Tips, Q&A's, and Highlighting Phenomenal Girl Bosses
It goes without saying the road to success is not easy. There is the first walk...the first crawl..the first time you run. And then...whether or not you'll be able to keep a sprint? Will you burn out fast and stumble? Will you get back up and run again? The stops, turns, and climbs to our goals is nothing but hard. And if you're a cycle breaker? Even Harder. Breaking chains you didn't choose to be in. Accomplishing new "firsts" in your family. It's all a part...of your marathon. And as one of my favorite rapper's, the late and GREAT Nipsey Hussle stated....the marathon don't stop. And neither did Dr. Keiko Cooley. In this Q&A, we won't talk about from "rags to riches" or "trials TO triumph" ...because we know now our journeys are simultaneously filled with both...and never one without the other. So, instead we will learn about Dr. Cooley, or Dr. KC as I'll now be calling her, her own marathon to becoming a physician, the race along the way, and just how far she was willing to run. Welcome, Dr. KC!
Q: Mentor! What’s up?!! I know you, but why don’t you tell everyone ELSE about you?
A: I am Keiko Cooley, a graduating fourth year student physician at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine - Greenville. I am the second of three daughters and a native from Gary, IN. I am an advocate for what is just and right. I believe Blackness is a gift, and I’m so proud to be a Black woman who is thoughtful, direct, kind, supportive, compassionate, articulate, curious, funny, joking and loving. I graduated from the Alice Carson Tisdale Honors College at Claflin University with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry in 2014. I pledged the Gamma Chi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in 2013.
Q: Okay so boom, currently statistics show that there is an increasing number of women choosing to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in college. And while this is great, a gender gap (of course) still persists…as well as race. So, why don’t we start here? Tell us your story. I know that I’ve learned not only are you a first generation professional student, but you’re a first generation college student as well. So, I’d like to get as deep as you allow us…tell us about your upbringing. What was your experiences like during primary school, high school, and being interested in science?
A: At a young age, I knew that my grandmother was a nurse that helped to integrate a hospital and I just thought that was amazing. I’ve always been fascinated by Black history, the way that we as people have progressed the country in spite of the hardships we face and I was in awe that my grandmother was a literal part of history. In class, all my science and math books were blue and blue was my favorite color so I gravitated toward those books. As an adult, I learned that I have severe dyslexia and in hindsight, that’s probably another reason why I subconsciously gravitated toward those subjects. I was always a curious child, taking things apart and putting them back together to see how they worked. Secondary to financial hardship, we didn’t have cable consistently, but my mom made sure we had books and I had a Children’s Encyclopedia set...and I would read that. In high school I was involved in summer science programs and lots of leadership because I knew I wanted to go to college. I was doing all I could to be a strong college applicant. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any guidance from my undergraduate institution or family, around what it would take for me to become a doctor. I think that in the moment, it felt like a hindrance, but ultimately, I think it was necessary for me to arrive to the place I am today.
Q: What inspired you go into medicine? Was there a big “AHA” moment for you? And how did and has your experiences shaped your journey?
A: I was 5 years old when I said I wanted to be a doctor. I was pushed into a chalkboard ledge in preschool and got a terrible cut. My pediatrician gave me a dum-dum and told me not to move. I thought that was the coolest thing. After that, I kind of just stuck with it. I never really had an “ah ha” moment, but I do feel throughout medical school I’ve had moments of re-affirmation that I am doing the right thing.
Q: What has, by far, been the hardest part of this road? Tell us about your trials. And how did you get through it? How do you continuously focus on your “why” currently, and how do you imagine you’ll keep that especially moving forward as physician to avoid burnout?
A: The hardest thing has been the social aspect of medical school. Gary, IN is one of the Blackest cities in the country, then I went to a Historically Black College and University, then I lived in Atlanta for some time. It was socially jarring to go from seeing countless people who looked like me and the comfort that provided to being in a room where literally we make up 10%. Moreover, when people lack lived experiences, it’s hard for some to have their views and ideas challenged. Coming from an HBCU...for people to tell me that Black people are lazy or only becoming high-achieving secondary to affirmative action, which benefits White women most, it’s hurtful, confusing, tiring and diminishing. Throughout all this, I knew that I wanted to return to my community or a community that looked like mine so I could impact their healthcare, show kids who grew up like me that there’s a way out and there’s a path to success. Having that as my motivation, has been invaluable. Appreciating and recognizing that my attaining this degree will have a lasting impact on my entire family was also an incredible driving factor. The experiences of my childhood gifted me with perspective. It’s unfortunate, but there’s always something that is worse. It’s interesting because I’ve heard over and over that residency will be the hardest thing that I’ll do and I think that’s true for some, but I don’t think that will be true for me. I’ve lived through worse than someone asking me to show up to get paid to learn. Reframing your thoughts and perceptions, is an amazing way to avoid burnout.
Q: There is no doubt about the racism and lack of cultural competence that still exists in academic medicine. As an underrepresented student in medicine, have you experienced this? How do you filter out the “ugly” in medicine?
A: I have 100% experienced this. As you know, annually, in February, I open up my instagram and post daily Black History Month facts. During my first year, one of my classmates asked if I hated white people. Instead of asking about how does this history impact me being a transplant from the midwest, or how does this history inform my decision to be in the south or how do I keep this history in mind during daily interactions, they tried to vilify me. I had a classmate accuse me of reverse racism, I’ve had support staff at the hospital refuse to speak to me directly, I’ve had patients refuse to do the same and those are just a few examples. You can’t filter it out, not really. You just have to receive the information that’s being presented to you and adjust accordingly. I recognize that people have biases and people will try to assert those biases on me. My goal is to stay true to who I am and who my family has raised me to be. My mom would tell me as a child, “Don’t let people pull you out of your character.” That’s something that I still carry with me.
