Brittani James

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Both Brittani and her sister are dedicated to nurturing the next generation of diverse doctors.

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Undergraduate university and year of graduation: Cornell University, 2010
Major: Human Biology, Minor in Global Health
Medical school: University of Michigan Medical School, 2015
Residency Training Program: University of Illinois at Chicago
Specialty: Family Medicine Residency

What led to your interest in medicine?

As a child I wanted to be a nurse or a teacher. I was not the kid that knew from an early age that I wanted to be a doctor. It was a slow realization. I’ve always loved science and found fulfillment helping others, but becoming a doctor didn’t click as a viable option until the second half of college when I saw a black doctor in person for the first time in my life.

What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?

When patients tell me that I listened to them and understood them better than any other doctor they had seen, I know that I chose the right path. When I am able to connect and build a trusting relationship with a patient who otherwise has a lot of reasons to be mistrustful of the medical industry, I feel honored and humbled. But most of all, when I am the only African American at the table, advocating for my patients or uplifting their voices in spaces they are not able to access, I know that the years of struggle are worth it, because I am pushing their care forward from the inside.

Who or what inspired you?

My parents are a huge inspiration. They are the kindest, most hardworking people I know. They have always stressed the importance of staying true to your roots and overall, just working to be a positive force in the world. They always taught us we could be anything.

Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?

My family was extremely supportive. I did not feel as much support from my school’s professional career advising office. I think this was mainly because I went to such a large university with a lot of people seeking to get into medical school. I think they were spread very thin. I felt like a number and didn’t have a close relationship with any counselor.

Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?

My sister, Dr. Brandi Jackson, is by far my biggest source of both inspiration and support. We have leaned on each other throughout our entire journey and continue to do so. She is truly an amazing physician who cares deeply. I could not be more proud of her.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I read every medical school prep book I could get my hands on. I went to every informational session offered by my school’s pre-medical advising center. I also wrote out an application timeline and stuck to all the deadlines I set. It was very important to me to apply as early as possible. 

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?

I was petrified of the MCAT. Standardized testing is not a natural strength of mine, and on top of that, I was definitely not able to afford to take a prep course. In order to pay for summer expenses, I also worked a summer job while I was studying. All these things took a toll on my confidence going into the exam.

What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?

The best advice I have is to go into the MCAT already knowing your optimal learning style. What I mean by that is that you should invest the time in college or even high school to uncover how you best learn -- whether that be through visual images, doing practice questions, listening to lectures, etc. Learn that early, so you are ready to apply that learning method to studying for the MCAT.

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

I had a big fear of not being smart enough or “good enough” to get through med school and be a doctor. My twin sister had been my biggest source of support throughout the journey so far and it was also stressful being separated for the first time in our lives. I was moving to a new state where I didn’t know a soul. It was all overwhelming.

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

The University of Michigan is a top medical school with a well-established record of excellence. They train phenomenal doctors. It is located somewhat near my hometown in the suburbs of Cleveland, which was nice. It wasn’t difficult to get home. I also felt the people I met were down-to-earth and approachable, despite all being very accomplished. I connected immediately with my peers in the school’s Student National Medical Association (SNMA) chapter. They became family.

What was your first year of medical school like?

I struggled a lot my first year of medical school. Once the newness wore off, it was replaced by intense feelings of being an imposter in that space. I did not have my twin sister with me and that took a toll. I have never struggled academically in my entire life. In fact, I was salutatorian of my high school class. (Fun fact: I tied for this position with my twin sister and gave a joint speech with her at our graduation!). Cornell, where I went for undergrad, was a step up in terms of difficulty, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Med school was a completely different ball game. For the first time in my academic life, my raw brain power was not enough to compensate for a lifetime of never actually developing study skills. Of course, I didn't realize what was happening at the time. I just assumed my failures and struggles meant I wasn’t meant to be a doctor. I felt very alone as I struggled.

Did you have to change any of your study habits?

