The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Black healthcare students are using these trying times to embrace what’s next for them and gain experience that a textbook can’t teach — all in the name of making sure marginalized voices get heard.
This is the story of three of those students: Malika Toguem, Siti Hydara and Samone Hall.
Malika Toguem entered UW-Madison as a Biochemistry major but chose Neurobiology and a certificate in Gender & Women’s Studies to focus on her passion for advocating for women’s health.
Siti Hydara, now a junior, planned a career as a trauma surgeon but steered more towards women’s health as well. She’s learned about how Black women are dying disproportionately and wants to make an impact in shifting the systems at fault for this harm.
“Black women are dying while giving birth because they’re being ignored in a healthcare system that’s supposed to be equal and provide for all people that they’re seeing, but because physicians have a lot of racial bias, it just isn’t fair,” Hydara says.
Samone Hall entered UW-Madison skeptical about a pre-med major, but positive that she wanted a career in healthcare. From her prior experiences with doctors, she realized that she wanted to be a nurse to have a more intimate impact on patients.
“The lack of representation in healthcare, the distrust between the Black community and healthcare providers is real,” Hall says. “The lack of representation of Black women, especially, has definitely sparked my interest in just being able to increase the amount of positive interactions between providers and the Black community.”
Seeing the need — and responding
Racial health disparities have been on display like never before during the pandemic, with Black folks experiencing higher rates of dying, more contact with COVID-19 and less healthcare access and protection. Being a witness to this destruction has weighed on Toguem.
“Hundreds of thousands of people are … dying because of systemic oppressions that are killing them faster than other people and are killing them at a higher rate than other people who don’t experience those oppressions,” Toguem says.
The African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American Pre Health- Society (AHANA) at UW-Madison has been focusing on combating health disparities while creating opportunities for students like Toguem, Hall and Hydara to connect with healthcare professionals and build community among healthcare students.
As one of the few Black students in the nursing school, Hall says the Black experience is an afterthought in the curriculum, so she often must take her professors to task.
“It’s definitely been interesting having to consistently ask your teachers, ‘What does this look like on a Black patient?’” Hall says. “I’ve just learned to bring up when there’s a lack of teaching about Black people because ain’t nobody else gonna do it.”
When the pandemic hit, it reinvigorated Toguem in her purpose. She got CPR certified, exercised more and thought about how she could get more involved. She picked up more shifts working as a caregiver. Beverly Hutcherson, Toguem’s beloved advisor from AHANA, encouraged her to connect with Dr. Sheri Johnson, the director of the UW Population Health Institute. Toguem became a part of their- Covid-19 Response Corps, making flyers in Spanish and English that detailed proper safety protocols for people coming to food pantries.
“If you go into medicine and you really care about saving lives and helping communities and being a public servant, this pandemic has to have changed you,” Toguem says.
Moving forward with a mission
Toguem has applied to graduate schools where she can work in underserved communities. She plans to sign up for White Coats for Black Lives, a nationwide organization focused on dismantling racism in medicine. She wants to open a health center with a free women’s clinic, daycare and a shelter for homeless youth.
“Am I willing to put my life on the line for somebody else? And the answer is absolutely yes. 100 times yes if that means that person can live,” Toguem says.
Hydara’s got it all planned out. She hopes to move away from Madison and work in a predominantly Black area such as New York, Pennsylvania or Chicago. After medical school, she wants to be an OBGYN and then become a hospital director to be in a leadership role where she could make powerful decisions. Her dream is to return to The Gambia and ensure accessible health care for all of Africa.
“I hope to go back to The Gambia and build my own hospital,” Hydara says. “I find comfort working in the hospital or doing healthcare.”
Even as Hall has questioned her purpose at times, she remains committed to getting her master’s degree, becoming a nurse practitioner and opening her own women’s health clinic.
“I know I won’t be able to uproot this entire healthcare system that is in desperate need of an uprooting, but my goal was just to increase the amount of positive interactions with Black people in healthcare and try to create a sense of trust,” Hall says.
Toguem, Hydara and Hall see the value they bring despite the risk and peril in their faces. Things seem bleak, but the future is coming. They are passionate, brilliant, unafraid and ready for change.