Archive for July, 2012

Los Angeles, California—  On May 12, 2012, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege to attend the 127th Commencement of the USC-Keck School of Medicine’s 2012 Graduation.  As the guest of now Dr. Brenda Oiyemhonlan, I sat in the audience in the same Shrine Auditorium where I marched 17 years earlier, to bear witness to my 2012 CMA/EMOS eXchange Learning (XL) Mentorship inaugural class’s mentee, Brenda, fulfill a career milestone.  Brimming with pride and choked up at the many changes that have occurred in healthcare since my graduation almost 2 decades ago, I took pause to reflect back on the many challenges I faced, which by and large, continue to plague Brenda and medical students of color like us.

USC-Keck School of Medicine’s Class of 2012 Graduates

The obvious improvements in the event: this class got to wear bright burgundy graduation smocks and had ‘cooler, colorful hoodies’ (my Class of 1995 wore gothic black).  The Master of Ceremony was an iconic Haitian-American physician leader with the voice bigger than James Earl Jones’.  Dr. Henri R. Ford, (I learned from Brenda) has paved the way for greater visibility and emphasis on minority health issues by virtue of his auspicious presence and important work in pediatric surgery on the local, national and international stages.

The keynote speaker for this year’s class was the gently powerful J. Nadine Gracia, MD, MHA and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health.   Dr. Gracia shared her inspiring story of growing up as a second-generation Haitian-American and how her being ethnic minority impacted her career choices.  Specifically, she gave examples of how when it came time to ‘step up’ after the huge earthquake in Haiti, she returned to her island nation to make a difference—a noticeable difference that resulted in her being tapped by President Obama to now head the Office of Minority Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services. (Note: this Office did not exist when I was in Medical School).  What Dr. Gracia underscored in her uplifting speech was that as physicians, at appointed times in history, we are presented with great opportunities to not only serve our patients, but our country and big causes much greater than ourselves.

Indeed, Drs. Ford’s and Gracia’s sheer presence alone, along with their powerful messages, were signs of progress.  For 20 years after the 1992 LA Riots—a very remarkable event in my life as I bore witness to the mass revolt of minority peoples who were pushed over the tipping point and reacted so violently to overwhelmingly oppressive disparities (i.e. race, class, socio-economics, judiciary injustices, etc) as a first year medical student at USC– it is reassuring to me that this graduating class of 2012 (whether they realize it or not), is collectively benefiting from hard-earned progress.  Albeit sometimes measured in millimeters, not inches, this progress has been shouldered by countless elders who have suffered and paid heavy prices in years past.

At the reception, I was excited to finally meet Brenda’s extended Nigerian family, especially her iconic mother.  For years, I heard humbling stories about her fashionista mom whose struggles and sacrifices are so common in the African-American community.  As a small business owner, Mrs. Oiyemhonlan had to raise her children as a sole breadwinner because her husband lost his job and sense of pride in the down economy.  She, like so many mothers before her, did whatever was necessary to keep her family intact.  Mrs. Oiyemhonlan stood out in the crowd.  She wore an uber elegant, form-fitted, bright pink sequined African dress that was paired with a hard-to-miss stiff and starched turquoise head-wrap.  Surrounded by her 4 professional American-born children (i.e. Brenda, the newly minted doctor; her 2 brothers in science and technology and her baby sister, Etuajie, who’s completing post-baccalaureate studies to pursue medical school), Mrs. Oiyemhonlan (as I) was radiant with pride.  Out of respect for my baby-sister, I wore a traditional, Vietnamese green silk aó-dài (long dress).  Altogether, we looked distinctly ethnic and mahvelous!

(From Left to Right): Matriarch, Mrs. Oiyemhonlan, Brenda, her two younger brothers in science and technology up in Sacramento area, and sister, Etuajie, following her eldest sister’s footsteps and applying to medical school.

For only in this remarkable country of immigrants could this brilliant American-born Nigerian woman, so committed to improving healthcare disparities (i.e Brenda has 2 masters’ degrees: one in public health and another in public policy) have such a bright future.  Not yet a week returned from Ghana where she worked alongside local African doctors who impressed her with their clinical skills, in the face of overwhelming poverty and diseases, Brenda also looked radiant in her peacock colored dress that accented her athletic body.

Amazingly, this young graduate had surpassed her mentor because she won a National Medical Fellowship scholarship to afford her trip to Ghana.  In my 4th year decades ago, I traveled to India to study at the esteemed Christian Medical College for a rural health rotation.  But back then, as a first generation, post-Vietnam War refugee-immigrant, I did not have the wherewithal nor any mentors to advise me to apply for such NMF scholarships.   The priceless lesson both of us learned in our international health rotations was that indeed, the art of medicine is still administered by listening with our two mindful ears, taping into our brain’s intelligence, following our compassionate hearts and touching patients with our two warm, kind hands.  In such rustic settings, both of us realized how very little we needed to rely on the expensive technologies of the West that were virtually inaccessible out ‘in the bush’.

National Medical Fellowship “Changing the Face of Medicine” Gala on 7th June 2012 at the Globe Theater at Universal Studios, LA. Pictured here are power players in Minority Healthcare: (From Left to right) Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, Dr. Mai-Phuong Nguyen (Founder of eXchange Learning–XL Mentorship); Drs. Cianna Leatherwood and Brenda Oiyemhonlan, both new graduates of USC Class of 2012 as well as 2009 Cohort XL mentees of Dr. Nguyen; and Dr. Mark Smith, MBA, CEO of the California Healthcare Foundation. Dr. Smith was keynote speaker and as always, he was witty, pithy and inspiring!

I can only say that as her mentor for the past 4 years, Brenda inspires and teaches me more than I feel I have mentored her.  Indeed our sisterhood as well as our professional relationship, is the best testimony of the promise and success of CMA/EMOS’s nascent eXchange Learning (XL) Mentorship program.  I have no doubt that the sky is the limit for Brenda as she transitions to the next chapter of her journey to become a great, compassionate physician and healthcare leader.  She starts her ER residency in Brooklyn, New York this summer.

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