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“Oyetewa, please follow me to my office,” my attending (aka my boss) said, her back already turned to me as she walked down the hallway. She was a 5’2” brown-skinned woman with long, jet black hair, and a persistently unsmiling face. I had been working with her for two weeks in the cardiac intensive care unit, and was pretty sure it had been my worst two weeks of intern year to date. She made me nervous. No matter how well I knew my patients’ information, she would always question me about some detail I did NOT know, or that had slipped my memory in the wake of her disapproving gaze. I spent hours at home studying EKGs (test that measures the heart’s electrical activity) in preparation to be pimped every morning that I rounded with her. And let me tell you, she pimped me A LOT.
FYI for those that are getting concerned: “Pimping” in medicine isn’t what it sounds like. It is a teaching method in which someone more senior than you asks you questions on the spot, often difficult questions requiring intimate knowledge of a topic, commonly in front of the rest of the medical team. It is typically very stressful to be pimped because of the ever-present fear of looking like an idiot in front of your superiors and peers. Getting pimped (and especially getting the answers wrong) can be humiliating, particularly if it happens a lot.
Let’s be clear – I had felt humiliated by her at least once daily over the last two weeks. To make matters worse, I felt like she wasn’t as hard on some of the other interns. It was as though she had a vendetta against me, and her constant disapproval was becoming demoralizing.
I was terrified of her.
So you can already imagine how I felt trailing her on the way to her office. What could she possibly want to say to me? Did I do something wrong? Did I prescribe someone the wrong medication? GAHHH Mommy help meee!
After we entered her small, cramped office, she closed the door and sat across from me. For at least 20 seconds, she looked at me without speaking. And then she finally said: “I’m very disappointed in you.”
I gulped. “Oh?” I croaked quietly. “I’m sorry, is there something I did wrong?”
She sighed heavily. “And that too! Stop apologizing! You do that way too much! Every time I ask you a question and you get it wrong, you say ‘sorry’. As women, we need to learn to apologize less. Take ‘sorry’ out of your vocabulary.”
As a force of habit, I opened my mouth to say “sorry” again, but thankfully caught myself. Instead, I just looked at her blankly, waiting for her to get to the point.
“I digress. I’m disappointed in you because over the last two weeks, you have shown yourself to be one of the hardest working, most intelligent, and most compassionate residents I have ever worked with, and yet, you want to go into dermatology.” She spat the last word with a look of utter disgust. “You are a complete waste of talent.”
I blinked. “Pardon me?”
“I expect more from you. Maybe you notice I seem harder on you than the others. It’s because I want to push you. Someone with your mind should become a cardiologist. At the very least, become a gastroenterologist for goodness sake, although they don’t really need to be that smart,” she coughed. “I can tell you are interested in the material, and you like real pathophysiology. You are also a fierce advocate for your patients. You should be saving lives, not popping pimples.”
I felt an odd mixture of relief, affirmation, and annoyance. I had never been complimented in such a negative way before, but this wasn’t the first time I had heard statements of a similar sentiment.
In medical school, when people found out I was planning to go into dermatology, I would receive some iteration of the following responses: “Derm, ey? So, you want to make good money for doing pretty much nothing.” or “Don’t you actually want to help people?” or “Wow! You must have done really well on your exams, good for you!” or “Dermatology is really competitive. Make sure you have a back-up just in case it doesn’t work out.” or my favorite “Oh, you are trying to be the new Dr. Pimple Popper!” No one ever assumed I was actually interested in learning more about the skin. The average person didn’t think I could make a difference, particularly for underserved and minority communities, through the practice of dermatology.
I didn’t know how to respond to my attending, so I said, “Thank you for the feedback, and I’ll work on being less apologetic moving forward.”
She ignored my comment and continued, “You’re going to be SO BORED in dermatology. Mark my words. By the end of your first month, you’ll be regretting your decision. Take my card,” she said as she fumbled through her purse, then handed it to me. “If you ever decide you want to come back to internal medicine residency and then specialize in cardiology, call me. I can get you a spot in our residency program. I predict I’ll be hearing from you.”
At this moment, looking back on that interaction, I can do nothing but laugh to myself. I have been a dermatology resident for only 4 short weeks, but I LOVE IT. For the first time in my life, I’m not dragging myself out of bed in the morning, dreading the work I have to do. I’m intellectually stimulated, as every patient presents a new mystery to solve, a new reason to research and learn. I’m helping people feel better about themselves. I’m doing procedures daily. I’m good, sis.
I KNOW I am making a difference in patients’ lives every day. In medicine, people tend to view diseases that will kill a patient imminently as the most important things for their health. I believe that disorders that ruin self-esteem, cause constant pain or discomfort, or in any other way decrease the quality of someone’s life are JUST AS IMPORTANT. Not to mention, I’m taking extra effort to learn the science of skin of color/darker skin tones, so the field of dermatology can better serve these patients as well.
Dermatology is not only about fixing pimples (WHICH IS IMPORTANT, by the way! If you have ever struggled with bad acne, you know how life-altering that can be). It is about a wide range of management, from chronic diseases like psoriasis, to sudden rashes that indicate life-threatening allergies, to chronic itch, to diseases that cause significant disfigurement, to cancer, to cosmetics. This, too, is how to save a life. I save lives every day, just in a different way than many other phenomenal physicians that manage more “acute” disease and emergencies.
SOAPBOX MOMENT: Never let someone make you feel like you shouldn’t do the thing that you are passionate about. If you feel led to do something, even if other people don’t like it, DO IT. To the medical students out there who haven’t decided what they want to specialize in: learn about a wide variety of specialties, pray about it, talk to different faculty members, shadow, watch procedures, take those online quizzes that help you decide. But when you find something that excites you, don’t let anyone tell you that you won’t make a difference in a certain field (particularly for students that are underrepresented minorities in medicine). EVERY specialty in medicine is necessary, EVERY specialty makes a difference.
Also, don’t let anyone psych you out of doing what you want to do because it’s “competitive” or “too hard”. This goes for ANYTHING in life. If you don’t remember anything else I write, remember this: don’t take advice from people who don’t believe in you. You can. You CAN. YOU CAN. You just gotta figure out HOW.
*Jumps off soap box*
Until next time,
Click here for some advice for matching into the specialty of your choice from someone who believes in you.