I energetically clap my hands as we chant in unison, "Ooh, I feel so good, like, I knew I would... Ooh, I feel SO GOOD!" This has been our weekly ritual for the last three years: me in a circle of women prisoners at the Rhode Island Correctional Facility, yelling at the top of our lungs while a Corrections Officer stands outside the door. As our chants reverberate off the empty walls, Cherry, a pregnant inmate who has been in this facility most of her adult life, takes the lead, and we echo her moves. When I "go inside," I forget where I am; the women are eager to clip pictures for a collage, learn West African dance steps that I perform at Brown, or write poems on romance or motherhood. Enclosed by locks and patrolled by guards, I help inmates find a way to escape through artistic expression; their enthusiasm affirms the importance of my role as a facilitator of art and writing workshops with SPACE, Space in Prisons for Arts, and Creative Expression. I, in turn, am humbled by the poems and artwork the women produce as the workshops provide a creative outlet to express their unique stories.
Sitting alone with forty unexamined boxes in the Brown University archives, I was reminded of my experiences with the SPACE program. I began to appreciate the importance of having a medium for relaying untold stories. While researching the oft-praised fifty-year-old cooperation between Brown University and Tougaloo College, a historically Black private school in rural Mississippi, I examined the past through narrative. I unearthed personal accounts outlining a history that had long been forgotten. One day, I found a letter with "To be read and destroyed" scribbled in the margin. The letter outlined Brown's role in the forced resignation of Tougaloo's president in 1964 for his support of the politically minded students at Tougaloo. They organized and led numerous demonstrations throughout Mississippi at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Newspaper clippings detailed community outrage at the firing, while hand-written flyers rallied student groups to oppose the Brown-Tougaloo relationship through demonstrations. The research took me to the tiny Tougaloo archives and back to Brown to conduct oral history interviews. The work was instrumental in providing Brown-Tougaloo exchange participants the opportunity to challenge misconceptions of their experiences; the documents we collected are now available on a website about the Brown-Tougaloo relationship in the context of the Civil Rights movement.
My visions for eliciting personal narratives are embodied in my approaches to healthcare. For four years, I conducted biomedical research on the underlying reasons for increased incidence and mortality rates of prostate cancer in African-American men; this first taught me the importance of evaluating economic, social, and cultural histories for their insight into questions of public health disparities. While personal narrative offers patients distinct voices for their stories, in serving the needs of the people, physicians are afforded the unique opportunity to meditate and validate those narratives, bridging personal stories with physical observations. This fusion of the social and human has been reiterated in my experiences as a student conducting clinical health research domestically and abroad.
I shrug, wiping the sweat off the side of my face onto my sleeve. Our team has been working outside for almost three hours, measuring fasting glucose levels, taking blood pressures, and calculating Body Mass Indexes for a rural family in modernizing Samoa. For many, I will counsel this summer, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension will be linked to perceived social pressures to maintain material lifestyles exceeding individual financial means. The glucose meter beeps abruptly; I lean over the table to see the reading while an older woman sits across from me, tending her bleeding finger. "La'i may suka": "You do not have diabetes," I announce, checking the "normal" box on her information sheet. One of the Samoan field assistants translated for me as I explained the importance of exercise and healthy eating, listing traditional Samoan foods as better options than canned spaghetti sandwiches. She nods, understanding.
The activities I pursued as an undergraduate were chosen not for the utility of some plan; my interests in a wide range of human activities helped me discover the significance of bridging everyday peoples' narratives and their health needs. Furthermore, eliciting the voices of others helped me to realize why I am so compelled to pursue medicine. Each experience has taught me the importance of honest communication in healthcare: paying close attention to how people feel and the meaning of what they say. I am enriched by the individuals I have encountered; I marvel at their unique stories and appreciate how each person is validated and empowered by sharing their history. I am determined to become a physician so that I can help relay stories that otherwise might remain untold.
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