Sauntering into the dark hospital room, I was dazzled by my patient’s radiant smile. It spanned her face and crinkled her eyes; her crooked teeth peeked through her lips, making her seem approachable and kind.
“Hi, Ms. Radha, I’m a third-year medical student,” I said. “Is this an okay time to chat? I’m here on behalf of the psychiatry department.”
I am a second-year medical student—an older medical student, married, with a five-year-old boy and a baby. In medical school, people like me are called nontraditional—a euphemism for peculiar, different.
Today a group of my classmates and I have gathered, wearing our white coats, at a basketball court in Barrio Bélgica, in the south of Puerto Rico, where I’m completing my first two years of medical school. We’re here to visit with some of the local people as part of our Community Medicine course.
One unusually wintery April morning, when I was fifteen, my maternal grandfather (“Nanabhai” to me) passed away.
The phone call came before my sister and I left for school. My father solemnly handed the phone to my mother, who’d been expecting the call, but not this soon. From my seat at the kitchen counter, I watched her expression morph from shock to disbelief to grief. Without hearing a word, I knew what had happened.
In the spring of 2021, as a third-year medical student in the midst of the pandemic, I worked on a research thesis while continuing to build my clinical skills. Every other week, I would visit the endocrinology clinic and see patients with my research mentor.
It was a day like any other at the clinic. Wearing the usual blue surgical face mask, I knocked on the exam-room door, and asked permission to enter. After sanitizing my hands, I began my introductory spiel while heading to the computer. Sitting down, I glanced at my patient, Jim—a man in his fifties, sitting across from me.
“You know how empowering it was for me to walk out into the ocean without my shirt on?” asked my twenty-four-year-old cousin Neil after we’d returned from a day of swimming and sunning at the beach.
For me, it had been a rare and welcome break from my coursework in medical school, where I had just started my fourth year.
It was the first time I had worn a bikini in public after years of veiling myself in shirts and wetsuits.
My interest in women’s health began when, in high school, I became aware of the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Learning about that conflict’s impact on women in terms of sexual trauma and maternal mortality opened my eyes to the depths of inequality that women face in the Global South. This, combined with the fact that I’m a first-generation Nigerian-American, led me to pursue a career in obstetrics and gynecology, with a global-health focus.
As I’ve learned in my three years as a medical student, medicine teaches us to place one another in cardboard boxes with worn-out, silver duct-tape labels: “Difficult” patients, tolerable colleagues, children working as family translators, nurses balancing too many beds, the old man who just needs someone to talk to. Like everyone else, I’ve gotten comfortable interacting within the boundaries of these boxes. It’s easier. It’s safer.
And then came Shirley.
Suzanne Smith was an elderly white woman who experienced a violent assault some odd years ago. Since then, she’d never been quite the same. Plagued by fears and sleepless nights, the concepts of medicine and psychotherapy were alien to her, and from my understanding in speaking to her children prior to her coming in, she wasn’t keen on speaking to medical professionals.
Editor’s Note: As New Voices’ first editor, I am thrilled to launch Pulse’s newest feature with this story by Livja Koka, depicting, among other things, the difficult choices that parents make in hopes of giving their children a better future. This story, we hope, is only the first of many accounts by writers whose voices and experiences have often gone unseen and unheard. If you have such a story to tell, we hope you’ll consider submitting it to New Voices. — Olapeju Simoyan
Every family has things they do not discuss. The emotions are too real, the pain is too raw, the guilt is too intense, the denial is still too young to be interrupted. In my family, we have little problem discussing most things,