8 Minute Read
“Awww man!!!” Tosin laughed aloud at herself as her phone fell to the ground again. Trying to keep it propped up on the window sill had been a fail, as she recorded herself dancing to one of her favorite songs. Tosin was both fun-loving and introverted, a natural-hair donning obstetrics and gynecology (OBGYN) resident in her mid-twenties, with a wide, honest smile that reached her eyes. She was in the resident locker-room, and only had a few moments before she would need to check in on her patients. The third time was the charm, and she marveled at how good her nutmeg complexion appeared on the screen as she danced in the soft natural light that shone through the window. Small victories!
Her first stop was to see Rebecca, a young woman who had been admitted a few days earlier after her water broke at home… when she was only in her second trimester. There were two options for management: delivering the baby right away or watching and waiting. If they were to deliver the baby this prematurely, she would almost certainly face a wide range of health problems, if she were to survive at all. However, watching and waiting had its risks too, the main one being infections that could put both the mother and baby’s lives at risk. The team decided on the conservative “watch and wait” option to give the baby the highest chance at developing normally, since Rebecca seemed to be infection-free and all the fetal testing was normal.
“I was in the middle of Spring cleaning when I bent over and felt water trickling down my leg,” Rebecca said when she first got to the hospital.
“Wait, but it’s not even Spring yet!” Tosin responded with humor in her voice.
“I know, but I don’t want to leave anything for after the baby comes!” She laughed with her right hand over her belly, eyes closed and head back, her jet black curls falling past her shoulders. “Plus the truth is… I’m obsessed with cleaning and organizing things. It just makes me feel–”
“Happier, right? ME TOO!” Tosin smiled at Rebecca, noticing the sparkle in her brown eyes when she talked about cleaning. She liked Rebecca right away. Spring cleaning during any season… sounds like me! Tosin thought.
Today, Rebecca was napping when Tosin entered to check her vitals and look at the baby’s fetal heart monitor. All was well. Rebecca stirred and squeezed Tosin’s hand before she walked out, thankful for Tosin’s soothing energy, a calm assuredness that only came from having survived after being wounded.
And BOY had Tosin survived a lot! Her dream had been to become a physician since she was 3 years old. Despite her hard work and determination, she had to take the MCAT three times before applying to medical school. After getting into medical school, she juggled studying, time for herself, and a long-distance marriage to Don, her husband since the age of 21. Every board exam was a struggle starting with Step 1, her most important board exam of medical school. After failing it, she remembered the distinct feeling that all hope was lost. A leave of absence and time with Don was exactly what she needed to get her mind back in the game. When she returned, she eventually passed her exams, matched into OBGYN residency, and graduated, fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming a physician. And then, the worst happened.
Don was dead.
Don passed away during the last week of her intern year of residency. Her Don… her gentle husband with a voice as deep as the ocean and a hearty laugh that shook his shoulders up and down. He was loving, affirming, slow to anger, and a terrible (but always willing) dancer. He had been her rock. Those beginning days of life without him were hazy, her mind in a constant fog. They had been planning on having a baby before he passed, and during her leave of absence, the thought of returning to work only reminded her of what she had lost. When her friends complained about their children she thought, Oh, yes. Please. Continue telling us how much your life sucks right now. She cried herself to sleep every night, praying with fervor that she would not wake up the next morning. But every morning, she woke up again. She thought it ironic that she was dying inside but was still being forced to live. She walked away from God… Cause what kind of God would allow her to become a widow in her 20s?
This deep sadness went on for some time. Slowly, but surely, that same God she felt had abandoned her met her in her darkest place. She found solace in music. She started to see a grief counselor. She went back to church. She started working on losing the 20 pounds she had gained. She attempted her third board exam and failed three times, but finally passed it. She was still sad, but with slightly less intensity. She was slowly learning how to be OK again.
After leaving Rebecca’s room, she made herself available to the first and second year residents that she was now helping to teach as a senior. Her shift was almost over when one of the monitors started beeping: the fetal heart monitor from room 304 was showing recurrent decelerations, meaning that the baby was in distress. Oh no, that’s Rebecca, she thought as she sprinted towards the antepartum unit.
When she got to the room, the baby was only doing worse. She was going to have to be delivered IMMEDIATELY. “OK, let’s get Rebecca prepped to go to the OR, STAT!” Tosin said, her heart racing. As the senior on call, it was her job to do the emergency c-section.
