A childhood dream of being a lawyer to a hands-on doctor reality
Growing up as an immigrant family living on the southside of Chicago, my dad drove a cab and my mom worked a temporary job. Before I even knew what the words health inequity meant, I knew what they looked like as a child, seeing and experiencing them around me. But through the Chicago Park District’s community outreach programs, I was given space to thrive as I took tumbling, got help with my homework and planned for my future career. I knew I wanted to be…a lawyer.
I was given the opportunity to job shadow a lawyer for a day – and I did not enjoy it. I asked the lawyer when does he get to save lives and make a difference through all the paperwork? The lawyer asked me if I had ever thought about being a doctor. I had not, though the running joke in traditional African families is that your children should grow up and be doctors. The lawyer connected me with an emergency department doctor, and I was hooked. It was a space where I could provide quick hands-on help to anyone in my community who walked through the hospital doors.
One of my first lessons on my medical journey was we all have privileges. Knowing what they are is important to be able to advocate for everyone to have those same privileges. This is the definition of health equity: Everyone having access to the same resources and tools from birth to death so they can live their fullest lives. Essentially, this is what the medical oath is when we graduate medical school, but often we have not learned about health inequities and how to address them in practice.
When I was a resident, I took care of an older African-American woman. I was eager to help her, coming from a similar culture and the same community. However, when she saw me, she instantly frowned. The interpreter translated that my patient didn’t want me as her doctor and wanted another doctor, preferably an older male. I was so frustrated and wasn’t sure what was going on. We learned the patient had an unfortunate experience with someone who looked like me. I learned then that I needed to check my bias at the door. I assumed that since we were both Black and from the same community, this would be a smooth visit. I realized my position requires me to give more time to listening, less judging and not taking what is said personally, because I am meeting the sweetest people at their worst.
Along with serving the health needs in my community, I also see what social, systematic, or environmental aspects are not getting addressed and finding out ways to fulfill them for my patients. But this can only be done by stepping into my patient’s perspective of their visit, health and experience. What they are experiencing will help me grow as a doctor.
I also see how being a visual representation in my community matters. I often get remarks on how “I have never had a doctor look like you,” patients wanting to take a photo of me for their kids or grandkids, or being surprised that I wear hoop earrings, have tattoos and come off as the “neighborhood girl doctor.” As doctors, we are human. We have the benefit of helping others with our skills and experiences, but listening to our patients and having an honest dialogue will truly be what helps my community live well.
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Dr. Oyinkansola Okubanjo is an emergency medicine physician at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill.