UCSF Black Healing Day

By Dr. Denise Powell

Comprising roughly five percent of the physician population, Black physicians often shoulder the cognitive load of micro-aggressions and race-based violence. This creates a huge need for identifying, processing, and addressing these experiences. On March 5, 2021, “UCSF Black Healing Day” gave nearly 50 Black physician trainees, also known as residents and fellows, in a San Francisco medical institution the space and time to collectively mend amidst ongoing racial injustice and a global pandemic.

Months before Black Healing Day, on a warm and crowded June 3, colleagues and myself gathered in white coats and marched the streets of San Francisco in commemoration of George Floyd and to protest the premature extinguishing of beautiful Black lives. A sea of masked supporters understood collectively that our ancestors have been fighting violence inflicted upon our community long before we could walk, talk, or diagnose an irregular heart beat, and our fight against these injustices is not even close to over. In the words of the author/poet/activist James Baldwin in 1963’s, “The Fire Next Time,” “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they [African Americans] are free.”

These words continue to ring true; after we left the protest, we returned directly to work or home in isolation to prepare for another day in the hospital and clinic, while shouldering the trauma from the violence and hate that has impacted our brothers and sisters. We stood together in solidarity with and for our community.

Dr. Daniela Brissett at a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020.

Lee Jones, M.D., Associate Dean for Students at UCSF School of Medicine sang his praise of Black Healing Day, “Dealing with the ‘news’ about racial issues, which is not news to any of us, while caring for others is additionally challenging. This day brought us together, overcoming the business and isolation of our daily lives; acknowledged our shared grief, fatigue, and anger; celebrated our resilience and individuality; and gave us connections to move forward as a community.”

As Black Healing Day commenced virtually on March 5, the faces of physician trainees appeared into Zoom boxes across the screen, along with sidebar chats ringing with enthusiastic exclamation marks, and vibrant, nostalgic background music chosen from the different participants beforehand, immediately setting the tone for the day. A video of the institution’s program directors then played, in which they voiced their and the institution’s support of this day of healing for trainees. Through the vision, advocacy, and foundational work and support of Dr. Tiana Woolridge, MD, MPH, founder of UCSF Black Healing Day and a pediatric resident physician with a firm dedication to mental health and wellbeing, the much anticipated event was finally happening.

Dr. Tiana Woolridge, pediatric resident physician and founder of UCSF Black Healing Day

“I wanted to give Black trainees space to get to know each other, debrief on shared experiences with trained mental health providers, and to participate in healing activities rooted in African traditions,” explains Woolridge.

To foster a sense of respect for ancestors who come before us and recognition of perseverance through adversity, Black Healing Day was created with the initial intent of being held during Black History Month but occurred one month after.

Woolridge elaborates, “My goal was originally to hold the event during Black History Month but the timing didn’t work out. I then realized how much this was a blessing in disguise – Black people should be uplifted, celebrated, and supported 365 days out of the year.”

The goals for this day were built out of her own experiences, in which this year’s first-year resident physicians, also known as interns, have had a unique transition from medical school to careers as physicians.

“Starting work as a resident in the middle of a pandemic and the attacks on Black lives was the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced. The hours of residency and the immense amount of clinical knowledge and skills to master is difficult even in the best of circumstances; this made it a seemingly insurmountable task. I’ve been able to find and build resilience through connecting with my Black co-workers, but the opportunities to do so have been very few.”

In a city of five to six percent Black residents, per the United States Census Bureau, a sense of togetherness, understanding, and being uplifted is important for the city’s Black community, including physician trainees who are either from the city or who moved there for training. In a 2021 survey conducted by Woolrdige prior to hosting Black Healing Day, of 42 Black UCSF residents, 65 percent of interviewees stated their mental wellbeing at the time of the study fell between “bad” or “very bad.” This survey also revealed that fewer than half of participants felt a sense of connectedness to other Black trainees within the institution.

Woolridge states that “Many programs were saying that Black Lives Matter and that they wanted to support the Black community, and I wanted to see action taken to support the internal Black community at UCSF. This event signified that saying Black Lives Matter was the minimum; that Black lives should be protected, loved, and celebrated.”

Black Healing Day created friendship, allies, and colleagues that otherwise would not have existed, defying the feelings of isolation that can come with being underrepresented in medicine. Throughout the day, we introduced ourselves, the different places that molded us, and the roots and experiences that either bonded us or made us unique. A range of emotions and feelings filled the virtual rooms, from surprise elatement of how many Black physicians filled the tiny zoom screens to exhaustion after a 24 hour shift to the feeling of much needed restfulness.

UCSF physicians participating in Black Healing Day

To center participants around their values and missions as physicians and people, mindfulness meditation was the first of many sessions where we had the opportunity to take this safe space and time to reflect on how we felt both within the past year and at that moment. In these different virtual spaces, participants answered the very questions that made many inspired and motivated to pursue a career in medicine with prompts such as, “What would your ancestors be proud of?” and “What does Black joy mean to you?”

After an afternoon of restoration, Ashley McMullen, internal medicine physician, as well as host and producer of The Nocturnist’s “Black Voices in Healthcare,” led participants in reflection through writing and discussion to foster their persona both in and outside of medicine, from identity to needs and everyday driving forces. This introspection was followed by an exercise in self-compassion, led by Woolridge. As healing through reflection, writing, meditation, and discussion ensued, emotions surfaced for participants.

Daniella Brissett, MD and resident physician, states she felt, “Being able to just ‘be’ as opposed to having to carefully perfect my every word; to feel unregulated, from the way I wear my hair to the way I dress, and still be considered a professional that not only belongs, but is given support to thrive, even for just one day, was .. well words can’t quite do justice, but it was simply beautiful.” She explains, “In an institution that has so long been and remains anchored in white supremacy, to feel the tides turning, even just a bit with the number of faces I saw that were similar to my own – laughing, celebrating, leaning on each other – for even just one day, brought me peace.”

Brissett is not alone in her thoughts. Through this ability to be free without judgement, the possibility of implicit bias, or the pressure to code switch also came the realization for many that there is an untapped community that could be utilized for strength and encouragement.

“I was asked to speak as a leader, but the overriding experience for me was of being a member of a strong, resilient, caring, committed, and talented Black physician community here at UCSF,” states Jones.

In the presence of new mentors, colleagues, and friends, participants were able to learn about new ways to practice mindfulness. This included small group sessions led by mental health professionals and special international guests, like Helen Marie, an African Kimetic Yoga and Intuition Mentor. Supporting Bay Area Black-owned businesses are essential to community building and stabilization as well, so businesses, like Black-owned plants and print shops, were purchased from for greenery and specially designed t-shirts as gifts to participants.

Plants provided by Roots, a Black-owned plant shop in San Francisco, as well as t-shirts, reflective journaling book, and iron-on patches provided by Black-owned Prideful Patchez for participants of Black Healing Day

Through surveys and feedback, Woolridge plans on making this an annual event and working to expand it to other institutions. In a post event survey that she conducted, 100 percent of those who participated stated Black Healing Day assisted them in reflecting and acknowledging the work they do for patients, while realizing they are contributing to a better world in which they feel valued and supported in these tasks.

“I would love to include even more people – expanding to Black attending [supervising] physicians, medical students, and other healthcare staff. We have so many incredible Black people at this university that all deserve this time to heal together,” elaborates Woolridge.

The interpersonal, systemic, and institutional health inequities that have taken toll since the inception of this country have been compounded by many factors that are directly related to public health issues that disproportionately impact communities of color. Through amplification of health-based injustices this past year, there is a profound need for healing for everyone, including those on the frontline. As the country works towards collective healing through vaccine and public health efforts, we can also share this event as one strategy towards supporting Black physicians. Being part of a health care system, we must ensure providers of all backgrounds and levels of training have the ability to recuperate adequately, especially when environmental stress creates a world in which navigating the healthcare system is only part of the battle for many.

Becoming a Bilingual Medical Provider

When I was in medical school, one of my biggest goals was to become certified to provide medical care in Spanish. Why was this a goal of mine? Because I saw how much it impacted Spanish-speaking patients. Whenever I worked with a doctor who spoke Spanish, I could literally see relief flood the faces of their patients when they discovered that their doctor could speak their language. Research has shown that language-concordant providers can play a role in reducing health disparities and improving access to care. I felt that in order to be an equitable provider within the state of California, I needed to be able to provide care in both English and in Spanish.

As a Southern California native, Spanish was all around me. I could hear Spanish phrases and Latin music drifting through my car windows as I navigated through the streets of Los Angeles. Many restaurants and signs on streets and buildings were written in both Spanish and English. I learned my first Spanish words from my babysitter, and in kindergarten, I was simultaneously taught how to count to 100 in both Spanish and English.