After completing one year of medical school, I took a year off. During that time I was able to digest things and better understand my source of struggle. I refocused and realized I retain visual information the best, and that repetition is key for my learning. That was huge. But even bigger than that, through therapy, I was able to uncover how my feelings of being an imposter, and internalized inferiority stemming from being African American undermined my ability to perform academically. Once that was brought to my consciousness, I was able to actively combat those harmful and incorrect beliefs. Doing that allowed me to perform at my best.

Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

In medical school, I sat on the school’s Diversity Council, and I was the Community Service Chair of our local SNMA chapter, where I helped organize health fairs and volunteer days at a local afterschool program for minority students. I was the Chair of the Diversity and Disparities Symposium, which is a special recruitment section of the University of Michigan Medical School’s revisit weekend, which worked to recruit students from minority and underserved backgrounds at the school. I was also on the executive board of a wonderful group called “Doctors of Tomorrow” which worked to improve the pipeline of minority doctors by partnering with a high school in Detroit and exposing students to medicine. During my year off, I worked at a local non-profit that helped improve the health of the local underserved community. In Residency, I was elected Chief Resident by faculty and my peers. I also assisted with recruiting and interviewing candidates to our program.

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

Catching up with friends and family is huge. They keep me grounded. The patients I work with everyday are my big motivation. I am also fueled by my knowledge of the deep structural inequalities and health disparities in this country that make it difficult for vulnerable populations to get appropriate care.

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

I was not always great at this in medical school. To this day, keeping a balance between personal and professional life is a constant work in progress. For me, it’s about working to stay in tune with myself, and realizing when I’m feeling burned out or overwhelmed. I make adjustments in my workflow to combat this. One thing I do, for example, is to take a moment to drink water, take a deep breath or sit in my seat for a minute or two to ground myself before going into the next patient room. I do this even when I fall behind schedule or have been really busy. This allows me to stay present in each encounter and give better care. I also try not to take work home so I can be completely present at home. This may mean staying a little late at the end of the day to finish that day’s notes or call backs, but it works for me.

What makes your story unique?

When the average person closes their eyes, and envisions at doctor, I am not what they see. There are no doctors in my family. I didn’t come from money. But here I am, existing and thriving. I am walking hallways and inhabiting spaces that were not designed for me. I’m working to change healthcare for the better because I believe things must change. I am living my “impossible” dream, despite the odds. I think that’s pretty cool.

Are you a member of a unique demographic? If so, please describe how that shaped your medical school experience.

By its very nature of being a pressure cooker, medical school has a way of taking any unresolved issue or insecurity you have and magnifying it. For me, my brown skin and working class background amidst a sea of primarily upper-middle class, white classmates was a recipe for feeling out of place. Being specifically invested in understanding and addressing the unique healthcare challenges of low-income, underserved populations made me an exception, not a rule. To most of my classmates at the time, this kind of medicine was, unfortunately, an afterthought at best. There was also a big emphasis on being a specialist at my school, rather than working in primary care. It didn't take long to feel like an outsider. 

Why did you choose your specialty?

As I look back, I realize that my specialty choice was not a single decision, but a slow, yet steady march toward Family Medicine all along. It was pretty inevitable. The field of Family Medicine has a cultural lean toward valuing and seeking to understand the complex social, financial, and interpersonal dynamics that influence the health of our patients. I find fulfillment in the long-term relationships I am able to form with patients and their families. I love the variety of medical conditions I get to manage and procedures I get to do in clinic. All in all, there is no greater privilege than walking beside someone as they live their life; to uplift them and be uplifted by them; to watch them grow, struggle, err and love. I have the best job in the world.

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?

You can do this. Doctors are regular people, just like you. Every single one started off where you are today. Although the road is long, it is worth it. At the end of the day, on the other side of the struggle, there are real people who need someone like you in their corner, fighting the good fight alongside them. Medicine needs you. Your future patients need someone with your unique perspective and life experiences to be their advocate.

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