Human of Medicine: Meme

Today is Match Day, when fourth year medical students and international medical graduates learn where they have been selected to complete residency (further medical training in their chosen specialty). In honor of this day, I present to you the extraordinary Meme. It turns out this interview was more than serendipitous - several people have personally recommended that I get to know Meme and share her story on The Human Side (of Medicine). Naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder about this human being, the universe was telling me time and again that I needed to get to know her. After putting together this interview, I now know why she came so highly recommended. If you are out there wondering to yourself “Can I do this? Will I make it?” whether in medicine or simply in life, you need to hear Meme’s story. She will remind you that no matter how much suffering you endure, all you need is a few people in your corner who can offer a mix of love and compassion, resilience, and the courage to stand up for what is right. - Rose


The basics.

Meme, 27 years old. Born and raised in Worcester, MA. I attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where I majored in Biology also known as Course 7. I am currently a fourth-year medical student.

What motivates you? Or in other words, what gets you out of bed in the morning?

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Many things motivate me each day. As a first-generation college graduate and the first person to become a doctor in my family, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to give back to my family and my community. My mother is a Vietnamese refugee, who came to the U.S. when she was only 16 years old. She left her family to move to a country where she didn’t speak or understand the language so that she could send money home to her parents and siblings. She worked tremendously difficult jobs on farms and in factories that accepted mostly immigrants.  This was the story of many of my aunts and uncles. We grew up all over Worcester, in different housing complexes with poor living conditions in dangerous neighborhoods. Because our parents worked a lot, many of my older cousins who lived in Plumley Village, a notoriously poor housing complex in Worcester, raised my sister and I. When we’d play outside, we’d hear gunshots and we’d run back to the apartment for safety. It was a common sight to see gangs walking in groups carrying all sorts of weapons like machetes. Our parents wanted us to have much better lives than them, so they worked every single day to ensure just that. They slowly accomplished working their way up the socioeconomic ladder, as they began to buy single houses and cars and built their own landscaping businesses and opened nail salons. Watching my family work extremely hard, even to this day, gives me a sense of responsibility to give back to them so that one day they can experience a weekend off, or have the ability to live comfortably within their means. My hope is that I can give back to the Worcester community as a whole, in the future, as I understand how difficult it was to grow up in this city and how easy it is to be influenced down the wrong path.

Who is most important to you and why?

The most important person to me is my fiancé, Corey. I met him ten years ago when I was a senior in high school while I was going through a really rough patch in my life. He certainly received the worst of me from the very beginning, but somehow saw through it all and stayed by my side to this day. He has helped me achieve my goals of graduating from MIT and making it through medical school. When I didn’t have enough money for food in college, he would drive an hour from Worcester to Cambridge to share some of his home-cooked meals or to spend some of his mother’s food stamps for my groceries. He saw my soul in a way that no one else did. He saw what I wanted to achieve in life and he believed in me. He never once doubted me and stood by my side through thick and thin. I could not be more grateful for a partner in life who shares the same ideologies to help others. He is a police officer who cares about community policing. He has a very stressful job, but when he comes home to talk about the lows vs. highs of his day, I can see that he is passionate about what he does. He feels most fulfilled when he helps those in need at work. We both share this fulfillment when helping others, and I believe that is why we make such a great team.

Describe your perfect day.

My perfect day would be waking up to no alarm, and having time to cook a delicious breakfast with eggs (sunny-side up), bacon, sausage and avocados before starting the day. I’d take my dogs on a hike with my fiancé on a nice sunny day. We’d come home and cook a delicious dinner with steak, lobsters, and scallops. Then, we’d sit on the couch and watch movies with our dogs until we fell asleep. 

Tell me about your dream. Do you have one? What does it consist of?

One day, I dream of being able to provide for my mother and my fiancé’s parents so that they would not have to work to pay their bills any longer. I want them to be able to save their own money to travel and do things that make them happy. I would also love to be able to donate a significant amount of money to the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, a non-profit organization that I have been working with for the past five years. We have struggled with maintaining a sustainable budget for the programs that we support in the local Burmese community, and it would be great to finally gain some stability.

