The Art of Thought
Dad was waiting out there somewhere in the lobby of the tall, glass building. They’d told us that only students were allowed into the small basketball court where they had huddled us together. It was a strange feeling, sitting in my seat, being addressed by the energetic pair of college students, and Dad outside, not in the seat next to mine. It was a thing of pride for him to be present at things like this, deciding our future was never a responsibility he shared with anyone else.
“Congratulations on becoming a Medical Doctor”, Dad would jeer at me, later that afternoon, as he drove me and my 3 siblings out to a celebratory lunch at our favourite buffet spot in all of America; Golden Corral. But it was only my 1st day as an undergrad at Boston University.
September 19th, 2013 — That was the day on the Calendar. The day I did ‘it’. After sitting through the workshop set up for incoming students by the Health Sciences department, I declared a major; ‘Human Physiology/Pre-medicine’. With that new stamp, the matter was decided. What I would be and how I would be addressed. Dr. Anammah. I was defined. I belonged to a category; Medical Professionals. Papa’s 18 long years of toil finally began to bear fruit.
All around us, dry autumn winds whipped up everything in their path, leaving a foreign feel on skin accustomed to the blistering heat of our tropical hometown in Nigeria. Shrunken down to a mere faceless dot amidst the throngs of student-parent pairs that walked the busy footpaths along the Campus grounds. The 5,300 miles of distance that stood between us and home did not weaken the ties to our culture of determinism. It was something close to taboo to be nameless, without definition. Deciding my ‘it’ was a matter of grave importance.
Perhaps you wonder what the feeling of finding ‘it’ must have been like? Exhilarating. Like a freed prisoner’s first day out in the sunny brightness outside the darkness of prison walls. And every morning from that point on the feeling only crested higher. There was certainty in my steps as I set out for classes in the buildings clearly marked ‘Center of Health Sciences’ An unspoken kinship shared with other pre-medical students hunkered around library tables on the eve of major exams, united in the battle against sleep. The way who we were set us apart from those who weren’t like us. Never daring to say it out loud, but innately knowing that our sacred calling ranked higher than those in the softer pursuits of Arts, Hospitality, Advertising, and the likes. For 8+ years of schooling was not for the faint of heart.
If grades were any indication, then the stars were clearly in alignment. By senior year, I had bagged a series of awards under my belt. ‘Top 10%’, ‘High honor roll’, ‘Invitations to International scholastic societies’.
‘Specialty’ — I’d never quite heard the word except on the chalk sign boards that hung outside restaurants in Downtown Boston, announcing the ‘Lunch Specialty’ of the day. But in that one fateful meeting in my senior year with my Mrs. E, my college advisor, she seemed unable to go a sentence without dropping the S* bomb.
“Have you considered any rotations that could give you some exposure to fields you may be interested in specializing in?
Mrs. E was always very soft-spoken, her warm, reassuring smile able to pacify even the most hardened criminals, yet still there was no repelling the dreaded feeling of gnawing uncertainty that the word seemed to trigger in me. Obstetrics? Radiology? Psychology? Oncology? Nothing. None screamed back announcing itself as “The ultimate path to lifelong fulfillment!”.
“Can I get back to you on this?”
Relieved, she accepted my mediocre response. Surprisingly even, she didn’t appear upset at it. Her unfettered composure eased some of the choking doubt, if only just slightly. But just about then, she threw in the punch.
“This is something you need to make a priority, The deadline to decide on your post-graduate placement is this month”
Deadline. The finality of it, slowly brought on a new wave of panic. By only a small miracle I managed enough hand-eye coordination to pry open her office door on my way out. It was all happening too fast. Big decisions. Choices. Real Life. And worst of all; I was unclassified yet again.
In later conversations with peers, I couldn’t get past the strong air of assurance they gave off, I envied it and at other times, despised it. Dosa had set himself up with a nice gig working at a Cancer Research lab at Dana Farber. Romirio would be flying out to Honduras to work alongside a Tropical Disease specialist in a rural malaria treatment centre. I turned to Google for answers, combing through Quora threads on, “How to know which medical specialty you are destined for?” Sat in on countless Career workshops, waiting on a lightbulb to go off, a reckoning that would echo across my soul.
Three weeks later. The day came, despite me praying it would not. There I was again, seated across from Ms. E, the dark circles under my eyes a few shades darker than on our last meeting.
Mrs. E was only vaguely familiar with the term so I had to explain to her the new role doctor’s were now hiring for — clinical aides whose sole job was to record notes during the patient visits. I shared the details of the opportunity I had stumbled on. We both exchanged unspoken sighs of relief and I left more at peace.
That evening, I finally made the call home that I had been putting off — not wanting them to see me so vulnerably uncertain. So as usual, it was a call to declare yet another victory, “I got placed as a Medical scribe for a family clinic in Cambridge” There was no missing the glow of pride in Mum & Dad’s tone over the phone. And at the end of the night, for the very first time in weeks, I laid down to sleep, and sleep came.
