only when I experienced the next bitterly cold winter my mother asked me why - “Well, Jack’s children must be cold too”. Jack’s children live on the Equator; but, this was an instrumental step in the tumultuous direction I felt I was drawing towards.
Once I was naïve enough to realise I wanted to help tackle a global crisis, I needed to negotiate how I would do this. I had always toyed with the idea of being a medic from a very young age, but had never taken ownership until a stroke of serendipity. I was nine years old when my parents sent me to boarding school, because of the limited educational opportunities where I grew up. In the depths of the Rift Valley, I met a teacher from England whom nonchalantly one Sunday afternoon told me I was going to be a doctor. I thought he was mad. A doctor? Don’t hospitals smell like vinegar?! Aren’t doctors all men?
How can a girl be a surgeon? At the tender age of nine I had already unhooked the fully loaded question! In the world where I grew up, women didn’t often work, and the few that did were definitely not leading ward rounds or spending their nights in emergency theatre. However, I have been fortunate enough to have strong, open-minded, cross-cultural parents. Recently, as a fully qualified doctor, I was invited to an Oxford graduation for a female Asian-Caucasian friend whom I met in Kenya. It was during my reflection there that I realised my father was the first gate-opener for me. He would tell me I could do anything my brother did, that I could be a doctor if I wanted to be, and that being a girl had nothing to do with either the problem or the solution. My parents worked as hard as they could to give us the best opportunities possible, and so when I was 16 I attended an all-girls’ boarding school. It was here that I fundamentally learnt it was okay to be a girl. And even more so, that the future game-changers in our world will be women, and men, whom are intelligent and whom are ambitious. And that, at said school, when I was taught to pour wine and slice cheese it is not because “women belong in the kitchen”, but because some of the most influential professional and personal relationships are best formed over a hand-poured glass of red!
In tandem with the social and cultural environments, the critical step for applying to medical school was securing academic rankings. During my much longed for holidays at home, I would spend Saturday evenings preparing for medical school entry exams with a one-legged tutor whom insisted we sat on the veranda so he could simultaneously smoke. My Sunday afternoons were caught in a cacophony of ill-conceived chemistry experiments and a stroll around my parents garden with my trusted dog, gaining first-hand experience in plant biology. My mother would plan our holidays to visit my grandparents in Toronto around my exams, and she would stay awake in the darkest nights, supporting me when I was convinced I wasn’t smart enough to get into medical school. Even today, I have to remind myself that we are not given a spirit of fear or timidity, because Imposter Syndrome still lingers in the shadows as a doctor.
The week I got accepted into medical school is still a blur. The shear relief and the overwhelming sense of happiness was juxtaposed with my grandmother’s funeral (from old age), and with the blood chilling murder of my godfather’s wife. Yet, through it all my friends and family had supported me and stood fast beside me. Getting into medical school was the first step, getting through medical school was the next step, and it is only when we take a moment to rest that we appreciate all of these steps are journeys in their own right.
So maybe the next question is whether I would ever return back to Africa, the pearl of the world? Not “Today”. For “Today” I am still learning, and negotiating, and discovering there is need all over the world. But, there is always “Tomorrow” …