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An M.D. Student Reflects on the Power of Helping Others

chain of brown paper men standing, casting shadowMedical school for those of us from underserved communities can seem like an impossible dream. I was fortunate to get here through a large and varied support network―starting with my grandmother, and leading to my mentors today. I hope my story holds valuable lessons for premed students looking for a route to their dreams.

My path to Einstein took me through the Associated Medical Schools of New York (AMSNY) post-baccalaureate program, a rigorous preparatory program designed to ensure my success in medical school. Recently AMSNY awarded me a Diversity in Medicine Scholarship. It pays my tuition for a year in exchange for two years of service to an underserved community following residency training. I embraced this requirement because giving back to my community—or one similar to it—was a goal of mine from well before I entered medical school.

This desire came from lessons passed on to me from my grandmother and through her example. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, she constantly shared these words with me in her native Haitian Creole: “Toujou fè sa ou kapab pou ede moun”—“Always do everything in your power to help others.” Of the many lessons she bestowed upon me, this one resonated the most and those words echo in my mind as clearly as when she spoke them.

I grew up in a tight-knit family. My mom often had to work overtime to provide, so I stayed with Grandma. Mom would often tell me about her mother’s benevolent acts back home in Haiti, where Grandma cooked extensive meals and shared with those who were less fortunate, sometimes not leaving enough for herself. There is nothing more satisfying to me than providing help where it is needed, and I strive to emulate her example.

But why did her words and actions compel me to pursue medicine? Grandma’s experiences influenced me there, too.

A Family Doctor Inspires

Throughout high school, I was her translator during primary-care appointments. Her doctor, Dr. K., treated her compassionately and explained things with care and clarity. He was not only her healer, but her teacher and her advocate.

This was especially true in her final days, when he spoke out against her mistreatment at a nursing facility. There, my grandmother sustained a fall and was left on the floor for hours. She was even starved at times. Dr. K. was truly angered by this and demanded she be transferred elsewhere. From beginning to end, he stayed by her side—and ours.

In short, he was the kind of doctor I hope to become.

The Journey to Medical School

Shortly after my grandmother’s death, I was accepted to Cornell University. Despite having graduated at the top of my high school class, I encountered challenges caused by a lack of educational resources—and by my own conceit and pride.

In my high school science courses, we used the oldest editions of books and would often skip the lab component because we didn’t have the materials necessary to conduct the procedures. And in high school I was always self-sufficient. The lack of lab experience, combined with my feelings of self-sufficiency, equaled a lack of collaboration. My independence kept me from asking for help or working with others, skills critical to success in medicine. College humbled me.

There were times when I felt like giving up, such as at the end of my four years at Cornell, when my dream seemed unattainable. At my college exit interview, I met with my advising dean, explaining to her that because of my unsuccessful attempts at the science prerequisites for med school I didn’t think that medicine was in my future. She sat me down and was very encouraging, telling me that if I still wanted to pursue my dream, I would be the only person in my way. I was not the first student who had been in this situation, and I would certainly not be the last, she said.

That’s when I learned of the Health Careers Program at the Harvard Extension School, a program that some of her former students who became doctors had gone through. She gave me hope, and my grandmother’s words began to echo in my mind again. My advisor reminded me why I had begun the pursuit. I couldn’t give up.

After graduating from college, I was accepted into the Health Careers Program. I took science classes at the Harvard Extension School and worked with patients as a research associate at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. It was an invaluable experience and I felt better prepared to apply to medical school.

So, just what kind of doctor do I want to be? Well, besides emulating Dr. K., I want to be like one of my mentors at Einstein—a rheumatologist—who works with a diverse and underserved patient population, much like the one I grew up with. She strives to address all their health needs and provide the best care. And I hope to mirror her dedication to community.

The Road Ahead

Underrepresented minorities are needed in all specialties so that patients can receive care from people who understand their backgrounds. Following residency, I will actively seek employment in an area identified as particularly in need on the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Index of Medical Underservice. Treating patients directly will be quite fulfilling, but I have a larger dream: to establish my own healthcare center―a one-stop shop for healthcare in an underserved area.

Visiting my mom’s workplace at the Special Supplemental Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and witnessing the Montefiore Health System in action at medical school have shown me how effective integrated care is. The patients served by these resources depend on local facilities for more than primary-care appointments; the organizations can and often do provide all the other services patients need. My approach to healing will be an interdisciplinary one, incorporating dentists, nutritionists and even social-assistance programs such as WIC and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program into patient care. This is ambitious, I know, but I believe it is possible—and necessary—in pursuit of my duty to others.

I also plan to serve my medical community and contribute to AMSNY so that students with backgrounds similar to mine continue to receive opportunities like the ones I’ve been given. Like the doctor who stood by my grandmother, I hope to stand by them—and their communities.

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Sebastian Placide

Sebastian Placide

Sebastian is a second year medical student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is interested in internal medicine and improving the health outcomes of patients in underserved communities.

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  • Robert Meekins March 3, 2018, 4:15 PM

    Sebastian: Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. I’d never heard of AMSNY or the Index of Medical Underservice before, and I’m glad you introduced me. I wish you the best in achieving your dreams for you and those you serve. Onward/upward

  • Gregory Burzynski March 10, 2018, 4:20 AM

    Good job Sebastian. Your advocacy to help your communities is awesome. That is the true power that God has given us. That is the real purpose to use your capacity either it is small or big as long as your intention is pure, that is very admirable. Many young students today are surely inspired to your story.