I continued my formal education in Spanish throughout middle and high school, but always found that even though I could perform well on tests and on written essays, I still had trouble speaking the language and understanding the more casual Spanish I would hear outside of school. I found myself feeling a sense of yearning to be able to communicate with a larger portion of the country, and of the world. According to the Los Angeles Almanac, approximately 40% of residents in Los Angeles County aged 5 and older speak Spanish at home. I was extremely fortunate to get several opportunities to study, work, and volunteer abroad in Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. However, each one of those experiences was another wake-up call that I needed to put in a lot more work to be able to communicate with my future patients in Spanish.

The streets of Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic

Many medical students and residents have asked me how I learned medical Spanish, so I am putting this post together to share the methods I used to go from an intermediate-level Spanish speaker to a bilingual medical provider. I do want to take a moment to recognize that just because I am “certified” does not mean I am a native Spanish speaker or an expert in Latin cultures. There are certain dialects or phrases that I still do not understand very well. I continue to study Spanish in a variety of ways to improve my communication with my patients. Just as medicine is a lifelong learning process, learning how to provide medical care in Spanish should be, too.  

Study Plan

My first step was to expand my medical Spanish vocabulary. As great as it was that I could say things like “voy a la biblioteca,” I didn’t actually know that many Spanish words that would be useful in a medical setting. I happened to pick up an old study resource for a medical board exam that I took in 2017 and realized that it was full of medical vocabulary, questions to take a full patient history, and scripts for counseling patients on their medical conditions.

Note: I can imagine this book may go out of print soon as this test is no longer required for medical certification, so it may be worth looking for other resource guides for learning history-taking and patient counseling.  

I found a classmate who was also motivated to learn medical Spanish, and we decided to spend two hours a day on the following process:

Step 1: We made and reviewed flashcards on medical Spanish vocabulary. We used the First Aid sections “Common Questions to Ask the Patient” and “Physical Exam Review” to create flashcards on Quizlet.com. We also played Latin pop music playlists in the background, which was a fun introduction to Maluma, Becky G, Ozuna, and many more amazing artists.

Step 2: We then went through a 3-4 First Aid practice cases. For this, we would alternate roles for each case – for example, I would be the doctor and she would be a patient with abdominal pain. I would take a history and do a physical exam, then share my thoughts about next steps, all in Spanish. Then we would switch roles and take on a new chief complaint.

Step 3: We ended our study sessions by watching a show in Spanish on Netflix. I now have a huge list of amazing Spanish-language shows filmed all over Central/South America and Spain that I would recommend, including but not limited to La Reina del Flow (The Queen of Flow), Toy Boy, Elite, Monarca, La casa de Papel (Money Heist), The Club, and Valeria.

Language Immersion

While studying from books is helpful, being immersed in a Spanish-speaking area or a country is even more helpful to take your Spanish to the next level. I participated in two immersion programs, one in college, and one in medical school, which greatly improved my Spanish and gave me a really meaningful and informative inside look at the provision of medical care in other countries. I could write entire blog posts about each of these experiences, but for now I’ll just share a brief description of both.

Foundation for the Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC)

During my freshman year in college, I joined Princeton’s chapter of FIMRC, a global organization with the mission of providing access to healthcare for low-resource and medically underserved families around the world. I spent a year working on fundraising for one of their clinics in Alajuelita, Costa Rica. At the end of the year, two classmates and I participated in their Global Health Volunteer Program during which we spent a week living with a host family, working in the clinic, and exploring the city.

Baby T outside of the FIMRC Costa Rica clinic in 2012 (above) and enjoying moments with the clinical team, organizing medical donations, and shadowing pediatric providers (below).
Clínica de Familia La Romana

At the beginning of my fourth year of medical school, I started exploring the option of doing a global health rotation in a Spanish-speaking country. I found Clínica de Familia through my school’s global health website and planned a month-long away rotation in January 2020. During the month, I lived with three Dominican medical students and a Peace Corp volunteer, worked in the clinic and surrounding hospitals, performed a research project for the clinic, and took Spanish classes with a tutor who soon became a good friend.

With some of the amazing CFLR staff members in La Romana in January 2020 (above) and enjoying days off by the ocean with my new friends (below).

