Breaking the Silence: A Med School Story
While having lunch with a colleague, we discussed our experiences during medical school and the health system back home. As we talked, I recalled how much I was harassed by a female lecturer almost 10 years ago. He was stunned! He repeatedly said, "You should have said something," but it's easier now to look back and say that. I was too timid and afraid to speak up for myself then. It was an open secret that this particular lecturer wasn't fond of me, to the extent that she openly harassed me in class. And who would I have complained to anyway? At the time, the head of the department, my classmates, and other lecturers knew. Still, no one did anything about it. Even my parents had become aware; one time, I had to bring my mum to school before she could let me back into her class after I had missed one class because of a bad migraine.
I have come across teachers who were kind and passionate about teaching. Those were the ones who instilled confidence in me. Those are the ones whom I'd never forget. I will continue to honour them by being kind and investing in others as they did for me. Overall, good experiences will always outweigh the bad. But today's post is not about the people that inspired me and what I hope to contribute to the future of medicine. Today's post is about my worst year in medical school and how much victimization can damage students' self-esteem and confidence. It would have been easier to say this particular year in school was more challenging because I failed my courses. Unfortunately, it was hard because a doctor, a teacher, and someone who could have been a mentor and guide decided to make my life almost unbearable. It was not a victimless crime.
It is no secret that medical school is hard. I envisaged many things happening during my planned 8 years of medical education back home. Still, I never saw the level of bullying and victimization that I suffered coming. In addition to the pressures of taking exams, going to ward postings and attending classes, harassment and intimidation became part of my already exhausting medical school education. The 'pulling-down syndrome' was hidden in plain sight. Some lecturers would only push and support the best students in the class or the 'legacy' students and those who met their 'criteria' of what a medical student should be. The rest of us were left feeling inadequate and navigating our journeys with little guidance.
I thought I was accustomed to all that was the 'norm' until I met this tutor in my 4th year. During our first few classes, she made sure I was sufficiently intimidated. She sat at my table and wasted no time criticizing my hairstyle, nose piercing, and outfits. I became more anxious than I had ever been. I had never had someone pick on me like that. I started stuttering so badly she would make fun of me in front of the class during my presentation and say I sounded like a broken CD player. She would grade me differently for presentations than the rest of the group and even make disapproving remarks if my classmates ever tried to show support for me in her presence. Then, as if all she had to me all year through wasn't enough when final exams came, she walked up to me, asked me for my ID number and switched my examiners so she could examine me for the short case part of our Medicine exam. I knew at that moment that trouble was brewing.
We got to the ward, and she asked me to examine the patient's abdomen. I began the examination no sooner than she started clapping and screaming that I knew nothing and shouldn't pass the exam. At this point, all the tears I had fought back all year just came running down...it was raining cats and dogs on my face. Then, she became even more dramatic, shouting that I was crying because I wanted people to think she was unfair. At this point, I didn't have to say anything else. The whole ward was basically at a standstill, looking at us. All I wanted was for the ground to swallow me. I had never been so embarrassed. Anyway, in the end, I passed because the other examiner, an older consultant, stepped in. But no doubt, I was left traumatized for the rest of the exams.
Rumours said she had done the same to other female medical students, but some were bold enough to fight back. But, unfortunately, I wasn't at the time. Of course, women should build up women in a field mainly dominated by men. But I think she saw young ladies as threats. But threats to what is the question? In a country with far fewer doctors than required, there are way more patients than any doctor can handle. And there is always enough space for us to be outstanding clinicians and mentors.
We have to break this toxicity in medicine. From my personal experience, I know that this level of victimization in the formative years of my medical school journey did not do me any favours. On the contrary, it made me even timider. Instead, we should be building each other up and mentoring one another. We should provide support and coaching that can catapult learning and careers, not tearing each other down. Junior doctors and med students are the future of the practice we hold dearly, and mistreating or damaging their esteem is unacceptable. We should all be working towards creating a supportive and nurturing environment for one another.
This is one of my unforgettable medical school stories. This doctor could have mentored me, but instead, she chose to intimidate, harass and make me feel inadequate. I am eternally grateful for teachers who saw my weaknesses and guided me to become who I am today. Those are my true inspirations. Because of them, I strive to be a better surgeon and mentor. We must do better! All of us! We cannot continue to project our insecurities, anger or mental exhaustion and destroy the self-esteem of our medical students and juniors. Victimization doesn't make us stronger. It leaves us scarred, broken and with low self-esteem. Whenever I hear of physician suicide, I ponder the toxic medical culture that pushes people into depression, burnout or suicide. This is unacceptable. As someone who has experienced the damaging effects of harassment firsthand, I urge all healthcare providers to be mindful of their behaviour towards each other and their juniors and work towards creating a more positive and inclusive environment in the medical profession. There should be no place for toxicity in medicine!!!