I hugged her for the last time on March 15, waving goodbye as she drove away from my apartment complex. On April 15, I got a call that my friend was dead. She had unceremoniously taken her own life, unable to overcome the crippling feeling of hopelessness that plagued her after repeatedly being prevented from fulfilling her dream. The details of her death are devastating and tragic. Imagine being in such constant darkness that the only light, the only escape is death. But what matters is her life, her struggles, and our failure as a culture to forgive and support her.
Early in life, Leigh struggled with alcoholism and drug use, both of which she used to cope with depression and anxiety. She spent many of her formative years either intoxicated or incarcerated until she finally enrolled in an intensive recovery program. It was during this period of clarity and self-awareness that she decided on medicine as a path to redemption.
While enrolled in college, Leigh excelled in both her academic and research pursuits. Not content with her own success, she helped to develop a program that provided support for those like her, to help them find their own academic success and prevent them from relapsing. Leigh went on to graduate summa cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the MCAT. It was no surprise, then, that she found success in medical school, where she excelled in all her exams and became an exemplary tutor and accomplished researcher.
But more than her academic success, Leigh was a force of nature with a larger than life personality, and people naturally gravitated towards her. She faced challenges head-on. After all, what bigger challenge was there than battling addiction and constantly dealing with the associated stigma? Instead of hiding her past, Leigh spoke openly and wrote about her experiences. As a commitment to her sobriety, she voluntarily enrolled in a monitoring program and regularly went to AA meetings. She wanted to prove that her past, though unfortunate, was not a handicap or a hindrance, but made her more human, uniquely empathetic to other people’s struggles. She wanted to prove that everyone deserves a little support and a second chance.
So when she didn’t match into orthopedic surgery that first year, she was devastated but undeterred. She took a preliminary year in general surgery where her hard work, determination, and clinical skills were again noted and commended. But she failed to match a second time and then a third time. Each failure chipped away at her resilience and expanded the darkness growing within her, that darkness she had been so familiar with as a teenager. My friend, ever confident and irrepressible, was defeated after that final failed round. “It’s OK,” she told me, “I’m never going to complete a residency, never going to be board-eligible or board-certified, and my career opportunities are marginal. I’ve accepted it. I’ve accepted my life circumstances.”
Despite all her accomplishments, accolades, and commendations, Leigh could not escape her past. Instead of offering support and allowing this incredible woman the opportunity to become an outstanding physician, the medical education system rejected her. It continued to punish her for mistakes made long ago, misdeeds she had more than repented for. What more could she have done? How much more was she expected to give before she would be accepted into this profession and allowed to do what she so desperately yearned to?
We will never know how much more Leigh could have accomplished, how many more lives she could have touched. She only wished to help others heal, but the system thoroughly and unequivocally failed her. This system, which is supposed to promote and value humaneness above all, does not allow for second chances. Even in her death, Leigh’s humanity and commitment to others did not waiver. “Please. Make my life, and my death, mean something. Something for someone else. This is my hope.” For Leigh’s sake, we have to do better, be better.
Candy Ezimora is an anesthesiology resident.
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