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Q & A With African-American Caregivers at Northwestern Medicine

Tekesha Pate, BSN, RN, CMSRN, is the patient care manager in the Heart Failure/Cardiology Unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Quentin Youmans, MD, is the chief medical resident of Internal Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Dr. Youmans founded Student to Resident Institutional Vehicle for Excellence (STRIVE), a mentorship program for underrepresented minority medical students.

Linda Suleiman, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the director of diversity and inclusion for graduate medical students at Feinberg School of Medicine.

They’re looking back at their experiences and forward to the future for African Americans in medicine. Here are their stories.

What challenges have you faced as a black healthcare professional, and how have you worked to overcome them?

Pate

“I’ve heard stories from my peers at other institutions about experiencing challenges because of their race, but I’ve never experienced this at Northwestern Medicine. I’ve been a nurse at Northwestern Medicine for almost 20 years. I began as a student nurse, a clinical nurse and am now a nurse manager. It has always been an inclusive environment. The staff and leadership appreciate me for who I am, because I give my all every time I come to work. Professionally, Northwestern Medicine is culturally diverse and believes in their employees.”

Dr. Youmans

“Medical education can be particularly arduous for black students. We frequently encounter microaggressions in the workplace, overt patient biases, implicit bias in admissions and a subjective evaluation process that can hinder upward movement. As a black trainee, I have been called the n-word by a patient, and experienced direct and indirect bias based on my race. Resilience is key when facing these challenges, as is recognizing that you’re never alone. Leaning on mentors is crucial.”

Dr. Suleiman

“As a black woman in orthopaedics — a Caucasian, male-dominated specialty —you feel like you have to work twice as hard to be seen as the same caliber as your peers. This is stressful. You feel like you must be better than your colleagues. However, when I was in residency at McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University, I felt like I was in an environment where I wasn’t viewed as a black woman. I was viewed as a competent orthopaedic surgeon.

“I also feel the burden that if I make a mistake, I’m making it for every African-American woman that comes through the orthopaedic surgery program down the road. This is a common sentiment I frequently discuss with my African-American colleagues, and another layer of stress that a lot of minority trainees experience in medicine.

“How do you get past this obstacle? Strength in numbers. Finding a community of trainees experiencing similar pressures helps you feel less isolated. It’s a huge win that the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) outlined diversity in their strategic plan for the first time ever, last year.”

Why is it so important to inspire the next generation of African-American healthcare professionals?

Pate

“When African-American patients see a caregiver who looks like them, they feel an immediate sense of calm. They feel like they have someone who can relate to them.

“Due to cultural differences, older African-American people don’t always understand what’s happening with their disease process, so I take extra time to explain things to them in layman’s terms so that they know what’s happening with their body when they go home. They can relate to me. The more conversation you have, the more it eases their mind.

“Sometimes, when African-American patients hear I’m the manager of the floor, they tell me that they’re proud of me.”

Dr. Youmans

“The physician workforce should reflect the patients we see. We need representation to help inspire black children — letting them know that it is possible to be a doctor and build a career helping people navigate their health. To provide that inspiration at Northwestern Medicine, underrepresented minority residents and fellows have joined together through the STRIVE program to provide mentorship to students from similar backgrounds. This can help with training, performance improvement, specialty selection, and emotional and social well-being.”

Dr. Suleiman

“Arthritis, fractures and spinal injuries occur to everybody, not just white males. That’s why it’s crucial for orthopaedic surgeons and physicians to be representative of the entire patient population. I had a black patient drive from Madison, Wisconsin, to have knee replacement surgery. She wanted a female African-American surgeon and did a Google search to find me. This is an access-to-care issue that can be remediated with more women of color in specialties that are historically not as inclusive. “

What advice do you have for black students looking to pursue a career in medicine?

Pate

“Do your research and find hospitals and schools that will benefit you. I encourage aspiring African-American nurses to find an academic medical center like Northwestern Medicine that will reimburse your tuition and give you room to grow. Build your brand. No one can take that away from you. Take to strong leaders and look up to strong clinicians. Then you can teach other nurses to be just as strong as you are.”

Dr. Youmans

“Seek mentorship. Many black students do not have family or close friends in medicine to provide advice or guidance. Medical school is challenging. A mentor can help traverse the maze of grades, letters of recommendation, tests and other requirements. Physicians want to help mold the next generation of practitioners — reach out for guidance. Utilize your school’s guidance counselors to help identify summer experiences, research opportunities and shadowing. Seek any and every experience that can provide a window into what life will be like as a physician.”

Dr. Suleiman

“Find mentorship early. You need a personal mentor and a career mentor. You need a sponsor. A mentor helps guide you through your day-to-day, and a sponsor creates opportunities for you because they see your potential to be successful. A lot of people think your mentor must look like you, but this is not the case. I’m an advocate for finding allies. I have Caucasian male mentors who help me navigate orthopaedic surgery.

“There are also many programs for people of color interested in pursuing careers in medicine. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine hosts mentor ‘mix and mingles’ where medical students are matched with someone in a specialty they’re interested in, so that they have immediate mentors. The Northwestern McGaw Underrepresented Residents and Fellows Forum (NMURFF) is a support network for underrepresented trainees. In this program, I met mentors I now call friends, who were in their residency programs. The Student National Medical Association (SNMA) is the oldest and largest organization for medical students of color.

“Seek opportunities that give you a sense of community through social events and professional development opportunities.”

What do you hope the future looks like for black healthcare professionals?

Pate

“I see a future of passionate African-American medical professionals. Passion is key because you never know who is going to come through your door. You need to treat patients with compassion, no matter what they look like or how your day has been. People will see you as a healer. They trust you. It’s a huge responsibility. I hope when future healthcare professionals come to work, it doesn’t feel like work; it feels like a calling.”

Dr. Youmans

“I hope that the future for black healthcare professionals mirrors the future for black people in America in general. I look forward to the time in this country in which race is a defining characteristic because of the richness of culture and unique perspectives that it adds to our collective landscape, and not an object of hatred and bigotry. I look forward to the time when black physicians are viewed simply as physicians, but also with recognition of the value-add of diversity within our workforce.”

Dr. Suleiman

“By 2050, African-Americans and Hispanics are expected to comprise the majority of the U.S. population. If the physician population doesn’t reflect our patients, I don’t think that we will truly understand the health status of the country. We must take a holistic approach to medicine. It’s not just about diagnosing and treating the diseases. Access to care is a huge problem among lower socioeconomic statuses, and this affects African-Americans and Latinos. If we’re not at the forefront of representing these patients, we’re never going to get over these barriers and healthcare disparities. Studies have even shown that patient involvement and understanding increases when patients have a physician that looks like them.

“The difficulty is that there are a lot of African-American communities in the country where children don’t see African-American physicians. We need to start all the way back in elementary school to show African-American students that a career in medicine is an option for them.

“Beyond African-American physicians, I see a future in which Caucasian physicians take on shared responsibilities and mentorships for black medical school students.”