My Pen Is Mightier
After 9/11, I waited for The Moment.
I was only six when the Twin Towers fell, but even then I understood that being Muslim in America was going to be difficult. I imagined that a teacher would burst into my elementary-school class, point at me and scream, “Get out of this country, you terrorist!” I feared that my friends would look at me, wide-eyed, and never speak to me again.
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.”
Us and Them
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.
A Heart to Heart
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.
Unmasking the Problem
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.
Dignity in Childbirth
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.
Everyone Has a Story
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.
“One of Them”
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.