So, I had a lot of comments and questions from friends regarding the last blog. Let’s just say some of my points led to curiosities. My answer, at this point in time, is to just keep reading the blogs and, hey, maybe someday a book may appear in a bookstore or device near you! My initial blogs from several years back were on more plastic surgery topics, and I still may make a few regarding my primary vocation. However, friends have been so interested in my life choices and encouraged my re-starting the series based on those stories. On that note, to answer one inquiry, I had mentioned in the last blog the years pursuant to my father’s passing were the worst, no matter what transpired in the 34 years since his death. What were some of my best years, one asks? I especially chose to write this topic as it is timely to current news. Brooklyn. Those were some of my best years. And, mind you, this is not going to be the last you’ll hear about my Brooklyn experience.
My dream in life in my early 20’s was to move to NYC. I just had this love obsession with that place, and it stemmed from the energy, the people, and diversity that I witnessed on that mystical TV or movie screen. I was raised in Quincy, IL right off of the Mississippi River and was a Midwestern girl. New York, to me, vibrated with intense possibilities and opportunities. Now, I never thought that I would be applying to general surgery programs in New York because I did not grow up thinking I would be a surgeon (you see……..here is an I’m leaving you hang moment). However, when the time came to make a decision in medical school regarding a residency, I applied only to general surgery programs in New York. That was a kind of ballsy thing to do because I had no ties in New York, I’m from the heartland of America, and I just was this petite little 20 something….girl…. with a twang. Moreover, I didn’t get much encouragement because, first of all, general surgery is hard to get into, and second of all, it’s insane that I would want to do any residency in a crowded, busy city at its peak of gang violence and HIV.
Here’s where hard work and perseverance payed off because Gerald Shaftan, MD, FACS gave me the opportunity and accepted me into his program at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. I am forever grateful to him for having faith in my capabilities, and to you, too, Dr. Fogler, I still quote you, btw in the OR, for believing in me. And, you trained and taught me well. So, to give you all a perspective of Brookdale, the hospital is located in East New York, ie Brownsville. You’re scratching your head saying, hmmmmm, that hospital sounds familiar. It did make the news in the last month because of its excessive COVID 19 patient flow resulting in extending a morgue into the parking lot. Brookdale has always been in an underserved area even back in the ‘90s when I did my general surgery residency. However, those were some of my best years because I was excited to be in New York and loved Brooklyn. The area had an extensive ethnic diversity from Latino, African, Caribbean, Caucasian, and on and on with markets and small eateries to reflect the diversity. It was a dangerous gang-ridden area. There were areas that no one could amble into. There were cars on fire and stray bullets. Yet, with the Yin and the Yang of it all and our hard work, we all just got along, and we got along great. We took care of people who, otherwise, would receive no care, and from a newbie’s perspective there was a lot there to provide for learning.
Besides my excitement to finally live in Brooklyn, the fun of those difficult years stemmed from the friendships and interactions that I made. I certainly don’t want to romanticize the time because it was hard riddled with a lot of challenges……..hanging moment for you, reader. That is why, in those difficult situations overwrought with fatigue and more fatigue, the nurses and staff over the six years of my residency became family. This also includes EMS, police, firefighters, and detectives because we worked with everyone. Brookdale is a major Level One trauma center. In addition to the trauma, even then, racial tension existed as it was just after the Crown Heights situation miles away from Brookdale that I started my residency. There were several other major racially tense national events that made news during my residency. Those patients did not make it to Brookdale but all were aware of the iniquities. They were discussed and judgments were made. Most importantly, I owe my perspective on life, not just surgical knowledge, and personal growth to the voluminous patient interactions. As busy as we were, I am grateful that I spent time talking with my patients or their families. You see, none of us are an island, and what I know is the simple fact that no matter what are skin color is, we all share common feelings of fear and insecurity. We all have the same needs of belonging and acceptance. On the inside, literally, with our sterile drapes in the OR, one could not guess one’s Race or Ethnicity. I don’t want to get too graphic but body parts look like body parts independent of the exterior.
My first rotation was the SICU, and I remember, especially, the first day when I walked into the unit because the staff wasn’t used to a female surgical resident and on top of that I wasn’t from the area. We did our rounds as I and the team walked bed to bed reviewing patient history and tasks to be done. Then, my senior residents split without any guidance whatsoever. They vanished and, as we call it, dumped on me and the other two interns. That is when Ms. Williams, from Trinidad, and Lucy from Haiti took me under their wings and started me on my task list one step at a time. Then, Diana from Ghana shared with me her lunch of this delicious chicken/vegetable mix with her homeland’s spices. Later, Rena, a newly married Orthodox Jew helped me with my first arterial blood gas stick. From their perspective, they didn’t know if I was going to be one of those uppity, chip on her shoulder types. I know this because they told me. Then, they told me within five minutes, they knew they liked me because I asked them questions and had manners. I, personally, think it was the deer in the headlights look. They were just too nice to say that to me. This is pretty much how an incredibly difficult residency in an incredibly difficult area went for its entirety. When I look back, I am amazed at just how quick and medically sound those nurses were in very time sensitive situations. They were some of my best teachers. During my last year, one of the orderlies had connections to the local elementary schools in the area. The last year in general surgery is called the “chief” year. As chief resident, I visited those schools weekly to talk with kids from each grade about health-related issues. It was spontaneous and fun. It was the icing on the cake after working in the community for six years. By then, I was able to walk the area because I took care of all comers, they all knew me, and we all got along.