Rebecca was given regional anesthesia, which numbed only the lower part of her body, allowing her to remain awake during the procedure. The attending arrived to supervise, and Tosin carried out the c-section flawlessly. Horizontal incision through the abdominal wall. OK, good. Low transverse incision across the uterus. At this point she could see the baby, and knew deep within her spirit something was very wrong. Rebecca was crying softly, whispering prayers for the baby’s safety.
As Tosin pulled the baby out through the incisions, her heart sank. The baby was so TINY. She had a weak heartbeat, she was not crying, and… she was blue. BLUE. C’mon baby, cry! CRY!!! She cleared the baby’s mouth and nose of fluids, clamped and cut the umbilical cord, and then handed her over to the neonatologist that was waiting.
“Is she OK?” Rebecca shrieked. “I can’t hear her!!! IS MY BABY OK!?”
Tosin worked on sewing up Rebecca’s uterus and abdomen as the neonatologists tried to save the baby’s life, giving her tiny body oxygen and rubbing her vigorously to stimulate her respiratory system. After a few moments, the baby’s heart stopped beating, and she was pronounced dead.
The baby was dead.
Tosin walked silently out of the OR and down the hallway, her eyes glazed over. An attending asked her if she was ok, she said no. She was not OK.
She felt as though someone was holding her head under water and she could not breathe… That silent blue baby, the shrill of her mother’s cry when they pronounced her dead… And just like that, she was thrust forcefully and unexpectedly into the memory of her own loss. The phone call Don had made to her letting her know he was unwell, and then learning that he was gone only an hour later. The helplessness she felt. The fear. The slow healing. The waves of emotions on birthdays and anniversaries. The panic attacks while studying for exams, the panic attacks during exams. The fact that all she ever wanted to do was disappear but she had to put patient care first. The many moments she wanted to quit residency… and the simultaneous knowledge that she had placed her whole identity in being a wife and a physician. She had already lost half of her identity; if she lost the other half, who would she be?
After she left the hospital, the hours that followed that infant’s death were a blur. Shocked by the depth of her own pain, she wondered if she had healed at all since her loss. Before the passing of her husband, the sting of death had been something she could only imagine. Now that she had gone through it, the emotions so easily came flooding back. She used to think PTSD was only for war veterans, but now… she knew better.
But then, she reminded herself gently that she had grown. She realized that she had become more honest and able to look at uncomfortable situations in the face. She had become more empathetic to her patients. They were no longer just “diseases” or “cases” to her… When surrounded by people, she now felt the weight of their very souls. Each one of them, each person she came in contact with was someone’s husband, wife, child, widow, loved one. Each one of them deserved a doctor who would fight for them as such, and she was becoming that doctor.
Later that evening, Tosin rewatched the video she had recorded dancing earlier in the day. It had been a moment of pure joy, a calm before the storm hit. She watched herself again and again, then put down her phone. Turning “Penalty” by Small Doctor on as loud as she could, she danced until she felt the world brighten. She smiled realizing how far she had come. She was more intentional about taking care of herself, living a full life, and having no regrets. She would find love again. She would find hope again. She would find happiness again. And she had proven to herself that she would not give up.
But most importantly… she knew now that her identity was not found in being a wife, or widow, or friend or even a physician. She was Tosin. She was a survivor. She was persevering. She was the woman of her own dreams.
And… she was enough.
Written by Dr. Oye, adapted from an interview with Dr. Tosin Odunsi.
PS: It was such an honor to write this story about Dr. Odunsi! Let’s just review the things she had to overcome to get to where she is today, shall we? Having to retake the MCAT 3 times, a long distance marriage, failing Step 1, failing Step 2, the loss of her husband during the hardest year of residency, giving up on God (for some time), and failing Step 3 THREE times, not to mention simply being a Black woman in medicine. But today she is a practicing physician, beloved by her patients, KILLING THE GAME and sharing her story so she can motivate people coming behind her. If she did it then you can too. Let me say this again for the people in the back… IF SHE DID IT THEN YOU CAN TOO!
Until next time,
Tosin Odunsi, MD, MPH is a practicing Obstetrics and Gynecology physician. Knowing that only 2% of US physicians are Black women, as well as all the personal hurdles she had to overcome to succeed in medicine and in life, she is extremely passionate about mentorship. Connect with her on Instagram at @lifebytosin, where you can see her fun afrobeat dance videos and learn more about The Mentorship Squad, a community of Black and Latinx women seeking mentorship along their journey to becoming U.S. physicians. Let her know that her story resonated with you!
Disclaimer: All names, dates, diseases, or any other identifying details of patients and healthcare providers in my stories have been changed to protect their privacy.