Describe your proudest moment. Why did you choose this one? 

My proudest moment has been learning that I matched into a residency program! I have worked towards the goal of becoming a physician since I was in high school. I chose this moment because it has made so many other people proud, including my mother, siblings, cousins, and fiancé.

Is there something about yourself you wish you could improve? Why?

I really wish I could slow down sometimes. My mind is always so busy and I always spread myself thin. I’m practically always doing three things at once. It gives me a lot of anxiety up until I finish all of the tasks. If I could slow down for once, maybe I could start feeling a little more relaxed. 

What is one thing you wish people knew about you?

I wish people knew that I feel emotions very strongly, and that it doesn’t mean they need to particularly do anything about it. I get very emotional when I hear sad stories or watch sad movies, and my tears automatically start flowing. When I was younger, my parents wouldn’t let me show my emotions and I would actually get in trouble for crying in front of them. Now that I’m older, I let the tears flow because it helps me stay more emotionally stable throughout the day. I am not good at keeping my feelings bottled up. When I’m happy, I’m super excited and I yell, “I love my life” repeatedly. When I’m sad or angry, the tears will start to immediately fall from my eyes. You don’t have to run and get me tissues, or ask me what’s wrong or try to make me feel better. I already feel better just letting my emotions out.

Share a happy memory.

In the summer of 2015, I traveled to Yosemite National Park with my fiancé and a group of friends from California. We backpacked through Yosemite for four days and camped out at the most amazing sites. It was my first backpacking trip, and I loved every second of it. The camaraderie we shared during the trip was unparalleled. We would cook food together and share it with one another. We talked about life around the campfire and connected on so many levels. It was really the trip of a lifetime and I can’t wait to go back to Yosemite again!

Share a sad memory.

A sad memory that stuck with me was finding out that my older sister had tried to commit suicide when she was in college. She tried to hang herself from a rope in her dorm room, but was stopped by her roommate. My parents didn’t know how to handle the situation, and instead of seeking help for her, they scolded her. This is a pretty common reaction across the Vietnamese culture. Mental health is extremely stigmatized and there is not enough support around mental health for Vietnamese people. My father abused us physically and emotionally since we were kids. His alcoholism fueled the abuse and definitely left my sister with depression and anxiety. We watched our father throw hot coffee, hot soup, and glass cups at my mother when we were younger. We’d kneel in front of him for hours at night when he would come home drunk. I even had to stop him one time when he was sitting on top of my mother’s pregnant belly hitting her repeatedly in the face. Though my family has been through a lot, we have done much better since my father left our lives a decade ago.

Tell me about your creative outlets.

I love gardening and making terrariums at home.

What are you most afraid of?

I’m most afraid of being alone. I love connecting with people and feel the most energized around others. I would hate to lose any of my loved ones.

We all have turning points in our lives that set us off in a different direction. These catalytic moments can include heartbreak, a meaningful conversation, an injury, the death of a loved one, and so many other things… Tell me about a turning point in your life that altered your trajectory. What did you learn from this moment?

I've always wanted to share my story with people to inspire them, but I found myself worrying that others thought I wanted attention or that I wanted people to pity me for the bad life that I lived. But it's not like that. The pain, the suffering, the tears, and the motivation that came out of all of it is only something I want to share in order to encourage everyone around me to become a better person. So often, I look at people and I can tell that they are lost. I can tell that they need motivation or guidance. The worst part is that they know this about themselves, but they feel helpless. They feel like no one can help them. That's how I felt at one point, but I've learned to open my eyes and reach out to others for help. In turn, I decided to pursue a career in medicine so that I could give back and help others as well.

People look at me and think, "Wow. That girl is one tough cookie." I didn't always used to be this way. For years, I feared many things. For years, I stayed quiet and hid in an imaginary darkness that surrounded me. I found myself being the very person I never wanted to be: angry, mistrusting, and cold-hearted. All this-- because I wanted to have revenge on my father. All this-- because I thought the world was out to get me.

