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Whose shoulder do you cry on?



I was mixing and mingling among the crowd at the amazing Black Policy Conference


“Are you a student here at Kennedy”

“No actually I’m at the medical school”

“Oh medical school…whose shoulder do you cry on?”


Pause.


I frowned my brows, laughing nervously as I pulled myself back into the moment because that question had caught me so off guard. “I -- I don’t know. My honest answer is no one.”


I have great support in the form of family, friends, mentors, therapy…but even in those safe spaces I come to my friends with my tears dried, my problems well thought out, my emotions rationalized and tied to a cause, and of course I already thought of my solutions.

“I’m fine - I’m gonna be good.”


My resilience has certainly played a role to where I am today as well as my favorite coping mechanism: work. Looking back 10 years ago when I left St. Maarten with my mom and three younger brothers, we moved on a Saturday and on that Monday I was starting my first day of high school - in a new country, no friends, and so much uncertainty about how my new life would look I did know one thing - I knew how to study and do well in school and that I did.


In 2017 I started my freshmen year of college, within a month into the semester starting Hurricane Irma devastated St. Martin, destroying my childhood home, our family business, and damaging 90% of the country's buildings. I showed up to class the next day. I continued my classes, going back and forth from campus to my mom's home, organized a fundraiser for my island, and ended my first semester with straight As.


I use just these two examples because to understand myself and how I am processing medical school, I have to look at the past. As I said, my resilience certainly led me to where I am today - a student at Harvard Medical School. But as a Black woman in my twenties, I've been rethinking what it means to be resilient, re-examining what I have come to believe about being a strong Black woman, and my tendencies to not allow myself to rest or feel down.


I was raised by strong women. I was raised on an island of strong people. I was raised by a phenomenal family. I also recognize, especially in the Caribbean, that mental health is stigmatized and that many of my family members didn't have the access to mental health services or therapy - I on the other hand now have this privilege. In one of the sessions at the conference, we talked about Black healing, Black joy, Black peace. When one of the panelist mentioned how hard it has been to learn how to allow yourself to rest as the eldest daughter of West Indian parents I clapped and laughed "Yes!" - it felt so good to be around people who shared my background, who got it, and explained feelings I had without me having to put the words to label them. Much of this conversation about self-care is cultural and shaped by our upbringing and roles in society.


Self-care is truly a journey. And trying to find myself, unlearn and relearn as a Black woman in my twenties while also being in medical school is a challenge of its own.


I know my story inspires others - especially those who look like me and share my identities. I know that people who follow me are motivated to work hard, study, and aim high by my content - I know because of the stories shared to me via DMs, emails, calls, and in person (which I always appreciate).


But I also hope that my journey can be one that also inspires wellness and self care - one that glamorizes the rest as much as the grind and sleepless nights.


Because this medical journey is truly one of both - the past 6 months of my clerkship year have been the hardest I have ever been through. It’s also been the most rewarding.

My story, my values, and who I am as a person led me to medicine - to be in a career that requires so much sacrifice, service, and selflessness. Medicine attracts this kind of individual, the type A overachiever, and then puts us in an environment where we work constantly, we see the failures of systems and policies that lead to a patient's pathology sitting in front of you, we feel a range of emotions from sharing the happiest moment with a patient to the worst day of a patient's life within the same shift.


As a medical student on the wards, I add the additional mental load of learning while also being evaluated, rotating through services each week and quickly gaining a grasp of how to learn best of this clerkship, how the attending likes the presentations, how to be helpful without being in the way. Explaining to a father our antibiotic choices, that we were doing everything we could for his son as the child's body was shutting down. I experienced losing that patient. I held the hands of a grieving woman as she cried over her non-viable fetus. I helped delivery newborns and high-fived the six year old girl we were discharging home.


And then I head home for the day, often playing some gospel music. Turn the key to my apartment, hastily take off my scrubs, shower, sit down and breathe for a moment. Then out with my laptop and it's time to study because at the end of each rotation is a standardized test I need to pass.


"I've done hard things before"...I tell myself. "I can do it again".


But where is the time to process? Going back to what was asked of me -- whose shoulder did I cry on?


I have had to be very intentional about my wellness, for me that means therapy sessions even if I have to run from the wards to a quiet space in the hospital to meet with my therapist, it means scheduling in time to journal, it means prayer, it means studying at the airport terminal because I'm gonna catch that flight and see my family and make it work in my schedule.


As a medical student, sometimes I need to hold back the tears to focus on providing the best care to the patient in front of me - but other times I need to fully experience my emotions and hardships. I need to tell myself it is ok not to have it all together. And remind myself that tears are not a sign of weakness, but one of strength.


I know that doing so will not only make me a truly strong woman - but a better doctor too. So as I continue on my medical journey, I promise to myself and to my future patients that I will continue the self-work to learn this new definition of strength. I promise to lean on those who support me. I promise to let myself cry.


So I'll pose the question asked to me onto you...whose shoulder do you cry on?

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beautifully written! thank you for being vulnerable and sharing this!

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