Last week I spoke to a room full of first-year students at Georgetown University about my journey to Public Health. It had been a while since I last heard myself speak about, well, me. It was also the first time a group came to listen to my husband and I speak at the same time. Both highlights were exciting, but what stood out to me most was that somehow, after hearing about my life, each student left empowered with a call to do good in the world. What a crazy concept it is to go through life, doing what is reasonable to us; but at some point, each decision we make is used to inspire thought, and if we're lucky, action.
Earlier that week, the students visited health clinics that exposed some, for the first time, to poverty. They witnessed up close what it meant to go without and be in a community that also went without. They saw what it was like to belong to a system who's intent is to oppress and control. They saw my childhood.
After taking my seat and surveying each of their naive, yet determined faces, I invited them to reflect on their experiences at the clinic sites. A revised version of a body scan where I asked them to jot down on an index card a thought or emotion they felt that corresponded with a particular region of their bodies. I invited them to think with their heads, their hearts, and their hands. After witnessing the harsh reality of Washington, D.C.'s Wards 7 and 8, what did they think, what did they feel in their hearts, and what did they see as a call to action (their hands).
I was stunned at the honesty in the room. Some confessed that before coming to D.C., they only wanted to enter the medical field because they were living up to the expectations of their families. However, after meeting patients, they felt called to do work that was far greater than themselves. Others lived the reality of being underinsured and left with a more profound passion for the task.
I proceeded to tell my story.
What they didn't know is that a day prior, I interviewed for a position that required me to examine parts of me that I didn't realize I wasn't ready to share. The job entailed providing school-aged children and their families to mental health resources in marginalized communities. When asked my "why," it required me to rummage through years of childhood trauma. From seeing violence, death, and even my brother succumb to the mental pressures of our environment, which left me speechless because I didn't know where to start. In other words, they asked me, "who are you now, outside of the trauma, the pain, the evolved version of you who is now empowered to give back to those just like you?" Have I evolved?
With one quick breath, I began with the fact that I grew up in a place where people didn't usually make it out. Not just because of gun violence, but their inability to afford preventative health resources. I shared the story of how my late sister showed symptoms of illness for an entire year and brushed it off out fear of an "emergency room bill" before being diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma. I then told them how I grew up wanting to become a doctor because pathologists, surgeons, and nurses surrounded me as I went through the 10-year journey with her. I told them how, during my junior year, I decided I no longer wanted to attend medical school. However, I wanted to work closely with communities that were just like mine to provide health resources that would better their lives, which brought me to my current place.
By the end of my talk, I received a startling ovation. What I just saw as a sad story, that, for a while I wanted to hide, became an inspiration to those who sit in the same seat I was in 6 years ago. I felt empowered, I felt seen, and I felt like I was enough.
Recalling my journey gave me the courage to revisit that underlying pain that has informed my passion. In my talk, I was able to reveal my body scan: I thought about my sister, I felt for the community that raised me, and I am called to do the work that has set my soul on fire, Public Health.