Feel free to explore these options, or do a quick Google search for Spanish language/ medical Spanish courses abroad to find something that fits with your schedule and budget.

Clinical Experiences

Pre-medical and medical students have unique opportunities to shadow clinical visits without having to be the primary person responsible for the patient’s care. This is an extremely helpful way to see firsthand how certain questions are phrased in Spanish, and how to communicate with patients in a warm, compassionate manner. You can explore this option by volunteering with a clinic or organization that provides health care for predominantly Spanish-speaking populations or reaching out to a specific physician that you know is bilingual to ask if you can shadow them.

I personally volunteered at Clínica Martín-Baró in the Mission district of San Francisco during my first and second years of medical school. In this clinic, I was able to practice taking a medical history in Spanish with the direct supervision and assistance of a certified interpreter and an attending physician.

In addition, when you are on your clinical rotations learning about different conditions, treatment, anatomy, etc. look out for opportunities to learn new Spanish vocabulary as it relates to your patients! This is a good way to incorporate your learning into your day-to-day life. I continue to do this in my professional career as a resident physician. For example, just the other day I was listening to a lecture about gender-affirming care for transgender and non-binary youth and realized that my Spanish vocabulary for gender and sexuality is very limited. Another great opportunity to learn!

Other Resources

I would like to mention that what works for one person may not work for everyone. There are a bunch of different ways to learn medical Spanish! Check out these resources from an old classmate of mine, Dr. Nikhil Rajapuram, for more ideas on what to do:

  1. Medical Spanish Podcast https://docmolly.com/medical-spanish/ (also on Apple podcasts)
    1. A doc walks you through various patient scenarios in Spanish at a slow pace with the opportunity to speak along to test yourself and reinforce medical vocabulary
    2. Loved these while driving/commuting to practice listening and grammar skills! I used the free ones on Apple podcasts but looks like there are some premium ones as well which might be worth the money.
  2. Babbel – Language Learning App
    1. Student Discount – $15/month for 3 months https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/student-promo-online-language-learning
    2. I really like this app since you can use it on the web/iPhone/iPad. It’s very interactive so it’s great if you’re not a textbook person like me. It can also adjust to pretty much any level of Spanish. I would use this mainly to work on grammar, particularly if you’re still at a beginner/intermediate level or if you’re just out of practice. There isn’t much here in terms of medical-specific vocabulary.
  3. Practicing Medical Spanish Website Medical Spanish – Phrases, Terms, Dialogues, Anatomy, all online
    1. A PHENOMENAL website which looks like it was made in the 90s but is actually very comprehensive. I wish I had used this when I was studying but it’s actually really useful when I’m going in to take a history on a patient and I want brush up on relevant terminology
    2. I especially recommend looking through the list of chief complaints to see the specific vocab/questions that are asked for each: http://www.practicingspanish.com/archive.html
  4. Med Spanish WebsiteMedical Spanish Vocabulary and Terminology
    1. A slightly clunkier site dedicated to medical Spanish but mainly useful for learning vocab and referencing terminology for specific anatomy 
  5. Online classes
    1. Cachamsi: endorsed by a few students
    2. Lengalia: Can do 2 of 5 lessons for free by registering

Conclusion

I hope these tips and tricks are helpful to you on your journey to learning medical Spanish. Remember, learning a new language is hard and can be frustrating at times. Get comfortable stepping out of your comfort zone, be kind to yourself in the learning process, and don’t be afraid to ask questions as you go! We definitely need more providers in the medical field who can speak Spanish comfortably, so please consider diving into this field if you have time and space to do so. Thanks for reading, y buena suerte!

Mental Wellness Basics

One of the most exciting moments of my post-graduation, pre-residency vacation time was updating my email signature. (Yes, I know how that sounds – you really have to find joy in the little things nowadays). Of course, I was excited to add the letters “MD” to my name, but I also wanted to add something to serve as an uplifting message and reminder to myself and others. I ended up modeling my email signature after one of my wonderful senior resident physicians, Dr. Daniela Brissett, who utilized her signature to make an important statement to everyone with whom she is in communication. Hers states: “Of all of the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Succinct and powerful.

