A birthday should be a time of celebration. However, on what would have been my mother’s 40th birthday, things took a shattering turn. At the age of ten, my twin brother and I were devastated when we learned my mom passed away unexpectedly from surgery complications. Both of my parents are physicians. Up until that point, my ten-year-old self held the innocent misconception that all doctors were immune from illness. I will never forget the moment the doctors told me, “I am sorry, but there is nothing else we can do.” These words catapulted me out of my childhood and into a universe where time was limited, and life was finite- even the esteemed power of physicians had limitations. With my innocence shattered and a longing for understanding, this began my lifelong journey to medicine.
Life moved fast. Within a week of my moms passing, my twin brother and I moved to Houston, Texas to live with my father. Every corner of my life had changed drastically: the type of school I went to, the food I ate, the friends I tried to have, it was a rough transition. During the first months in Texas, I would get sick to my stomach and vomit at school, so much so my dad would have to pick me up from school and take me home. I didn't realize why at first, but almost everyday single day, my dad would have to pick me up from school. This went on for almost a month until my dad sat me down and helped me realize I was in so much grief that I was literally sick to my stomach. It took awhile to get adjusted, and realize living in Houston, without my mom, was my new life.
Eventually I started to adjust, made a couple of friends at a new school I was trying to like. Every summer, I would beg my dad to let me go back to LA to stay with friends and cousins (mostly to escape the mosquito filled blazing hot Texas summers). In my middle school summer, unbeknownst to me, is when the trajectory of my life changed, once again. While spending time with cousins (hanging out with a crowd I shouldn't have been hanging out with) a huge gang fight broke out. Things took a turn for the worse, and I quickly realized that gun shots were going off, and an innocent life was taken. I was absolutely frightened. Even more confused than frightened. I remember not being able to sleep for days after the tragedy. The confusion eventually grew into a deep curiosity, to understand why. I entered high school with my eyes wide open, and delved into research, producing a thesis on the complexities of gang violence, prisons, and fear motivated decisions. I didn't stop there and declared sociology as my major, along with pre-medicine as a freshman.
In hindsight, it is very clear- I studied what traumatized me--my mom's passing, and an innocent life being taken away due to gang violence. This experience as child and being shocked by how things could change so drastically from a surgery that seemed so common. It was a birthday never celebrated, it left our family empty, questioning, and separated from a woman we loved passionately. A party that was once filled with innocence, family, and friends left with death, murder, and fear. Most people would take these moments and want to have nothing to do with them. Instead of pushing me further away from the field of medicine and studying gang violence, this instilled in my identity, and I ran fast towards it.
I struggled to find a path that would bridge my curiosity for social problems and a possible career in medicine. While advancing through my undergraduate studies, I unexpectedly found this bridge by performing in the Vagina Monologues (VM). VM is a production composed of women's monologues, ranging from stories of sexual harassment to reclaiming identities, which seeks to end violence against women through the art of storytelling and performance. After being selected as a cast member, I questioned my ability to lead as an ambassador for VM, when fear took hold of my tongue and prevented me from even uttering the word, “vagina”. My transformation occurred behind the scenes during a series of workshops led by our cast directors and healthcare practitioners. Throughout these sessions, I had an enlightenment: what is needed to end gender-based stigmas is to take our power back. The first and vital step in empowerment was, and is, through knowledge of the female body. Health education was a concrete way to not only solve social problems, but it empowered and unified us with VM’s mission. This was the first time I saw medicine not only de-stigmatize women’s bodies but also helped solve complex social issues. Unconventional methods for body consciousness rang true. Although these women were health care practitioners, they lead a different perspective of medicine. I never realized sociology and medicine completed each other in this field of women's health. Unexpectedly, it was the first time I could envision myself as a physician. The support the workshops gave to the VM production along with the impact their collaborative work had on me and fellow cast members, revealed that social justice and healthcare are not mutually exclusive.
This undeniable cross section was illuminating when standing on the margins of life sciences and social interaction. It swung open the door to my future career in medicine. This epiphany led to my post-baccalaureate at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine (CDU). I served as a cancer researcher with a focus on cervical cancer. As a student intern, I developed the research acumen of bench work and molecular analysis, pivotal for future patient care delivery. Aside from mastering fundamental lab techniques, I was fascinated with HPV and its associated cancers. Moving from the university hallways, to the lab, to the streets of South Los Angeles, I witnessed the profound health disparities destabilizing these underserved communities. Few were familiar with HPV and limited access to the HPV vaccine series demonstrated the need for awareness. As a sociology major I kept service close to my heart, and made a promise if I was to continue to do medicine, it would be through service. Determined to bring this knowledge to the community, I helped create the 1st Annual CDU Women’s Health conference, educating over 100 community members and peers on the importance of HPV awareness. I conducted a presentation on pap-smears as well as provided education on the vaccine series, screenings and sexual health. I channeled the spirit of the VM and echoed their strength to empower and serve frequently invisible populations.
Wanting to increase my clinical experience in the hospital setting, I accepted an internship with the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC). As I grew closer to the children at CHOC, I became aware of a mental barrier which prevented me from confidently pursuing medicine: the onus that physicians had over their patients’ lives. Thoughts took over my peace of mind as I walked through the hospital hallways- "Did I really just throw myself into the thing that killed my mother?" I could not believe I ended up back here.
My mentors emphasized that though discrete limitations exist within medicine, the role of a physician is unique in its duty to increase options for patient care. A physician must redefine patient advocacy by bridging discrete fields of medicine in order to provide holistic treatments. Observing personalized and translational medicine, I saw how patient’s healed by marrying innovation with collaboration. I gained confidence and excitement to see myself in a physician’s role. While I was once hesitant to commit to medicine due to my fear of delivering the same news I heard as a ten-year-old child, I left CHOC revitalized with assurance that the pursuit of medicine will always allow for innovation. Although not my primary goal, the confidence I gained both in myself and in the medical profession were two very important pieces in my decision to proceed in the pursuit of becoming a physician.
The eye opening experiences as young girl led me on a journey to discover how I could best serve humanity. As I worked in different fields, I truly realized the why the medical field was unique: the pillars of practical actions and dynamic engagement. As I watched doctors like my parents and mentors walk away both tired from hours of invested work, yet with satisfaction of pursuing the reaches of medicine, I discovered the transformative nature of medicine.
So, why medicine? The theme that rings and remains true- I stayed with my journey of self discovery. It's as if these traumas allowed me to find my purpose for being here. It's kind of hilariously eerie, in retrospect. All I know is--this unique journey will contribute vitally to the comprehensive healing of future patients and communities I encounter. My nontraditional journey has confidently brought me to serving humanity by being a physician, a career that I am unwaveringly passionate about.
In loving memory of Penny Evans, M.D.