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We’re “Just” Women in Medicine

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“Hi, good morning! Sorry to bother you, We’re just the medical students.”

We don’t know at what point we began to refer to ourselves as just medical students, but it wasn’t until recently, while sitting in the room where it happens at the Women in Medicine Summit (WIMS), that we began to understand how this language undermines how far we’ve come and how pivotal our role as a medical student actually is.

It is no secret that our actions are fueled by our thoughts and emotions. By saying that we are just medical students, we subconsciously led ourselves to believe it — that we’re just. Even while sitting among some of the strongest, most successful women at WIMS, there were fleeting, yet palpable moments of “we are just” rhetoric. These driven, influential women whom we admire deeply have also been trained to believe that they are just.

You see, despite dedicating years of our lives to mastering the art that is medicine, the current system leads us to minimize these accomplishments along the way: 

We’re just medical students. We’re just residents. We’re just fellows. We’re just attending physicians. We’re just physician-scientists. We’re just R01 grant recipient researchers. We’re just women in medicine, whose best will never be enough for a system that wasn’t built for us.

As Dr. Arghavan Salles, MD reflected on the numerous obstacles encountered throughout her training, she emphasized the ways in which this culture reveals itself, through “hidden” curricula, misogyny, and unnecessary belittling. However, Dr. Salles also highlighted some key realizations along her journey. A trusted colleague reminded her in these lowest moments, that sometimes it is not our ability to thrive, but rather whether the environment surrounding us permits us to thrive, that matters. It wasn’t until she entered a space that truly valued her greatness that she was able to grow to her fullest potential. Dr. Salles stressed the importance of knowing ourselves, living fully by our values, and finding spaces and places that encourage our thriving. Despite how alone these dynamics may make us feel, she emphasized that “[we] are not the problem, and [we] are not alone.” 

Dr. Jamie Coleman reminds us of how our lived experiences (both positive and negative) influence how we assume the role of medical student, trainee, and even attending. Our values, our families and patients, the powerful women who inspire us… “Who we are outside the white coat determines who we are in it.” All of these influences shape who we are throughout our journey to become physicians.

After bonding for a moment over bright colored, pointed toe heels, we began to realize that the women physicians we aspired to be were all in our shoes (literally and figuratively) at one point. Each and every one of them was just a medical student, and still sometimes carry that urge to minimize themselves as a result of this institutionally-driven dynamic.

In one of her effortlessly poetic moments, Dr. Avital O’Glasser looked over at us and told us plainly:

“Remove the word ‘just’ from your vocabulary when speaking about your existence. The only time we use the word ‘just’ is when discussing justice.”

It wasn’t until someone halted, point blank, and targeted these thoughts that we began to recognize how that mentality minimizes our progress. It fails to acknowledge the unique assets and growth trajectory of each of us, at every phase in the education process. It is time we begin to challenge these mentalities, change this rhetoric, and own the accomplishments that each one has made. Attending, resident or medical student — it begins with us.

We’re just medical students, but we often spend the most time at the bedside. Whether by reassuring and educating a newly diagnosed cancer patient of each step of her treatment plan, ensuring our patient leaves the hospital with adequate supplies to care for his new wound, or communicating with family as they take shifts with their loved ones in the ICU. These moments, where we get to know our patient’s life story outside of their hospital gown, are the moments where we learn true, human medicine.

We’re just medical students, but we don’t just think of horses — we are freshly trained to recognize the zebras, too. Our lists of possible diagnoses may be broad and unlikely, but we are in a unique position where the bias of years of experience has not yet ruled out even the most rare. It may never be the correct diagnosis, but it cannot be ruled out if it was never ruled in.

We’re just medical students, but we see the gender inequities in medicine with a fresh optimism and determination to be part of a revolution in our profession. We recognize that as women, it is imperative that we truly are #WIMStrongerTogether, especially in a system that stacks the cards against us. This alone is the key to our success.

WIMS was the first (but certainly not last) time we entered this sacred space of fierce, female leaders speaking the raw, unfiltered truth about the obstacles of medical education and gender-based injustice. The way these women challenged the way it has always been also encouraged us to challenge how we perceive ourselves. We are now frequently reminded by Dr. Kimberly Manning, MD, through her stories, selfies, and homework assignments, to tap into our strength and have loving eyes of [our] own

We found ourselves thinking that if we could be just half the women these speakers are one day, we will have succeeded in our careers. In that same moment, however, we recognized that similar mentality of “just medical students” and how it diminishes all that we have accomplished up until now.

After all, we’re not just medical students -- we’re the future of medicine.

Kally Dey is a third year medical student at Midwestern University Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine.H er current career interests include MedPeds, infectious diseases and hematology-oncology. Find her on Twitter @kalthegal_.

Morgan S. Levy is a third year MD and Master’s in Public Health student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. She plans to pursue a career in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Twitter: @MorganSLevy.

Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz

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