On my first day in, a rotund, no-nonsense nurse ushered me into the busy family clinic. Trying her best to hide her displeasure, she explained to me with an unmistakable Southern drawl “You’ll have ta wait in der lobby, Gad knows how loooong, Dr. F is running ‘bout 2 hours behind his patient skeeduuul,” She must have fought hard not to throw in a snarky “as usual” but she ends our curt exchange abruptly with, “I hope ya see now whyy we need ya hya”
With months into my time at the clinic, and Dr. F’s patient visits not having gotten any shorter, was why I often avoided that nurse’s gaze whenever we hurtled past each other in the hallways.
I would later learn that the ‘F’ in his name was short for ‘Dr. Farooqi’ which explained the brown, braided cap he wore around his head every single day of my entire year there. Originally, a Pakistani who had fled his home during the 1971 war, crossed over the border to India and finally emigrated to America in 2001. A tall, slender, bespectacled man with a full head of greying hair. Deep-set brown eyes that seemed to mindlessly appraise its object. Of all the staff that ran the small clinic, who knew how much Dr. F’s lengthy patient visits were running up clinic costs, the least concerned seemed to be Dr. F. It was as if the idea of spending any less time with a patient was the greater transgression.
Dr. F’s small office became my new home during my time there. The walls were lined with Pakistani all-star cricket players with names that caught in the back of my throat. Like most other physicians, the room was furnished with an office chair and a desk on which a desktop was mounted. Unlike most other physicians, Dr. F never sat in the chair behind his desk when seeing patients. At his own expense, he had acquired a mobile spin chair that allowed him sit closer to his patients without the large desk taking up the space between them. One knee crossed above the other and with a slight lean forward, his inviting pose showed nothing else in the world mattered but what it was they had to say. Reacting to the memorable as well as the trivial with as much enthusiasm; the wedding of a grandson or the mischiefs of the family pup. Always knowing just how to string out the chords of their soul, like a trained musician on a classical instrument.
“What did you think?” it was not the first time he would turn to me to ask this, and each time it took more practiced effort than I had the patience for to try and dodge it the best I could. Fact-based science ought not have room for things as whimsical as personal opinions or perspectives. Staring at him blankly, with a shrug of indifference, I returned with a weak, unconvincing “Good good,”
But I will never forget the instance that finally broke the camel’s back. Every evening, Dr. F honored a decades-long practice of settling down to one of his favorite business publications at the close of work. On that particular winter day, I had walked in to find him as I usually did, with his two feet balancing on his desk, reclining back in his chair and his nose wedged between the pages of The Economist. “Ah! Good, you’re here! Now, Now, come, come, take a look in page 59” Not knowing I had walked in on an ambush, I flipped the pages of the open article on his desk, “What’s next after Brexit?” the title read.
“So, so? what do you think? You side with the author?” Dr. F’s eyes were expectant, pleading almost, When I couldn’t make sense of the first paragraph on the page, it took all my restraint not to blurt out “What does it matter to you?!” but all I return is “Not quite sure”
”Ai Ai Ncheeee! You don’t have a point of view?” a note of frustration in his voice.
That night, I couldn’t let out of my head the look of genuine, troubled concern I had caught in his face. I’d never seen him that worked up, nor knew why my crisp “Good’s” and “Nice” responses to matters with no clear bearing on my job role frazzled him so. I had a prestigious Bachelor’s Degree. A coveted role as a scribe at a Cambridge family clinic. But little to no point of view on global affairs.
It began to make sense only after our first patient the next day, a certain Mr. George. His pinched-nose, musical accent easily gave away his birthplace in Great Britain. Whereas the ‘reason for visit’ had read ‘Hypertension’, much of the time Dr. F had spent listening to Mr. George complain about how slow the Brexit negotiations were going and how it kept him wide-eyed at night.
The handwriting on the wall was clear. Lesson 1: Research to Develop a Point of View. Lesson 2: Seek to understand the Point of view of the Other to enable you to understand and solve their problem.
Sparing no chance for another such encounter, I set myself a daily challenge to read at least 1 article of Bloomberg Businessweek each day. At first reluctant, and out of place with my customary routine, I was soon pleasantly ushered into a universe of knowledge that I had previously drawn imaginary lines of separation around. Unwittingly, I found myself especially drawn to the curious interplay between the forces of business, development economics and globalization. Edged on by the trail of unanswered questions left by even the best attempts at finding answers to grainy, complex multifaceted problems. In every way this new world defied the safety of the more predictable world of clinical sciences, where clear, distinct categories exist in perpetuity as opposed to distinctions that are in constant flux based on the context within which they are applied. Despite this, as I sank deeper into this new world, the more my initial indignation towards Dr. F slowly gave way to feelings of indebtedness and gratitude.
It’s been 4 years since my days at the Cambridge family clinic, and ‘Dr’ is noticeably missing from my name. Maybe he’d known then, or maybe he didn’t but much credit is due Dr. F for the role he played in the making of a future business analyst. His oft repeated enquiry, “What do you think?” captures the heart of my work today as a Business Research Analyst. Clarifying my thought process has become a daily endeavor that takes on many forms. Be it patiently wading through the islands of ambiguity between articulating a business problem and landing on a workable solution. Or the late nights spent poring over messy stacks of A4 paper, teasing out the irregular contours of an idea with soft instrumental playing in the background. Or an evening jog around the neighborhood to step away from the information overload of the day. Or the sudden bursts of clarity that come during a cold shower. But best of all, it’s quieting my internal biases, and leaning forward for the world to uncover its hidden insights to me.