On the day of my high school graduation, I received news from a family member that my dad was having an affair. This wasn't his first time, but it certainly would be his last. The first time something like this happened, I watched as my family fell apart. I watched as my sister fell apart. I watched as my mother fell apart. I always felt like I was too young to have an opinion or too stupid to know what was going on. I saw my sister abuse herself, let others abuse her, and watched as my mother drowned herself in alcohol to forget the pain. I knew this time it would be different. I knew this time that even if I wasn't grown up, I'd have to act like one for the sake of my family's sanity. So a few days later, I confronted my father and marched on into the house bringing along with me my mother and my sister. I asked him if it was true because I had cellular phone history proving he had been calling another woman several times. He pointed at me and disowned me. He told me I was no longer his daughter. He threw spaghetti cans that were sitting on the kitchen table at me. He whipped a chair at me. And through all of this, I felt no physical pain. He had been abusing my family for as long as I knew. Spaghetti cans? Chairs? That's nothing compared to the hot coffee, hot soup, heaters, bowls, and his hands that he laid on all of us. I only felt the pain inside my heart for my family. Watching it all fall apart, knowing that my confronting him was going to change everything in my life forever. I called the lady he was having an affair with hysterically. I screamed. I asked her why she was doing this to my family. She told me that was our problem and that we had better deal with it ourselves. I've never felt so much anger in my life as I had that day. I ran downstairs and threw everything around the house. I smashed my door. I went upstairs. I wanted revenge. I watched as my dad sat lifelessly on the chair with a blank look in his eyes as if he didn't care. My mom pretended to faint because she had no clue what else to do. I freaked out at that moment, thinking I had to call the ambulance for my mom. My aunt, my sister, and I carried my mother out to the car, where we all drove away to my aunt's house. We stayed there for a few nights, wondering what was on his mind. When we came back to the house, we demanded that we get to stay and that my father would leave. He agreed.

But things only got worse. One day we opened the door to find an eviction notice. My own father was evicting his own family out of the house-- out of the house we stayed in for more than 15 years together. I wanted to fight back. I had anger in my eyes, ice in my heart, and poison in my blood. I only wanted revenge. That one hot summer day, my mother and I brought my little brother to court as we sat on the left side and my father and his lawyer sat on the right side of the court room. Little did we know he had his own lawyer and was ready to fight. Little did we know this would turn into a battle for 4 years. The judge looked at me as I translated for my mother through intermittent tears. My own father was telling the judge that my mother was not his wife, that I was not his kid. He was telling the judge that we, his own family, had only lived there as tenants. I was heartbroken. Each court day became worse. I began to grow angrier and angrier. If evil existed inside my father, who else in the world could I trust? Countless fights between my father and I would happen on a daily basis. It became the same routine. He'd show up at the house, try to yell at me for being a disobedient daughter, and try to intimidate us as I would hide the phone and call the police to come protect us. Over the years he slowly saw that he could no longer intimidate us. A simple telephone call to the cops would send plenty of police officers to our house. This happened way more times than I'd ever imagined it would. One night, he got so angry, he came to my house and took the door off of its hinges in my room, threw my computer, printer, and college accessories all over the garage floor. He hid my door in the backyard. I came home to see all of my stuff ruined. I am so thankful that my cousins, and my boyfriend at the time (current fiancé) were always with me to protect and to stand by me. I called the cops and filed a restraining order on him. I hired a lawyer that I paid over $5500 in lawyer fees myself while I was in college. I wanted us to stay in the house and I wanted him out of the picture.

At this point, I felt numb. I felt like no one could ever hurt me again. I had that mean glare in my eyes that was always looking for a fight. I wanted to take my anger out on everyone. I drank, I danced, I played, I smiled, I cried, I laughed. And all of these emotions I felt were fake. They were all to cover up the pain and the suffering inside. I thought no one could help me. I was in college at MIT on a full scholarship, with not enough money for food or to go out. Some nights I found myself eating rice and soy sauce or even nothing at all. You think $20 is nothing? That's how much I had in my bank at some points. I'd go a whole week with just $20 to buy food. I didn't dare ask my mom who was paying the bills for the mortgage and utilities. I felt like I was on my own. I started working like a maniac -- 20 hours, 40 hours, while I was a full time student at MIT. My grades were dropping. The pressure was rising. My mom needed me. I was there every step of the way for her. I wasn't going to let her do this by herself. I wasn't about to let her give into my father again and let him come back home. I wanted us to have a new life. I wanted us to change. So I picked myself up and got out of a dorm so I could get more money back from school. I started giving my mom all my money. After countless times of trying to convince my dad to let us stay in the house, our lawyer finally got him to agree to giving up the house to us in court.