I ended up choosing a quote by Maya Angelou that kept mental wellbeing at the forefront: “We need joy as we need air. We need love as we need water. We need each other as we need the earth we share.” We are living in challenging, unprecedented times that continually remind us of the deep need for joy, love, and community. Maintaining those needs requires an intentional focus on our own mental health and the mental health of those around us. My goal in this post is to give you a deeper understanding of mental wellness, and to give you a few tools that you can start using right now to improve your mental health.

“We need joy as we need air. We need love as we need water. We need each other as we need the earth we share.”

Maya Angelou

My interest in mental health and wellness has grown steadily over the past two years for a mix of personal and professional reasons. As I began my graduate program in public health at Harvard, I was shocked to discover that 1 in 5 children struggle with mental health issues, yet almost 80% of those children do not receive any form of treatment. What’s worse, children of color are only about half as likely to receive mental health services as white children. I was overjoyed at the opportunity to work with an inner city school district to figure out how we could work together to improve children’s mental wellbeing, and ultimately developed a program called Embrace the Mind with a threefold mission: to provide education on mental health, reduce stigma associated with mental illness, and to equip students, teachers and parents to build mental wellness.

Now, a quick note on terminology. The terms mental health and mental illness are often used interchangeably, but they are not quite the same. Mental illness refers to diagnosable health conditions (such as major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder) that involve significant changes in thinking, emotion, and/or behavior that cause distress or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities.

So what is mental health? One concept that we often discussed in the public health world is that health is not just the absence of illness. Therefore, mental health is not simply the absence of a diagnosable mental illness. Rather, the World Health Organization defines mental health as a “state of well-being in which every individual realizes their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community.” When I teach students about mental health, I break this definition down into three components: Self, Stress, and Society. In other words,  wellness occurs when we feel good about ourselves, know how to deal with stress, and find our place in society.

The big takeaway here is that everyone would benefit from working on their mental health. Think about how much better you feel when you work on your physical health: eating nutritious foods, getting a sufficient amount of sleep, exercising, etc. The same goes for your mental health!

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed an immense, seemingly insurmountable challenge to mental health worldwide. Social isolation, uncertainty, fear of contagion, chronic stressors, and economic difficulties have become commonplace this year. It is absolutely vital, now more than ever, to make your mental wellbeing a top priority.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started on improving your mental wellbeing:

Mental Wellness 101: Self

There is no time like the physically-distanced present for some self-reflection. It is time to identify your negative self-talk, to explore the roots of your low self-esteem, and to start to challenge self-criticism. One of my favorite ways to challenge a negative thought is by asking myself: “is this thought really true?” Or: “who does this thought benefit?” When you find yourself trapped in self-criticism — thinking to yourself: I’m not smart enough, I’m not attractive enough, I’m not successful enough — take a moment to pause. Ask yourself, would you say the things that you say to yourself to a loved one or to your best friend? Consider taking a more compassionate approach, and fill your self-talk with positive affirmations and uplifting words of encouragement.

Mental Wellness 101: Stress

The first step in knowing how to deal with stress is understanding your body’s stress response. What happens when you feel stressed? Can you feel your heart rate speed up, your palms getting sweaty, stomach twisting into knots?

Once we are aware of our body’s reaction to stress, we can work on reframing our attitudes on stress. Rather than thinking: “this is too overwhelming and I can’t handle it,” we can choose to interpret our elevated heart rate and sweatiness as your body’s way of preparing you to address and ultimately overcome that stressor.

Lastly, it is important to find positive ways to bring down stress in the body. For me, this includes mindfulness meditation every morning, journaling as often as I can, and working out several times a week to sweat and shake the tension out of my body.

During the uncertainty that permeates every day of 2020, it is even more important to release stress and shift our focus. As we learn we are not in control of actions, events, or circumstances around us, we’ll gain more insight into how we can control only our reactions and responses to certain events. We’ll also cultivate gratitude and positivity in order to heal from pain and fear, and to grow stronger.

Mental Wellness 101: Society

Every human being has a desire to belong to a group of people, and to have a sense of purpose amongst that group. This is the hardest part of mental wellbeing during the pandemic, as we have been separated from our typical routines, communities, and social gatherings. Furthermore, for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), the world is constantly feeding us reminders of racism and race-based violence, which can challenge our sense of purpose and worth in this society.

To protect this aspect of your wellbeing, be intentional about social connections with others in creative new ways. That could include physically distant hikes, outdoor meals, or Zoom paint nights. Another important way to feel a sense of purpose is to find ways to give back through community service, donations, or advocacy for historically marginalized groups. For my BIPOC family, take pride in yourself and your community, speak your truth, and find joy in the celebration of your rich culture.

