Reflections at the end of my PGY3: On being a woman, a second generation Vietnamese-American, and a fledgling EM physician.
Author: Quynhvy Ta, DO PGY3
Reviewed by: Jordana Haber, MD, MACM
In the 5th grade, I had an excused absence signed by my parents allowing me to skip “sex-ed” day. Instead, I spent the day in the company of my classmate Jenny, one of the fellow offspring of similarly well-meaning but “sex is bad” dogma brainwashed parents, who told me that even a microscopic droplet of a boy’s pee left on the toilet seat could crawl into my belly and grow into a baby. Petrified, I squatted on every public toilet seat for at least the next two years of my naive, internet-illiterate and sex-ed deprived adolescence.
At 16, I was persistent to spend part of my summer break volunteering at abortion clinics, finding this the most compelling part of the healthcare field. The only planned parenthood in town did not take underage volunteers. I subsequently went to at least a dozen “pregnancy crisis centers” under the assumption they were legitimate medical clinics, only to be met with a dark dose of reality embodied by the mound of scripture and propaganda laden lectures I had acquired, in lieu of any reproductive healthcare acumen.
During freshman year of college, I started taking oral contraceptives. I came home one weekend to get my wisdom teeth extracted. My dad, and the entire waiting room populace, were abruptly and loudly informed of this by the clerk reviewing my pre-op paperwork. Sticking her head out of the glass framed receptacle, she queried if it was true (as I had indicated quite clearly on the written form!) that I was on birth control, her tone suggesting this must be some sort of grave mistake. Why this fact was even relevant at all remains a mystery to me to this day, despite being just a couple months shy of completing my medical residency.
Let’s fast forward to medical school, during which I was the treasurer of the medical students for choice club and found myself subjugated to the aggressively closed-minded whims of some members of an administration who I felt, at every turn, undermined any activities they determined to be “too political.” Handing out condoms, as it turns out, was not in the scope of healthcare, but deemed to be a radical act outside of our lane.
My intern residency class (made up of 7 women and 3 men) stood in contrast to the legacy immediately preceding us, when the program of thirty residents were entirely male save two women. When we composed a brief statement for our social media pages expressing our solidarity with the BLM movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it was opposed by a small but very loud minority that felt it was, again, “too political.” This was unsurprising, but it was the silence, and perhaps general apathy, of the others that hurt. At their graduation party I later heard they were apparently teased for being “me too’d” by us.
There were, of course, exceptions to this. The Diversity, Inclusion, Community and Equity committee was formed under the guidance of my faculty mentor and our chief resident. Our program’s application process was extensively reviewed, and modifications were made accordingly in order to reflect the importance of representation and diversity in our program. Maintaining a monthly health equity lecture series is just the beginning to insure we reserve space and lend attention to these topics. I’m a third year now and I am happy to be in a group of co-residents that no longer looks identical to the hair dye meme of indistinguishable white dudes.
In time, my anger and sadness about the situation was replaced by the inconvenient stressors of residency and of life in general (also a global pandemic). Time, in conjunction with my predisposition for self-doubt and, perhaps, a general lack of courage or clarity, I chose to suppress my often “too political” inclinations, largely choosing politeness in the name of peace. I don’t think it’s by chance that I never arranged for a guest lecture, or wrote one myself, on the topic of abortion. Maybe, I thought, it might be “too political.”
In the days following the leaked Roe v Wade decision, I found myself in the depths of a hypomanic daze, insufficiently prepared for a verdict that I’d read countless times was coming. Doom scrolling reddit and twitter to fuel my sadness and anger, mitigating my guilt for being surprised by the outcome by listening to every relevant podcast and watching every documentary and reading every think piece from OB/GYNs and historians and lawyers I could squeeze into my waking hours, poring through medical papers in search of any actionable solutions via medical management in the ED, I was consumed by my own feelings of helplessness. I was desperate to find ways in which I could exercise control as I simultaneously felt my own autonomy as a woman being imminently taken away from me.
During my psychiatry rotation as an MS3, l sat in on the psychotherapy session of a Vietnam War veteran suffering from PTSD, during which he broke down in his own
conclusion that all his fighting was ultimately for nothing. I remember telling him afterwards that, in fact, both my parents are Vietnamese American refugees. His eyes
swelled with tears when I told him that I was going be a doctor, and that I, for one, did not feel like it was for nothing. The profound sense of connection to someone so incredibly far away from my life experience, yet so intertwined in my own destiny, resonates with me still. It was one of the most poignant moments of my medical experiences to this day, and the subsequent gratitude I felt was something I try and remind myself of often.
I grew up in the suburbs of southern California, wanting for nothing, am the daughter of two incredibly loving and always well-meaning first generation Vietnamese American refugee parents- who gave up everything to come here. I had tutors and money and plenty of time- that’s why I got to achieve my childhood dream of being a doctor. I am the recipient of immense privileges- my education, my financial security, my sexual preferences, my zip code, my supportive partner, friends, family, and mentors to name a few, rendering the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade a largely ideological attack.
For now, that is. The same judgment and resentment I had towards my seniors for their perceived complacency could just as fairly be directed towards my own inaction and willful ignorance. The path of least resistance is easy. Polite omission of treading anything “too political” is actually cowardice, guised conveniently as “professionalism.” Our profession is to care for the health of others, to advocate for those that are most vulnerable, who have nowhere else to turn but our ED because of systemic failures in our society. Gun violence, environmental injustices, racial and socioeconomic disparities, reproductive rights, and abortion- these topics ARE healthcare. I am crazy lucky to be in a position where I can, as a “professional,” advocate for the people most vulnerable to these systemic injustices that too often end up in the emergency department. As a woman, I am enraged by the continued attacks on our bodily autonomy. As a 2nd generation Vietnamese American, raised on
model minority rhetoric and that romantic narrative of the American dream, I am devastated by the implications of this likely SCOTUS decision. As an emergency medicine physician, I will fight for autonomy, reproductive justice, and defend the fundamental human right to make decisions about our bodies and our destinies.
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