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“There are no big ‘I’s or little ‘u’s here” was the first pearl of wisdom my supervisor gave me on my first day of work at N Street Village (NSV). Though I didn’t fully understand her at the time, I would carry those words with me to work everyday for the next two years.

My NSV coworkers and I in our “office” during a team meeting.

NSV is a non-profit organization in DC that provides wrap-around services to women experiencing homelessness, poverty, addiction, or anything in between. I worked in the day center, a safe and communal space for women, with services ranging from meals, showers, laundry, and a vast array of emotional, physical, and mental support groups. My experience at NSV was transformative and humbling. I learned how to deal with unexpected crises, witnessed the direct impact of systemic barriers to upward mobilization, and learned to meet people where they’re at when it comes to decisions about their lives and health. I was also able to share my choices for wellness; I taught a dance class every week and led a walking group (though walking was often replaced by playing charades in the park or women teaching me songs and games from their childhood.) Though I saw many women on the worst days of their lives, I was also privileged to share so many moments of joy with them.

As the beginning of medical school drew closer, I was apprehensive at times about my decision; I feared how much time I’d spend studying and that the pressure of school would make NSV a distant memory. I wasn’t sure that the skills or lessons I acquired would stick. Nonetheless I trusted my gut, and when July 2017 came, I packed up my bags, said goodbye to all of the strong and wonderful women I knew, and moved to Ann Arbor.

It’s eight months into medical school and I can safely say that not a day goes by that I don’t think about the women at NSV. I would like to say that’s all of my own volition, but I owe much of those reminders to Michigan’s opportunities and intentions, allowing me to weave my past experiences in with the new. Through patient panels I’ve learned more about substance abuse, intimate partner violence, and social determinants of health. My fellow med students have exposed me to skills they’ve gained through backgrounds in economics, social work, teaching, and beyond. I’ve had the privilege of being on the leadership team of the Student Run Free Clinic, spending time talking to patients and using skills that I first learned at NSV but have nurtured and refined even more in medical school. In our Doctoring course, we are continuously corrected for using too much medical jargon–not because faculty wants to be critical but because they also know there are no “big ‘I’s or little ‘u’s” when it comes to compassionate patient care.

Over spring break, I went back to DC and visited NSV. I was greeted by warm smiles and exuberant hellos from so many old faces. The feelings were mutual–I was elated to see individuals to whom I grew so close not long ago. In the months since I left, some women had gotten housing, become employed, reached new sobriety milestones, or were simply taking life day by day. We cheered, high-fived and hugged. It was just like seeing old friends, a tug at my heartstrings–difficult to tell the difference between happiness and sadness.

As I walked out, Ms. C, a woman particularly dear to my heart stopped me and said, “When are you going to come back and be my doctor?” And just like that, I knew my experience was not lost and a new one had just begun.

A goodbye sign the NSV community made for me before I left for medical school.