Patients often comment on my attire other than my white coat, particularly my impractical footwear, until I finally broke down and purchased Danskos to avoid being called out for my truthful impracticality. It is amazing how patients care more about my orthotics than remembering the reason they scheduled a visit with me, and God bless them for that.
I am in family medicine, and I thrive on personal and genuine relationships where patients feel comfortable to call me out on my high heels because they want their doctor’s back and feet to be OK. In this day, with how overbooked and exhausted both patients and physicians seem to have become, I have found it refreshing that my patients continue to ask how I am doing in this pandemic. The heart of humanity has not been lost, and every time I hear “I am good, Doctor, but how are you,” my heart and hope are restored. Our patients may have postponed visits, mental health disorders may be drastically increasing, but our patient’s hearts have remained — and if they cannot find their joy that we have known them to have years and years after subsequent visits, it is our privilege to help listen to their stories, give them support, and help them restore what once was beautiful.
I receive even more comments on my sorority jewelry. These carry a different undertone. “What doctor could possibly ever consider joining a sorority?” The shock of how someone could achieve high medical accolades while being affiliated with superfluous college activities seems to befuddle many a patient. This is where my story gives way to how I am able to exude joy, even under the exhausting and uncertain pandemic.
Almost two decades ago, I was contemplating whether to join a sorority. My unwavering dream was to become a physician, and I was afraid of what joining a sorority would entail. I allowed the presumed stigma prevent me from even considering it my freshman year. I needed to focus, to dedicate my entire college career to pre-medicine, and I was afraid that expanding my social network instead of buckling down in the library every week would distract me from the arduous path I knew was ahead.
Then, I made a spontaneous decision that would change my life forever and went through recruitment my sophomore year. A high school acquaintance and I both ended up in the same sorority, and she is my very best friend to this day. In fact, she was my support system when I missed the entire homecoming weekend to study in the library for my MCAT. She. Was. My. Lifeline.
My second breakthrough came in my senior year of college, when a Houston Alumnae Alpha Phi organization sponsored four pre-medicine women in the same national sorority to intern at Texas Children’s Hospital in the pediatric cardiac ward. I will forever be grateful to them for their generosity and belief in me that I could become a doctor. The other three women were from nationally-renowned schools in California, Chicago, and one was even studying at Johns Hopkins. Then there was me, a year older than the other three, from a small liberal arts university in Idaho. I was in the midst of waiting for interview invitations for medical school and had yet to receive any. I was devastated but trying to hold on to optimism. These three women gave me hope, encouragement, and support even though we had just met. We took pictures together in scrubs at the hospital, our first time ever getting to “pretend doctor,” and it was beautiful. We witnessed cardiac surgery on neonates, state-of-the-art procedures that no one other than medical professionals were usually permitted to observe at that time, we lived and breathed our philanthropic values of cardiac care, and we were the definition of a sisterhood.
We toured a Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition, a masterful movement of the human anatomy preserved through plastination, and I found it so inspiring that I published a book about my experiences later that year. My lifeline had now expanded to women from coast to coast, and the pride and fellowship I felt from having a national connection to sorority sisters was beyond anything I could have fathomed possible.
Today, I am a dual board-certified osteopathic and allopathic family medicine physician in the midst of an unfathomable pandemic. I have been met with more heartache, more emotional challenges, and more days of hopelessness and helplessness than I ever was prepared for during my eight years of medical training. Resilience and courage are a daily battle, yet I hold on to the memories I mentioned above, and it provides me with the strength to continue. My love for my patients is mirrored by the love my fellow sisters showed me, the grace they gave me, the encouragement they never stopped providing: the connection to another soul.
We are, after all, all unified in some form, and this human connection that I was able to foster through my growth as a “sorority girl” has only magnified as I have matured and seen that what was taught and learned in college has become a cornerstone for how I interact and engage with my patients. We all have unique stories, struggles, successes, fears, and dreams. My path is my passion to help my patients see what I so gratefully was given through my friendships and bonds of sisterhood. We are all afraid, we are all struggling with the uncertainty of the pandemic, and we are all in this together as each other’s lifelines.
I now welcome with excitement any inquiries about my sorority pins or necklace. I love breaking the inaccurate but assumed stereotype. I thrive on showing curious patients the magnitude of strength that comes from any source of unification, so I may help enable them to find their own sources of strength and community. Times are uncertain, but our humanity is most certainly not.
Erika Visser Aragona is a family physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com