Hearing the Call: A Feature on How Physicians and Medical Educators Came to Understand Their Vocation
By Sarah E. Stumbar
Sometime during middle school, I became engrossed in a series of young adult novels about children dying of tragic diseases: heart failure (saved by a heart transplant!) leukemia, cystic fibrosis. I wanted to be a doctor! I wanted to be written into these stories, encompassed by both their tears and their triumphs.
As I continued to read, I traveled with my mom to a conference in Accra, Ghana. We visited the old fortresses of the country’s slave coast and walked through the city; forever kept on the outside by our skin color, which unequivocally meant that we were from elsewhere. The markets selling imported goods from China, the people living exposed on stretches of pavement, and the half-constructed cement buildings spoke to me of immense poverty. I tried to reconcile how this world could coexist with my own comfortable life in New York. The people we met spoke of the AIDS crisis, orphans and a lack of health care resources. The needs were overwhelming to my fourteen year-old-self…
“Mom,” I said, “I want to be a transplant surgeon in Africa!”
“Sarah,” she quickly replied, “I think there are things that Africa’s healthcare systems need more than transplant surgeons.”
And so I started to read other books that taught me how to think about the delivery of health care as a human right. I read about Paul Farmer’s clinics in Haiti, Abraham Varghese’s HIV patients in rural Tennessee, and Atul Gawande’s evolution as a surgeon. I grew-up in a family with deep commitments to social justice. But in the stories of Gawande, Varghese, and Farmer; I learned how the delivery of high-quality and equitable health care could revolutionize not only individual lives but also entire communities. Before medical school, two years in Washington Heights and the Bronx taught me that I did not have to travel to Ghana to find the social determinants of health at play.
I have told the story of that first conversation in Ghana dozens of times. I say that this was how I first realized that I wanted to be a physician who worked to fix the health care system, not just the disease; and that this is how I first realized that, for most patients, these two things are inextricable from one another. I now see uninsured patients on a mobile health center in North Miami-Dade County; and I think often of how I ended up there.
Sarah E. Stumbar, MD, MPH is Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, Florida International University