Like anything in life, mental wellbeing improves with consistent practice. I hope you will take at least one thing away from this post today that you can commit to over the next few weeks to achieve mental wellness!

The Road to Medical School

Hey everyone! My name is Tiana, and I am a resident physician in the UCSF Department of Pediatrics. I am also a Los Angeles native, former college athlete, and a lifelong student…until about two months ago! After decades of school, I now have an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a graduate degree from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a medical degree from the UCSF School of Medicine.

Despite my graduation ceremony being cancelled due to COVID-19, graduation day was one of the happiest and most surreal days of my life. I’ll never forget the moment I heard my dean say the words ‘Doctor Tiana Woolridge.’ It was then that I realized that I had finally achieved a dream that I put out into the universe more than 20 years ago. 

I know that I could not have made it to where I am now without the support and guidance of many wonderful people along this long road to a medical degree. Now that I have achieved my dream, I hope to be a support system for other young people. Over the years, I have given lots of advice to students of all ages and backgrounds on how to get into & through medical school. [As an important side note: as a Black female physician working in a predominantly white profession, I work particularly hard to reach out to students of color because we often do not have access to the information, opportunities, and privilege necessary to get into medical school.]

Since life has gotten much busier in residency, and I have much less time for one-on-one mentorship, I am compiling all of the advice that I usually share with students into this post. I hope this helps you, a friend, a family member, or anyone else you know who is thinking about a career in medicine!

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

So, you want to be a doctor?

My first and most important piece of advice: tell yourself that YOU CAN DO IT. Medicine is not a desired career choice for everyone (for example, if you recoil at the thought of long hours of studying and delayed gratification for most of your 20s, or pass out at the sight of needles or blood), but if you truly feel this is your calling in life, you must believe in yourself and your ability to make it through. There will be naysayers, roadblocks, self-doubt, and likely some imposter syndrome along the way, particularly if you are a minority student, but the things that you say and believe about yourself will either be your greatest asset or your greatest deterrent in this journey. You know what they say: if you can believe it, you can achieve it.

I’ll share the rest of my advice through describing what I did from elementary school all the way through college.

The Early Years

I was one of those little kids that told people, “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor!” And honestly, during my childhood years, my mom did more work than I did towards that goal. She enrolled me in science summer camps, bought me all the children’s books on medicine that she could find, and, most importantly, constantly reminded me that she believed in me and my dreams. And I must say, that is one of the things I love most about pediatrics: seeing the power of a parent’s love and sacrifice manifest into success for their children. 

So my advice for those interested in medicine in the pre-high school years would be to explore science and math in fun, engaging ways. Think science camps, books, apps, TV shows, etc. (Bill Nye the Science Guy and the Magic School Bus were LIT when I was growing up). It would also be helpful to start building a strong sense of self-worth and self-compassion through practicing self-affirmations. This will help develop the strength needed to make it through those inevitable challenges in life. Some of my favorite self-affirmations for young people include: “I am an amazing person,” “I have courage and confidence,” and “I get better every single day.”

Lastly, think about ways to get involved in community service. Being a doctor involves not just lifelong learning, but also lifelong service to others. Early involvement in community service can help develop empathy, humility, and selflessness, which are necessary qualities for all healthcare professionals.

“My advice for those interested in medicine in the pre-high school years would be to explore science and math in fun, engaging ways … to build a strong sense of self-worth [and] to get involved in community service.”

Dr. Tiana Woolridge

Thriving in High School

I considered myself a “cool nerd” throughout high school. (I’m sure if my brother is somewhere reading this, he’s rolling his eyes in disagreement and laughing at me). I absolutely loved sports and hanging with friends, but was also very focused on academics and my ultimate dream to become a doctor.

My main goals in high school were to be the best student-athlete I could be, to dive deeper into my interests in science, and to get into a great college. I have three specific pieces of advice that I give to all high school students considering a future in medicine.

1. Explore all of your interests: inside & outside of medicine.

I dove deeper into my interest in science by taking most of the Advanced Placement and elective science classes that my school offered. I dove deeper into my interest in medicine by volunteering at a hospital close to my house. However, I felt my extracurricular activities (clubs, community service, and definitely sports) prepared me for a future in medicine just as much, if not more. Some of the best life lessons I ever received came from sports: practicing mental endurance during tough practices, supporting teammates through challenges, and keeping calm in the midst of close championship games. All of those skills come into play when doctors must provide excellent care through exhausting, long shifts, break a challenging diagnosis to a family, or handle a tense “Code Blue” resuscitation.

