Because You Can Breathe, You Must Speak

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Being a Black, female medical student in America during a pandemic has been heavy, to say the least.

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The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

By Kaosoluchi Enendu, MS4
University of California, Irvine School of Medicine

Kaosoluchi Enendu

Kaosoluchi Enendu is a fourth-year medical student born of Nigerian immigrants. She graduated from the University of California, Irvine, in 2016, and majored in biological sciences. During her time at UC Irvine School of Medicine, she has been involved in creating diversity programs, serving as a mentor, and advocating for her patients. In 2020, Kaosoluchi was inducted into the Gold Humanism Honor Society and serves as Chapter President. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with friends, designing clothes, writing, and FaceTiming her mom and little brother.

Being Black in America, you face injustices words cannot even begin to describe. Being a woman in America, your voice is often not heard. Being a medical student in America during a pandemic, you are battling the fear for your life, your family’s lives, and the lives of your patients, while being evaluated on your intellect and clinical performance. Being a Black, female medical student in America during a pandemic has been heavy, to say the least.

Ahmaud Arbery’s death picked at a scab on my heart that hadn’t healed from the last senseless murder of an innocent Black person. I wasn’t sure how to cope; I didn’t know what to do. I had previously found comfort and healing from interacting with people and communing with friends to discuss, grieve, and rebuild. I would leave my home to stay distracted, and I would run to clear my mind. COVID-19 robbed me of the human touch and the distractions I needed to heal. The murderers robbed me of my ability to feel safe taking a jog in my own neighborhood, even in broad daylight. I felt trapped. It was just me, First Aid, Online MedEd, and watching a murder played on a loop on social media. I was traumatized, and needless to say, it was difficult to focus on UWorld questions. 

I returned to clinical rotations, still shaken, constantly stifling the trauma that remained ever-present at the back of my mind while seeing patients. Fiddling with telemedicine and navigating interpreter services during a three-way call, I had no choice but to remain excellent. I was still being evaluated, my patients depended on me, and I had to study because of my obligations as a student. It was just me, Master the Boards, AAFP questions, and reading about Breonna Taylor being killed in her home as she slept. Meanwhile, my school reminded me to gather letters of recommendation for my residency application.

I kept my head down, started my first day of Surgical ICU, and tried to survive the weight. I had three days to transition from a third-year medical student to a fourth-year medical student, but I walked into wards with a pep in my step, ready to learn everything there is to know about ventilator management. Then I watched Amy Cooper make a false claim that a Black man was threatening her. I was keenly aware that a call like that could very much have led to his death. That calculated lie could have prevented Christian from ever seeing his family again. The color of his skin, his race, something he could never change, something he should be proud of, was used as a weapon against him. That stung. The fear was mounting, and that same day, in an act of self-preservation, I tried not to watch as I had to quickly scroll past the countless videos of George Floyd gasping for air. The wind was knocked out of me; I felt like I couldn’t breathe… But I had to fight to focus and learn about my patient’s ventilator settings …. The irony.

I want to shield my ten-year-old brother from the horrors of this world but I feel powerless because no one could save Tyre King. I am scared when my mom is out and about because I remember what happened to Rekia Boyd. I’m afraid even inside my home because Atatiana Jefferson’s only crime was playing video games with her nephew … But my patient is having breakthrough fevers up to 102 on meropenem, and I have to talk the team through how to read his chest x-ray. “First make sure the trachea is midline, then check to see if you can count 10 to 11 ribs ...”.

I wanted to scream, but I feared no one would hear me. So I reached out to those who always made me feel heard — my LEAD-ABC family. LEAD-ABC stands for Leadership Education to Advance Diversity in African, Black, and Caribbean communities. In times like these — and frankly, any time I need support — this group of students, faculty, staff, and community mentors ensures I have the tools necessary to thrive. My institution has made a great effort to recruit students into this program to diversify the student body and arm us with the tools needed to become physician-advocates. This time, this season, was used as a teaching point. We partnered with our friends and allies in a sister program, The Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community (PRIME-LC). LEAD-ABC and PRIME-LC gave me the courage to speak. So, we spoke.

I felt a slew of emotions, including extreme vulnerability, but then I realized people were listening. They were willing to help create a better world for me, my loved ones, and our patients …. The feeling I felt most was hope. Before this program, I never felt like I had a voice, but LEAD-ABC helped me find it. At the White Coats for Black Lives demonstration held at our hospital, my LEAD-ABC mentors helped me write a speech and encouraged me to speak. I was afraid, but I was lovingly reminded by my mentor, Dr. Candice Taylor Lucas, “Because you can breathe, you must speak.” So I took a deep breath ... and I spoke.

Part of my speech:

“We must remember that kneeling was used as an act of oppression .... 

But today we will reclaim the power of this position in humility, awareness, and also solidarity with ongoing movements like Black Lives Matter and White Coats for Black Lives. 

I anticipate that your knee may hurt. You may feel discomfort. But I ask that you pause in this moment to focus and breathe, because we live in a world where Black people are being killed.

So please pause...

And breathe...

Breathe breath that George Floyd can no longer breathe.

Breathe breath that Breonna Taylor can no longer breathe.

Breathe breath that Ahmaud Arbery can no longer breathe.

Breathe breath that Mike Brown,
Trayvon Martin,
Sandra Bland,
Tony McDade,
Tamir Rice,
Chinedu Okobi, my cousin,
and countless others whose lives mattered ... who cannot breathe.

Breathe breath and change.

Remember them and take time to learn about their lives and not just their deaths.”

In speaking these words, I felt empowered. Encouraged as a lawn filled with people of diverse racial, ethnic, and professional backgrounds came together to acknowledge BLACK LIVES MATTER. I knew I mattered. I knew my voice mattered. So I continue to stand as a proud Black female, budding physician, and agent for change — standing against racism and standing for all of my current and future patients.

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