Lessons about service

Lessons about service

By Merrian B.

Medical residency is a lot like adolescence. It’s a time when you are as smart as much as you ever will but lacking the maturity that only time produces. You’ lack the youth you might have had as a student, but you are definitely not yet an elder.

This is my second year of residency and I have really appreciated the education that I’ve gotten from my patients. The lesson I’ve been considering most recently involves my feelings about service, and who I consider worthy of it. My thoughts have been at times elitist and immature and I hope that I have gained a better understanding of the spirit of service.

I work in Camden NJ which is now the poorest city in America. I often think about, work on, and brainstorm ways in which I can serve the people in Camden. But what does that mean? I can’t honestly consider service as something genuine and not patronizing, unless I’m referring to  service to myself, my colleagues, and those who are considered as more fortunate. I know it may seem counter-intuitive to think that someone who is fortunate needs service, or that doctors need service between each other. But think about it, everyone needs something. There are favors you can do: covering shifts for someone who is having family problems, helping a colleague who may not have money for lunch, being available for those who may need a shoulder to cry on, or even assisting people in finding help for substance abuse. I have realized that considering service to my colleagues is as important as service to my patients. In the past, when one of my co-workers had a problem I would sometimes get annoyed or frustrated when I would have to work for them. I confess that I even had a moment when a colleague was having family trouble and I had to stay later to cover for them, that my first thought was “that’s not my problem”.  However, I recently realized that unless I consider service to my colleagues in the same way as with my patients, I cannot be honest and genuine in my spirit of service.

It is not enough to simply serve those who are considered to be at the “bottom”. “They” are less fortunate or needy, implying that we are more fortunate, we have something that they need. This may be true and is ok. But when the spirit of service only extends to only a certain class or race or group of people, our service becomes a generalization. It implies that, for example, only “poor” people are in need and that those people are different from us. However, even people without a lot of money could serve those who do, with favors, time, and extra consideration when times are hard. We all have something to offer to each other, and unless we consider opening up our notion of service, then we really run the risk of being patronizing. More importantly the assumption that one has something to offer to another but not vice versa, can support or reinforce undertones that may be classist or racists, or otherwise overly distinguishing “us” versus “them.”

I want to work in places where there is little medical care. In a sense I have “something people need”.  I would like to join the ranks of colleagues who are also working hard to provide medical care to the medically under-served  I realize that advocating for those health workers is equally worthy of my time and service and that it is just as important, to be a voice and an aid for their quality of life. I would also like to receive from the communities I work for. I will likely need help with my children, with dealing with stress, and likely need lots of shoulders to cry on. I hope to be able to show my vulnerability and ask for help so I can also invoke the spirit of service to others, and more importantly, to show those I may serve in certain ways that we are all needy and that being served and providing service really connects us to each other as equals.

*Merrian is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.

Merrian Brooks

Merrian is a medical resident studying the specialty of pediatrics in the USA. She was born and raised a Black American and feels proud to be the descendant of a group as a resilient and strong as those known as African slaves. She hopes to one day be a part of a movement to make medical systems work better for people of color in the US, and children and adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa.

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