I grew up in a conservative, middle-class family in India. No one was a physician, but from the time I was 4, my dad had the idea that his daughter would be a doctor. I grew up with 13 male cousins. I was the only girl, and my parents had very high hopes for me.
I was a little too extroverted. I did things Indian girls are not supposed to do, like climbing trees. Later, I caused a ruckus by secretly enlisting in the army. When I was growing up, the goal, for many women in India, was to get educated, but also to learn how to cook, and to get married to a man from a good family. But my dad said, “No, no household work. She needs to study and become a doctor.”
I arrived in New York City 15 years ago, repeated my residency, and did an additional year of training in clinical nutrition at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. I was struck by how patients in the States really talk to their doctors and ask questions. In India, including in the army where I was a captain, doctors would do the talking and patients took the information in. So I had to get used to that difference.
I’ll admit, I felt intimidated when I started working at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center as an attending. Most of my colleagues were from elite university backgrounds, and while I felt very supported by my division chief, Dr. Arthur Evans, I had a tendency to doubt myself. It was a big change for me because I trained in an Asian community, and when I came here, I was dealing with people from many cultural backgrounds.
I was surprised, working at such a prestigious institution as NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, how often I had patients say, “I don’t want to see you.” Or say, “Get me an American doctor.” As a woman of color, I felt there was excessive scrutiny of my physical appearance and the patients would often direct their questions to someone else. I was usually successful at brushing these incidents off.
But one Monday morning a few years ago, these strategies did not work. While doing my usual patient rounds with my team, I had an encounter with a patient that really shook me. I said hello and introduced myself, and he asked where I was from, and where I’d gotten my training. I was used to this, but what he said next surprised me: “When I went to grad school, there were no Indians at all,” he began. “And how could there be? You were all still slaves then.” As I tried to contain my shock and anger, he told me he wanted another doctor.
Then, the patient, who was an attorney, said, “I can sue you and get your license revoked, and you will lose all your privileges. I am surprised that the hospital hired you. I am sure they had better options.”
I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. Afterward, my heart was pounding. I knew I was supposed to be a role model and teach the residents, physician assistants, and others how to handle difficult problems. But I couldn’t bear to let anyone see me, so I locked myself in the bathroom and sobbed. Then I left the floor.