Q: Me and you share something in common…I’ve seen that…and that’s the amount of people telling us we CAN’T do something. Keiko, you BY FAR are fucking killing it. Which is why I called this Trials AND Triumph. There is not one without the other. And you’re going to continue to face them. And you’ve already faced them well. But, what would you say to those people right now?
A: Chika, a Nigerian-American rapper from Alabama, has a line in a song that says, “It’s time to eat your words. You’re late for dinner baby.” Truly, that’s a word. lol. Also, our good mother Beyonce says, “The best revenge is your paper.” But moreover, I’d tell them, “Look at you, wrong. I did it and now I’m going to help other people like me do it and do it BETTER!”
Q: And even people in the future waiting to prey on your downfall?
A: My demeanor is such that, I don’t consider anything to be a downfall, but rather a learning opportunity. It may seem like a “L” to someone, but for me it’s an alternative route to success or learning. I’m a winner. Keep waiting.
Q: Have you ever felt like you had to sacrifice one part of your life to pursue this part in becoming Dr. Cooley? When I ask this, I’m thinking of the “you can have it all” philosophy. Do you really believe that? Like how has your experience as a single woman in medical school been for you? Have you felt like you had to put your dating life on hold or believed that you had to put that, or marriage, or starting a family on hold (if those were/are any of your desires)? If so, how did you feel about and navigate this? Do you think it’s possible for women to juggle these multiple roles and still thrive in medicine?
A: I think it depends on what you want when you define, “all.” I would consider all, enough money in my account, a fine man and a dog. ha ha. For some people, “all” means more. My romantic endeavours have definitely been on hold, but that’s because of the dating pool in Greenville and the surrounding areas. There are values that I hold that I feel the majority of southern men do not. I think it is possible for women in medicine to do whatever they want, but it takes more intentionality when choosing a partner. If you want to remain a full time clinician, particularly a surgeon, you have to either have a supportive and willing family or get a nanny. I don’t see myself stepping back from academic medicine for the purpose of children so if that happens, my partner would have to know, upfront, they are going to be the “go-to” parent.
Q: I think a big part of why I created this blog is for women to know we all have shit we have to heal from ya know…baggage we will have to carry. And there are things, when added, that can make that baggage feel really heavy while we’re dealing with it ,whether it be family, college, work…and even medical school (I imagine) being one of those things. So, with however and whatever much you want to tell us…where are you on your healing journey? And what “doing the work” looked like for you along the way?
A: This is such a great question. I compartmentalize things away and pull them out when I have time to deal with them. When I had a test coming up, if there was a big life event that occurred, like the death of my paternal grandfather, I had to set it aside and grieve when it was more appropriate. Moving forward, there will be less tests in residency and with the increase in virtual appointments with mental health providers, I am looking forward to actively healing wounds from childhood and I’ve already looked into mobile massage therapists in Portland. I’m prioritizing myself in all facets moving forward.
Q: I always like to ask people this in my Q&A’s. So, what would you go back and tell younger Keiko. Your inner child RIGHT NOW…what would you tell her?
A: You are precious. You are amazing. It doesn’t matter what anyone says, family or not, you can do whatever you put your mind to accomplishing. Things will be hard, but you are exceptional. I love you, deeply and intensely. You are my favorite person in the world. Smile always and laugh loudly. This world is yours to do with whatever you want.
Q: What advice would you give to women regarding pursuing medicine?
A: Do it! If your dream is medicine, make goals on how to accomplish what you want to do and do it!! You should have male mentors because they offer a unique, but predominant, perspective to you regarding medicine.
Q: Last one! What are your future medical goals? I know what’s next for you. But lets take this space here for you to brag on yourself. What’s next girl, and where do you see yourself in ten years?
A: I will be relocating to Portland, OR to train as a urologic surgeon. I am the first Black resident of my program, and I’m looking forward to paving a path for many to follow after me. Residency will be five years and fellowship another two. After that time, I see myself in an academic institution where there’s a dense population of Black people working with Black residents and medical students, conducting research on gender and race disparities and being an advocate and teacher in my community. I also plan on starting a few scholarships for people who look like me and grew up facing the hardships that I faced.
About Dr. KC
Keiko Cooley, a Gary, IN native, is a 4th year student physician. She has always enjoyed working with underserved populations, community outreach and social activism. In her undergraduate career she served as a tutor to middle and high school students of underserved communities, attended the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington as a student representative and organized clothing drives for local battered women and children shelters. Since beginning her matriculation through medical school, she has been awarded the Pedestal Scholarship, Julia S. Long Scholarship. Most recently, she received the Dean’s Peer Advocacy Award for her outspoken nature and concern for the advancement of her peers and the culture of UofSCSOMG. She found a way to continue to mentor and interact with students through her Co-Presidency of the Health Outreach Initiative; an organization that educates students about healthcare careers, common preventable illness and CPR skills. She also served as the Co-Community service chair for the Student National Medical Association. Additionally, she annually returns to her alma mater, Claflin University, to help guide other pre-medical students on their journey to medical school. Her hobbies include fumbling through new instruments, cooking, photography, reading, writing and performing poetry. Future aspirations for Keiko include advocating for and educating minority populations on the national level, creating a scholarship for student of backgrounds similar to her own, mentoring, becoming a professor and last but not least, declaring a specialty. Student Dr. Cooley will begin her training as a urologic surgeon at Oregon Health and Science University in the summer of 2021.