Greet the customer. Select the meat. Cut the meat. Clean the slicer. Wash the dishes. Sweep the floor. This is my daily routine at High-Venus Deli.
I completed four years of medical school, and this is my daily routine.
When I started medical school, I thought I would never have another blue-collar job in my life. I’d worked at Applebee’s, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and various other stores and restaurants leading up to medical school. A sigh of relief when I got my acceptance letter. No more standing on my feet all day, taking crap from customers who thought me beneath them, doing simple, yet difficult, tasks. And yet, here I am, working in High-Venus Deli just weeks after completing my final clinical rotation.
How did I get here? To answer this question, I must first tell you about my personal and professional struggle as an African-American woman. It is a struggle that Rao and Flores explored in 2007 to answer the question “Why Aren’t There More African-American Physicians?” They found that approximately four percent of physicians are African-American, despite making up 13 percent of the United States population. Barriers for African-Americans to becoming physicians include financial instability, racism, parental educational level, lack of encouragement from family and teachers, lack of mentorship, unfamiliarity with the field of medicine and few role models. Their findings are my life in a nutshell. They explain how I ended up at High-Venus Deli.
I was born in a small Mississippi town to a 14-year-old girl, essentially homeless with a newborn. Several family members took us into their homes. The first few years of my life were spent moving from house to house. We were basically orphans. Notice, I don’t mention my father here: there isn’t really much to say. Imagine starting your life off this way. Somewhere through all the fear, isolation and desire for more, I found the idea of becoming a physician. There were no medical professionals in my family, and I did not have any friends or mentors who were doctors. My high school teachers encouraged me to pursue a law degree or a public speaking career because I was on the speech and debate team and was student body president. I, however, wanted to become a physician. I wanted to help people who were unable to help themselves –people like me. If I became a physician, I would truly be able to help the poor, understanding their unhealthy eating habits and knowing all too well about crime in their neighborhoods. I could give back in this way and pave way for better health care in this population.
I began medical school on fire. I was so passionate about making a change in the world. A girl raised by a teenage mother who grew up in rough neighborhoods would surely make a difference in patient outcomes. However, reality quickly sunk in, as it usually does after being out in the sunlight for too long. I had financial problems. I had family problems. Some of my family problems were causing my financial problems. I got a job working at the gym during my first year of medical school. I kept this job until my final year. As a fourth-year student, life on the wards was the best experience in all four years. My medical knowledge had improved as well as my confidence. However, my financial and family problems worsened. Now, I have residency interviews. My job at the gym was barely paying the bills, and it certainly would not be enough to support my residency interview travel. This brought me to High-Venus. Although I am very thankful for this job and for being able to financially support myself and attend interviews, it infuriates me that four years of medical education have come to this.
It’s amazing how much you learn about yourself and others during personal and financial hardship. I never thought I could work a job like this after being in a professional environment for so long. When you are at your worst (or, in this case, my best because I’m done with medical school), anything is possible. It’s hard work. Customers are rude and demanding. My back, legs and feet hurt from standing and slicing meat and cheese all day. Some days I just want to scream and other days I cry in my car after work. I knew that my journey to becoming a physician would be difficult, but I never imagined this.
At the same time, I’ve learned a lot about the everyday worker. At some point during medical school, I had forgotten how the real world works. I told my colleagues at High-Venus that I wanted to be a primary care provider. “What’s that?” they asked. None of them has one, or even knew what it was. Smoking, drugs, sexually transmitted infections, violence, bad relationships and racism are what they understand the most. One of my colleagues used to be addicted to crack and heroin. When I first met her, she was listing a hotel as her address because she had no place to live. Another was late to work one day because she witnessed a shooting in her neighborhood. Another was upset because his coworker told him that he does not listen to “nigger music.” I didn’t even know that was a genre of music. This shakes me to my core because all I can seem to think about is why I am working in a deli cutting meat every day when there are clearly bigger problems to ponder. I have a home. I am safe. I am not on drugs or witnessing any violent acts. This job is temporary. I often wonder how my presence affects my peers. Does it give them hope, or are they outraged? One lady wants me to be her primary care provider (I explained what it was). I’ll cling to the idea of making a difference in her life, regardless of how small.
It’s true that I did not start medical school thinking I would be a deli worker at the end of four years. However, this job has made me more human. My compassion for others is overflowing, and I have regained my fire. My coworkers feel comfortable sharing their stories with me because I can relate to them. They tell me that they are proud of me — that I made it out. I don’t think I’ve made it out just yet, but I know there are better circumstances ahead. Residency is so close, and yet so far away. Until then: Greet the customer. Select the meat. Cut the meat. Clean the slicer. Wash the dishes. Sweep the floor.