The last year of college, I asked my best friend, Lauren Spite, if she would let me stay in her room for free. She agreed. I got back over $2000 in reimbursements and instead of spending it on food, books, and myself, I paid the lawyer off. I didn't want the weight of the lawyer fees to sit on my shoulders any longer. That year, I found myself reaching out to deans and student services for help. I was talking more about the issues going on in my life. They were helping me with money. I took on a job at a restaurant and was finding myself much happier with money. Staying with Lauren made me become a better person. She showed me how not to be such an angry person. She taught me how to be compassionate, how to be generous, how to ask strangers how their day was. She showed me what a real friend was. She gave me the strength to find myself and to pick myself up from the anger and the hatred inside my heart. I began to open my heart up after not being able to feel emotions for so long. I began to fall in love with my boyfriend of 4 years all over again, who I will be marrying in just a few months. I graduated from MIT with the largest support system I thought I would never have. So many friends and family have been telling me how much of an inspiration I have been. And I only hope I can become stronger. I'm so much happier now. I'm so much more focused now. I know what I want and I'm so excited for the rest of the journey. I'm so thankful for my family, my friends, my teachers, my mentors, my fiancé. I'm so thankful for everyone who has taken even the slightest second out of their lives to congratulate me or to tell me how proud they are of me or to tell me how happy they are for me. Those are the little things that keep me going and have really helped me get to where I am today.

I can only hope that others will pick themselves out of the darkness and find what they love and want to do for the rest of their lives. You're not alone. There's a whole world of people waiting for you to reach your hands out for help. I'm one of those people. Seek people who will help you get where you want to go. Seek people who motivate you to become better. Seek people you find yourself comfortable around. But most importantly, seek out yourself. The world is a much happier place if you are happier with yourself.

Have you ever felt like giving up? How did you convince yourself to continue?

I felt like giving up so many times in my life. It is scary to think about how often I considered suicide when I was younger. I was surrounded by so much unhappiness in my family and I didn’t really know how to manage these feelings. What made me continue was trying to stay positive in every situation. I

 Has there been a time where you knew you were in the exact right place?

I often feel like I’m in the exact right place. It’s hard to explain. I feel intuitively more aware of my surroundings and people’s emotions around me, and maybe that is why I feel like I’m in the right place a lot of the time. I feel like I can connect to others’ suffering really well because I have been through a lot myself and have been around others who have suffered a tremendous amount of trauma in their lives. Because of this, my interactions with other people and my ability to make others feel comfortable make me think I’m in the right place at the right time.

How do you keep your mind sharp and your body strong? Do you exercise? Do you read? Do you do crossword puzzles?

I love lifting weights. When I felt the most depressed in my life, I lifted weights almost every single day. I set goals to become stronger everyday. As I started to build muscle and lifted heavier and heavier weights, I felt more confident and ambitious to tackle more problems throughout the day. It seriously makes me feel like I’m on top of the world when I get in a good set of deadlifts and back squats.

Who do you admire and why?

I admire so many people in my life! But, the one person who has taught me the most about strength and perseverance is my mother. As a single mother, she works day in and day out to make sure she provides for my younger brother and me. She has endured a lot of trauma in her life, and suffers from a lot of anxiety because of it. However, she has never once given up on us and has always tried to put our needs above hers. She has taught me so much about continuing to move forward even in the face of so many challenges. I owe my strength to her.

Thank you, Meme, for sharing your story - and congratulations on matching into Emergency Medicine! Readers, I would love to know a time you stood up for yourself or for your family. Share your story in the comments.