Adrian Simien was barely a year old when pioneering “gangsta rap” group N.W.A. debuted the 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton” that popularized the violent reputation of his hometown. Simien experienced first-hand the southern California city’s high rates of violence and crime as well as his family’s poverty, steeling himself “to be the superhero” to his 12 siblings.
Brian Toston is a first-generation American whose grandfather was a political prisoner in Cuba and whose father fought as a soldier caught up in the cold war. He grew up in Miami, FL, where his parents, who’d emigrated and married there after meeting in Madrid, Spain, worked multiple jobs while struggling to learn English.
Despite the challenges they faced, both Simien and Toston are now first-year DMU osteopathic medical students. When they met and learned about each other’s stories, they decided to turn them into something positive for the DMU community.
Simien and Toston approached Rich Salas, Ph.D., DMU’s director of multicultural affairs, with their idea for a “DMU: Real Talk” series, inspired by the popular TED Talks, to allow students to share their stories, inspire one another and provide a platform for dialogue. With the University’s expanding programming to foster cultural competency among students and employees, Real Talk is yet another way members of the DMU community discuss diverse experiences while being inclusive of everyone.
“We felt this would be important to each of us not just as students, but also when we go into practice, to be able to relate to people of different backgrounds,” Simien says.
“It’s about learning to not leave things to gaps and assumptions about others,” Toston adds. “It also gives us a forum for open discussion that doesn’t involve grade point averages.”
Overcoming what no child should have to face
In the Real Talk series kickoff on Dec. 5, Simien described the themes that dominated his childhood: fear, struggle and survival.
“Many times my family didn’t have running water or electricity or heat or money. My mother would pawn about everything in our household so we could eat,” he said to a roomful of classmates in which a dropped pin would have been audible. “It was the type of life we were used to – gang violence, drugs, murders. It was a terrible place to live.
“I felt like I had no help, no guidance,” added Simien, who lived in a car for two months in high school. “That was the ‘before’ story. The only way I could get out of that situation was to be an athlete.”
Simien received a basketball scholarship from Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, but he didn’t do well grade-wise. When his mother became ill, he dropped out, returned to California and got a job at a factory. An older co-worker did him a favor by telling him, “You don’t belong here.”
By then married, Simien and his wife, Francesca Cabello, returned to St. Louis. That’s when things began to turn: Through his wife’s job, he met Dianne White, the first full-time African American weathercaster in the nation; she told Simien to “stop procrastinating and get to medical school.” At Washington University, Koong-Nah Chung, Ph.D., then assistant dean for medical admissions and student affairs, gave him a list of the classes he’d need to get into medical school; when he scored “terribly” on the MCAT, she paid for his tutors and enrollment in an MCAT prep course.
“I got straight A’s the next three years even though I had a family and was working overnight in a local ER, where one of the doctors, Harlan Hodges, took me under his wing,” Simien said.
Those individuals who “wouldn’t give up on me,” he added, showed him the “power of influence,” which he encouraged his classmates to see in themselves. “These people brought out the invisible power I had,” he said. “They were my superheroes. We all can save lives, too.”
Pursuing the American dream
When Brian Toston’s maternal grandfather was imprisoned for political reasons in Cuba, his mother was ostracized and couldn’t finish school. His father came from a troubled home. The couple emigrated to Miami, eking out a living in a tough neighborhood.
“I faced a lot of obstacles to get where I am now,” he said during the inaugural DMU: Real Talk session.
Still, Toston had an ace in his pocket: his love of learning. “I always have had a thirst for knowledge,” he said. “I couldn’t tell my friends I read for fun.”
He also was inspired by how his grandfather had overcome adversity in his life. “Once I was able to understand what my grandfather had gone through, he became my biggest influence,” Toston said. “The idea of perseverance despite having a lot of factors against you was what I strived for early on. My parents also became a strong influence because of their ability to raise two children despite having to work and not speaking the native language.
“As I grew older, though, it became more of a ‘be your own influence,’” he added. “The right thing for me was to be decent, honest and hardworking. There are no shortcuts in life. Doing the wrong thing will more than likely get you in trouble and hurt others along the way.”
Toston went on to earn his sociology degree at Florida International University, where – after he “drastically changed” his study habits – he graduated summa cum laude through its honors college and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.
In addition to being a first-generation American and his family’s first college graduate, Toston says he represents hope and a new perspective on immigrants. “I would like to see my generation like that of Neil Armstrong,” he said. “As physicians, we have to get past our stereotypes and try to improve our patients’ plight. We are people of influence and power, and everyone has a story.”
Funny, frank, wry and always interesting, these DMU students recently shared their stories in the DMU: Real Talk series.