Because the skills developed from most extracurricular activities are transferrable to medicine, I always encourage high school students to explore whatever activities they enjoy, from dance to robotics to debate. Colleges and medical schools just want to see that students demonstrate passion and dedication to some activity during their time in high school. And, for the sake of your own mental wellbeing, you want to be engaged in things that bring you joy and that you actually like to do!

Being well-rounded in high school and college is also immensely important to help develop those ‘soft skills’ needed in medicine, including creativity and interpersonal skills. As doctors, we are often faced with complex medical issues or diagnostic mysteries that require teamwork and out-of-the-box thinking. And effective and friendly communication is a must, as we are constantly in communication with patients, families, and other healthcare professionals.

2. Develop strong academic habits

This must be a priority from day one of high school. You need a strong GPA and standardized test scores to get into college, medical school, and residency, so developing good study skills early on is essential. Practice time management by getting a weekly planner to keep track of due dates, quizzes, and tests, and distributing homework evenly throughout the week. Also, meet with teachers early and often not just if you are struggling in the class, but also to ask for their advice on study techniques, essay writing, and note-taking. This is helpful for more than just getting good grades. You may need one or more of your teachers to write a letter of recommendation for you some day, so you want to make sure they know you personally and that they know you are a strong student!

3. Use summers wisely: consider volunteering or pre-med camps

My athletic schedule filled up most of my summers, but in retrospect, I would have loved to participate in the camps or internships offered by many universities to expose high school students to research, public health, or careers in the health professions. Google Search for these opportunities in your hometown at least six months before the summer starts.

Another way to get exposure to medicine is to shadow a physician or other healthcare professional. Ask your own family doctor or doctors in your network of family or friends if you can shadow them, or if they know anyone that you can shadow. You can also volunteer in a nearby hospital; again, Google is your best friend to find hospital volunteering programs. Be aware that your summer activities do not have to be within the medical field; you can develop the skills you need to be a good doctor when you commit to any productive activity for a long period of time.

I have three specific pieces of advice that I give to all high school students considering a future in medicine: explore all of your interests inside and outside of medicine, develop strong academic habits, and use your summers wisely.

Dr. Tiana Woolridge

College & Beyond

So after being a huge nerd in high school and working my butt off on the volleyball court, I ended up at Princeton University. As a pre-med, I hit the ground running my freshman year because I knew that I wanted to start medical school right after I graduated from college.

At Princeton, basically everything I did was a continuation of my high school activities. I played sports, took advanced science courses, participated in school clubs, and got involved in community service projects. I also explored new interests, including getting certified as a Zumba instructor. (Why? Because it made me happy and paid for my excessive late night C-store snack purchases)

My advice for high school students applies here as well; however, there are a few additional suggestions that I have for college students. I advise pre-meds to plan their timeline for application very early, to excel in the classroom, and to aim for extracurricular involvement in three different categories: leadership, service, and medical experience.

1. Plan your timeline early

As early as my freshman fall, I loosely planned out my course schedule and application timeline for medical school. I looked up the required courses for my major and what courses were needed to apply to medical school. I then created an Excel spreadsheet to evenly plan out when I should take each course, making sure to 1) avoid overloading any particular semester, and 2) complete my prerequisite courses before starting the application process. This does not have to be set in stone; I actually changed majors halfway through my sophomore year from Molecular Biology to Public and International Affairs, which completely changed my schedule. But it was still helpful to have a rough plan in place for when to take my pre-med courses and start applying.

I wanted to apply to begin to start medical school in fall 2015, so my application process began in spring 2014. Yes, it starts that early! I have friends who had to take an extra year off before starting medical school because they did not know how early the process began, so this is your friendly heads-up. 🙂

I took the MCAT in April 2014, to give myself time to retake it if needed before submitting my application. My biggest piece of advice for people preparing to apply: you MUST to submit your application as early as possible, preferably on the day that the portal opens in June. Ignore whatever the official “deadline” is to apply. Medical school admissions are rolling, meaning the earlier you submit, the earlier you are reviewed, interviewed, and offered acceptance. Your chances of getting in will go down the longer you wait, so I always emphasize the importance of applying early to everyone I mentor.

