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Growing up, my parents struggled to put food on the table for me and my two older brothers. Because we didn’t have much, I learned from an early age that if I wanted something, I had to earn it. One Christmas, when I was ten years old, I had an uncle I’d never met before come to visit. When my mother introduced him to us, she told us that he was a travelling physician for “doctors without borders.” I had no idea what that meant, so I pestered him with questions for the next few hours during that brief isolated visit. He was kind enough to oblige. He told us that he had recently returned from Japan, which had endured a significant natural disaster. Having never even left the city, I was fascinated by the prospect of leaving the country. “What was it like? What did you do there?” I asked. He told us that his job was to provide care for people in need, regardless of race, nationality, class, or creed. “One day, maybe you can join me,” he said.

In my freshman year of university, I volunteered at a community outreach center for children. Many of the kids I worked with came from tumultuous backgrounds: poverty, family abuse, and neglect were a few common themes. Even though it had been a dream of mine since meeting my estranged uncle to travel the world, I would’ve never understood the needs of my own community if I hadn’t become an outreach volunteer. I met these twin sisters, Anna and Abigail, whose persistence inspired me to pursue the premed track in university. They both were showing symptoms of depression and anxiety attributed to frequent moves across the country. They reminded me of my brothers and me: introverted, introspective, and indefatigable, despite their circumstances.

Being an outreach volunteer prompted an interest in pediatric health. During my premed studies, I met with one of my professors to collaborate on a research assignment investigating racial disparities in pediatric mental health. We spent a few hours throughout the week with a team of other researchers compiling existing data on a range of topics, including mental health vulnerabilities in the juvenile justice and child welfare system. What stuck with me about this investigation was that many undetected mental health problems that were often labelled “disruptive” or “problematic” were often dealt with in unproductive ways. It was disheartening to learn, but I felt compelled to do something about it because I identified with the population group.

That summer, I joined another undergraduate research program for 10 weeks. I followed a mentor, Dr Julie Sabine, who supervised me during the program. A group of students and I developed an independent project for psychosocial functioning in pediatric cancer. We examined treatment-related stressors, including anticipatory anxiety and treatment side effects. Aside from learning to appreciate the spirit of research collaboration, I understood the importance and interdependence of research and health care quality. I can see clearly now that in the detection of certain mental illness susceptibilities among children being treated for cancer, laboratories can communicate with the clinical realm to deliver more effective strategies for easing patients into treatment.

Now that I’m in a position to pursue what I’ve been inspired to do since I was ten, I think frequently about my uncle’s admonition, “maybe you can join me someday.” While I always thought that I would want to “join” him abroad, I think for now I’d like to start in my own community. With the clinical and research experience I’ve had, I understand that there’s a discrepancy in health care outcomes for children, specifically when it comes to mental health. When I was younger, I envied the privileges of many of my classmates. Living in poverty and recognizing the prevalence of silent suffering has uniquely positioned me to become a physician with the shrewd judgment to detect many of these covert issues.

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