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March 19, 2019

Nonye Acholonu

The moment my mother found out she was having triplets, she knew she would have to move to America. At the time, she had been living in Nigeria as a young, successful banker with many friends. However, she knew that the physicians in her town could not handle the birth of triplets. My father was already living in America, doing research at an academic institution which is how my mother was able to come. Days later, she flew to Nevada, leaving everything she knew behind. Even with my father there to help, in this new land my mother felt terrified, alone, and worried that she could trust no one — that is, until she met her pediatricians.

Pediatricians not only deal with their constantly developing patients, but they must also handle new, terrified parents — like my mother. After our delivery at 32 weeks’ gestation, my mother met the neonatologists. Being the second set of triplets ever born in St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno, NV in 1992, we were cared for by physicians who came from all over the west coast. These physicians helped oversee our care, from the many intubations and ultrasounds to the countless X-rays and blood gasses. Due to my mother’s pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes, both my identical twin sister and I were small for gestational age, with my sister weighing about 1160 grams while I weighed a little under 2000 grams. My brother, though normal size for gestational age, was persistently hypoglycemic. My twin sister also required additional operations to remove various tumors on her lower extremities, keeping her in the NICU for 18 days longer than my brother and my NICU stay.

The neonatologists sat with my mother day in and day out, explaining the most complex concepts to her and making sure she understood every aspect of our care. Including her in every discussion helped build my mother’s trust to the point that she was no longer fearful — instead, she felt hopeful.

Through stomachaches, ear infections, strep throat, and our teenage years — pediatricians were always there to help. My mother loves to tell the story about the time my twin sister, older sister, little sister and I all had chickenpox. Can you imagine being a mother of five kids all under 12 years old and having FOUR sick at the same time? My mother was at her wits end! Because we weren’t allowed into the office given our infection, our pediatrician came out to the parking lot all gowned up, examined myself and my sisters, gave my mother recommendations, and administered a vaccine to my healthy twin brother.

Because of all this, I always knew I wanted to be a pediatrician.

But actually doing it? Becoming one? Ha. I just had no idea.

Getting into medical school was hard enough, and then mastering all that material in the first two years was a major pain. But it was really on my rotations, in my third year, on the floors, that I truly realized this was going to be SO MUCH harder than I thought.

The combination of skills, knowledge, compassion needed to care for premature and sick babies, and the dramatic range of medical and social circumstances I encountered — how would I ever be able to handle all of this? These pediatricians were superheroes!

Time and time again over the last two years, I struggled with uncertainty and self-doubt. I felt I wasn’t strong enough or capable of being a lifeline for children. I worried I would never create such strong bonds with my patients as my attendings all had. The way my mother spoke about her pediatricians, I couldn’t help but doubt if I would ever be that person.

Probably everybody in this room has felt like I did at one time or another.

But what got me through was thinking about my mother. I knew I would encounter patients with mothers like mine, and I needed to shape up.

In the NICU, I took time to learn and explain every treatment plan to families who were scared. On the floors, I sat with the parents and families from all walks of life. I calmed down a little boy with severe asthma who was hysterical with a panic attack, and let his mother know everything would be all right. In the clinic, my most rewarding encounter was discussing sexual development and how to go about having intercourse to my wheelchair-bound patient with muscular dystrophy and to her concerned yet optimistic mother.

I know all my classmates had some amazing experiences on rotations. But I began to realize that maybe I could become a pediatrician. Not just any pediatrician, but a good one! I realized I could not possibly become a superhuman like my attendings overnight — but working every day to accomplish that was the best thing I could do for myself, and for my patients.

What I learned through my own childhood, and have reinforced in medical school, is how a pediatrician can be a pillar in a growing family’s life. I’ve also learned that being a pediatrician takes stamina and constant flexibility.

My advice for anyone tackling a career in medicine — especially in pediatrics — is to be human and treat your patients like family. Be the kind of doctor who sits with families. Be the kind of doctor who isn’t too busy to listen and explain. Be the kind of doctor who would even treat patients in your office parking lot! Give your patients a chance to trust you because at the end of the day, so many people are in my mother’s situation — scared, confused, and desperate to receive care for themselves and their loved ones. No matter how scared you are — no matter how much Imposter Syndrome swallows you whole — just remember that being human is the most important part of being a doctor, everything else is just sprinkles on top of a birthday cake.

My interest in becoming a pediatrician began with my own life experience. I know my childhood, and my mother’s experiences is where it all began. But now that I truly understand what’s involved, what the potential can be, I can’t wait to get started.