Jason Holdener, the quiet atheist
Born on a Christmas tree farm near St. Louis, the son of “two loving Catholic parents,” Jason Holdener, D.O.’17, grew up attending Catholic school and church. “As a teenager, I became rebellious and questioned everything, but I didn’t really see the need to question my faith,” he said during a Real Talk session on
That changed when a Jehovah’s Witness knocked on the door. Over the next half-hour, he and Holdener discussed the specifics of their faiths, each concluding the other was destined to go to hell.
“I thought about that for days and weeks afterward,” he said. “About that time, I became more interested in science, which teaches you to question everything. Then going to college was like pouring gasoline on the fire.
“My morality changed,” he added. “I believed if I was a good person, good things would come my way. I really liked that idea and still do. I don’t need belief in God or karma, but I do need to find a reason in things.”
Holdener noted he has often felt “very misunderstood” as an atheist. He explained he is not opposed to religion, but rather prefers “a society that accepts differences in religion.” Being an atheist does not mean he is free to commit crimes or hurt others.
“Morality precedes religion,” he said. “I feel a passion for being a family physician…I think that’s the reason I was put here.”
Andrew Chang, “strength renewed”
“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.”
Andrew Chang, D.O.’17, shared that Bible passage, Isaiah 40:31, during the Jan. 23 Real Talk session because his name in Chinese means “strength renewed.” He also was reflecting on the inner strength he drew upon to live as an openly gay person.
“I tried to come out with my dad when I was 14. He didn’t accept it. That was extremely painful,” Chang said. “How you feel about yourself translates to how you relate to people around you.”
He also drew on a 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt in which he said, “It is not the critic who counts…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena” who “strives valiantly; who errs…but who does actually strive to do the deeds.” That helped shape Chang’s “Phoenix-derived mission,” in which he considers himself and others “worthy of connection, worthy of restoration and worthy of joy.”
While his father hasn’t yet fully accepted him as a gay man, Chang said, “I have to accept myself the way I am – that’s strength renewed.” He praised DMU and his classmates for creating a forum where students can talk about themselves.
“When we do and when we’re accepted, that’s extremely satisfying,” he said. “That connection makes us better physicians and better people.”
Allison Zindell, cancer survivor
As a carefree undergraduate at the University of Miami, Allison Zindell, D.O.’16, one day noticed a “huge lump” on the side of her neck.
“I freaked out. I Googled it and thought it might be something in my lymph nodes,” she recalled in her Feb. 11 Real Talk. She met with three doctors at the university’s student health center and then flew to her parents’ home in the Chicago area to have a tissue biopsy.
At age 19, Zindell found herself with stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma and being prepared for chemotherapy.
“I hate to admit it, but the biggest thing I dreaded was that I lost all my hair,” she said.
“I pretty much looked like Gollum in ‘Lord of the Rings.’”
Equipped with a peripherally inserted central catheter, or PICC line, for six months and a brunette wig for a year, Zindell missed one semester of school. She spent last summer working at a camp for kids with cancer and, last November, celebrated five years of remission.
“With Hodgkin’s, that means you’re cured,” she says. “If you’re going to have cancer, I probably had the best possible experience. It gave me the motivation to go to medical school. I had been unsure about what I would do. The experience helped me grow up a lot.”
Jude Rooney Harris, courageous amid chronic pain
Jude Rooney Harris, D.O.’17, began her Feb. 11 Real Talk by pointing out that the majority of Americans who overdose on opioids took them with a prescription.
“Opioid overdose is the number-one cause of accidental death, ahead of car accidents,” she said.
Perhaps ironically, a horrendous car accident thrust Harris into the “nebulous” world of chronic pain, defined as pain lasting longer than six months, and her own experiences with these powerful narcotics. She and her boyfriend-now-husband, Brendan Rooney, were at a standstill in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Ann Arbor, MI, when a mini van slammed into them at a high speed. The driver had dropped his cell phone and was groping for it around his feet. The crash broke Harris’ pelvis in multiple places, among other injuries.
“We were planning to get married. I asked the resident at the trauma center, ‘Am I going to be able to have kids?’ He said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to live! Most people with your pelvic injuries die within an hour.’
“I was so upset,” she continued. “I shouted at him, ‘Why would you ever say that to someone? If you could be a doctor, any bozo could be a doctor!’ I decided then and there to go to medical school.”
That wasn’t her only bad experience in health care. Harris saw many specialists “who wouldn’t communicate with each other, which made it very difficult to know what was going on.” In severe pain, she was put on morphine, which caused her to gain 80 pounds and suffer from chronic pneumonia.
“I thought, ‘My life isn’t working,’” she recalled. She decided to quit taking opioids despite her fears of withdrawal or worse pain. Harris now relies heavily on osteopathic manual medicine (OMM) treatments; she says Jose Figueroa, D.O.’95, assistant professor of OMM, has been “instrumental” in her recovery.
“Dr. Figueroa really helped me make a breakthrough in managing my chronic pain,” she said. “I also keep very busy. If I stop doing things, I lose my focus and think too much about the pain.”