Over the summer, you’ll fill out secondary applications (turn those in within 2 weeks of receiving them, for the same reason as above), then interview throughout the winter and spring. Then you will start getting acceptance offers! It is a nerve-wracking year with a lot of self-doubt along the way, so you must keep yourself lifted, motivated, and actively speak your success into existence.

2. Excel in the classroom

Again, college is an excellent time to continue to hone those strong study skills that you’ll need to make it through medical school. Solidify those time management skills and keep connecting with your professors for help with study techniques. It may seem much harder to connect with college professors compared to high school teachers, as some college classes may have more than 100 students. Utilizing your professor’s office hours is a great way to get around this issue. Complete some of the course’s optional readings or practice problems for that week, and discuss those with the professor. The professor will be impressed that you are going above and beyond to engage in their course material (and you’ll learn more, which is great!). Also, try to connect on a more individual level: share your academic and extracurricular interests, ask them about their journey to their current profession, etc. This will be vital in case you need to ask one of them for a letter of recommendation later on.

3. Strategize extracurricular activities

There are three main areas you should aim for in terms of extracurricular involvement: leadership, service, and medical experience. Covering these three categories will show medical schools that 1) you can lead a team of healthcare professionals, 2) you are dedicated to serving other people, and 3) you have actually been in a medical environment and thrived.

As for my journey, I joined several different pre-med clubs as a freshman (including the Student Health Advisory Board and the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students), and rose to leadership positions within those clubs throughout my time in college. I joined Princeton’s Student Volunteer Council as a freshman, and as a junior created a Student-Athlete Service Council to get more of my fellow athletes out in the community. For my medical experience, I spent two weeks shadowing a surgeon during my sophomore winter break, and also spent a week in Costa Rica working at a clinic run by the Foundation for the International Medical Relief of Children after working to raise money and collect supplies for the clinic for a year. Though my medical experiences were brief, they gave me a sneak peek into my future and strongly affirmed my desire to be a doctor.

Summer breaks and years off after college can be an opportunity to take these extracurricular activities to the next level. A year or several years working with a nonprofit organization, a healthcare organization, or a medical research organization will give you great exposure to the field. However, as I have said several times throughout this post, you do not need to be 100% medical all of the time. Do what you are passionate about, and that will shine through on your application.

“I advise pre-meds to plan their timeline for application very early, to excel in the classroom, and to aim for extracurricular involvement in three different categories: leadership, service, and medical experience.”

Dr. Tiana Woolridge

Whew okay, that was a lot of information. Congrats on making it through! As you are reflecting on this advice and making plans for your own journey, I hope you will remember a few things. First, remember that no two people will have the same path. Try your hardest not to compare yourself to those around you, and to focus on being the best you that you can be. Second, remember that you have something unique to offer the world, and the world needs that. And finally, remember that your dreams can become your reality with hard work, dedication, and good mentorship.

Again, I hope that this information is helpful and that you all feel encouraged, inspired, and motivated to pursue a career in medicine. Stay healthy and stay well out there!

Introduction

Hello!

Welcome to my blog and to my life. I have been absorbing vast amounts of knowledge over my many years in school, and have been searching for ways to disseminate what I have learned to my peers, my loved ones, and my mentees. So here we are! Also, I’ve been told my Instagram captions are too long, so starting a blog may be a better fit for me. 🙂

A little more about me: I am a self-proclaimed ‘cool nerd,’ an athlete, a child of God, and a sensitive soul. My vision for my life is a balance of giving and receiving love; a lifelong exploration of self and the world around me; and a steady march towards being well while also helping others find and create their own wellness. I want to mobilize people to embrace the power of their own mind and the minds of those around them. I hope to make the world a healthier and more peaceful place for the next generation.

My goals for this blog are lofty. Some of the content will be targeted towards helping pre-medical students achieve their dream of becoming doctors, yet I hope that the posts on this site can ultimately help anyone with big dreams for their future, and aspirations to be truly well. There will be posts on my academic and personal journey, posts on how to succeed in school and in life, and posts on how to improve your mental wellness. I warmly welcome comments and suggestions on topics to write about in the future.

Thank you so much for being here, and I hope what you see will lift your spirit in some small way and leave you better than you came. Stay healthy and stay well. ❤