The Coin of Life
By MIKE WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 26, 1999
Today, she is a physician in Houston. We talked to her about her valedictory address and asked what she has learned in the 10 years since she gave it.
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Do you remember what you said in that speech?
One of our reporters covered the commencement. You told your classmates they would become "parents who will instill in their children the moral strength to conquer crack, teenage pregnancy and racism." How do you think they're doing?
It's so hard to say because hardly any of my friends have had children. They're workhorses like me. As for society in general, I don't think it has come that far in terms of crack and teenage pregnancy. Now that I'm in the health system, I see crack a lot more than I did when I was younger. I just finished two months in the intensive care unit. There was a gentleman who came in who was a big crack cocaine user. He was in his 30s. He came in with a massive heart attack and ended up with a pacemaker.
Did you talk to him about what led to the heart attack?
Oh, yes. He said that he knew it was because of crack. He had had a couple of episodes in the past when he came into the ER with chest pain, and he was told this could happen. There are a lot of repeat visitors to the ER. You can warn them over and over again, but they still won't believe you until something happens.
You were pretty idealistic when you gave the commencement speech. Have your experiences as a doctor changed that at all?
Why did you talk to your high school classmates about teen pregnancy?
Because there were a couple of people who didn't graduate with us because of teen pregnancy. Later, when I was in medical school in Miami, I saw even more pregnant teenagers. Some of them were 12, 13, 14 years old. The worst thing was, most of them would drop out of school. And once they dropped out of school, a large majority of them would never go back.
The rate of teen pregnancy has fallen dramatically in the past few years. Why do you think that is?
Because I told the kids to watch out for it. (Laughs.) There's better education now. And I think we're communicating better with kids, talking to them instead of keeping it a hush-hush thing.
You also talked about racism. Do you see progress there?
I think so. ... One big difference is that there isn't as much overt racism now. I guess because of the laws, you can't get away with it as much as you could in the past.
But still there are problems. After I gave my graduation speech, I was talking to a couple of 11th-graders who had been in the stands. They said there was an older female, a Caucasian, sitting near them. She wanted to know who had written the speech for me. She said it was so good it must have been written for me. Another woman said I must have been mixed -- that I couldn't have been a regular old black woman. That really shocked me.
So even as you were sounding the death knell of racism, people were saying these things?
Yeah. But then you see the opposite. There was a woman I didn't know at all, a Caucasian woman, who wrote me this beautiful letter saying how much she enjoyed my speech.
As a commencement speaker, you were called upon to offer wisdom to your peers. Do you think you had any to offer?
Actually, I do. I felt as though I had been through a lot in life. My mother died the summer before I started the ninth grade. Going back to junior high school that fall was definitely different. Who was I going to shop for clothes with? Who was going to cook at home? It was a weird adjustment; there aren't really words to describe it. I think my dad did a good job stepping in, but I did a lot of growing up quick.
Can you remember what you thought your future would be?
I knew I was going to be a doctor. That was just a given. I thought I was going to go to college, meet somebody in college, go to medical school, and get married right after medical school. I was going to have a child in my second year of residency.
You did go to college. Did you meet somebody?
Yes, I did, by accident. I actually started dating my husband my senior year in college. We kept dating the four years I was in medical school in Miami. One month after I finished medical school, we got married.
Did you have a child?
I did not, and I'm not ready. Residency was -- what's the best way to describe it? -- a call to reality. It was so intense, and I was keeping crazy hours.
How were you able to make all those things happen?
I've always had a strong personality. My dad is an engineer, he's quite analytical, a no-nonsense kind of person. I think that rubbed off. And nobody was ever negative to me. I was always taught that the sky's the limit. Who was I not to believe them?
In high school you wanted to be a surgeon. Are you one?
No. I changed my mind about that. I came to think of surgeons as fixing things that go wrong, and I wanted to be a doctor who prevented things from going wrong. Especially things that were going wrong in the African-American community -- kidney disease, heart disease. I felt like I was going to be the person who would go into the community and talk to them before they had to go on dialysis, or before they had a heart attack. I think some of that had to do with my mother, because she died of a heart attack at a very early age.
Is your future still as carefully mapped out as it was when you were 17?
Well, my plan is to work vigorously for the next 20 years in a group practice. When I'm older I want to open a kind of clinic, a family homeless shelter. I worked at one in Miami and really liked it. ... I guess I always try to think of the underdog in the health system.
Ten years ago you were given an opportunity to say anything you wanted to a large audience. If you could do it again now, what would you say?
You know that phrase I told you, "Time is the coin of your life"? I would use that same exact phrase. ... Some people I see are so idle. You talk to them and some of them sound brilliant, but they're doing nothing in their lives. They're just wasting way. I meet a lot of criminals in my work, people who are sent over from the jail, and there's so much wasted talent.
I think it all goes back to my mother again. She died at 35 or 36, so I always think, tomorrow is never promised. I ask myself, what are you doing here in your time on earth? What are you doing to make it count? I think the only reason we're put here is to make the world a better place. If you're not doing anything, what's the use of being here?