This journey began over 20 years ago and so much has happened. I want to – for the first time – really paint a picture of how we got here. This will be the first of four different articles documenting the whole journey from the first initial dream of studying Medicine to where I am now and what I will be doing going forward. I’ll be sharing the highs and the lows, but most importantly I’ll share the lessons I learned along the way.
In the four parts, I will detail:
1. My motivations for becoming a doctor
2. How my schooling helped and worked against my dream
3. The lessons I learnt during medical school
4. What I will be dedicating the rest of my life to.
Let’s get into the motivations…
It all started when I was growing up in Jamaica. I was in hospital regularly as a child and as a result, I began to get used to the environment. One might even say I started to enjoy being there. I usually had the same bed, the same people looking after me and I knew what to expect. It was great! However, I realised that the big part of why I survived was because my family could afford my medication, a nebuliser and a car to get me to the hospital ~ 1 hour away.
I decided at 4 or 5 years old – like the dreamer I am - that I would build a clinic close to my home in Portland, Jamaica so that I could look after all my friends and family. To do that, I decided that I was going to become a doctor and that’s how this whole journey started. I started operating on anyone that was near me. Normally it was my unfortunate late grandma who I was sure needed to be operated on every single day. I’d find old pieces of cloth, plasters or pieces of paper to put on different parts of her body - all in a bid to simulate a real surgery, or at least what I thought a real surgery was like. Sometimes I’d wake my cousin up to assist me in the particularly difficult operation that I was going to undertake that day. I became known as Dr James from very early on and that continued throughout my life from those who knew me.
It is important to note that I didn’t know any doctors in my family at the time and when I came to England, I never once saw a Caribbean doctor. The motivation I had to become a doctor was from blind faith. I was dreaming a dream that I didn’t even know was possible, I just knew that it was what I wanted. Sometimes I think that this is a blessing because if I had known how many exams I would’ve had to do… 4-year-old James might have reconsidered.
Interestingly, as I got older, my belief that I could actually become a doctor began to decrease. I didn’t stop saying it but by the time I was 14 I had become more ‘realistic’ and I didn’t really believe what I was saying. Medicine was positioned as this extremely exclusive degree with a tiny percentage of people getting in every year, so you have to be the best of the best to even consider it as an option. This description is not a lie, but it definitely isn’t the truth either. I was fortunate that I had the necessary requirements at each stage, so it became a ‘why not at least try?’ thing for me. It also helped that my entire family had already started calling me Dr James, so I didn't feel like I could turn around and be like "hey, I want to be an accountant instead".
I had an experience when I was 17 years old. I was at an event and I was speaking to someone about wanting to study Medicine. They said “ah, you must be Nigerian then?”. After interrogating the assumption, they explained that more often than not when they see a young Black person wanting to study Medicine, they’re normally Nigerian. I couldn’t even blame them because the majority of the Black people I knew studying Medicine – in the context of the UK - were Nigerian. This was an extremely important moment and motivator for me because 1) I’m stubborn, so I wanted to prove them wrong and 2) I knew that I’d dedicate a lot of my energy to making sure the young Caribbean people could access the spaces they wanted to be in.
There were moments during medical school when I thought about not completing my medical degree (I will talk about these later) but this memory gave me the motivation I needed to 1) prove to everyone that I could do it, 2) show other young Caribbean people that this is something that they could also do and 3) honour the dreams of young James. Truthfully, I also felt like I had to honour the sacrifices of the people that helped to raise me and I knew that becoming a doctor was a great way to begin to do so.
I don’t talk about my experience in school too often or if I do, I normally regurgitate the same stories. But I have decided that I wanted to share a bit more of my experience, so you all can really understand the journey. There were some critical moments and people that could have easily stopped me from wanting to pursue Medicine (or anything). You see, in Jamaica, I was expected to excel academically. I always tell people that except for religion, education is probably the most important thing for Caribbean families. Coming to England, I didn't feel the same expectation. Quite the opposite actually, but we’ll get into this during the next post.