Alumni Perspective: The Right Question
Inspired by previous generations, a trainee pushes aside societal expectations when pursuing her sub-specialty.
My mother and father grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia, and immigrated to Canada at the height of the civil war. They had never imagined leaving their home in the middle of their thirties and starting anew with three children under the age of ten and my teenage cousin. Before they left, my father worked for the port authority, and my mother was an anesthesiologist. She was from a low-income family (her mother never learned to read or write), but education gave her the opportunity to help others. During the civil unrest, my mother was one of the only physicians who remained in Mogadishu. I always knew I wanted to practice medicine, just like her.
We were displaced to Hamilton, Ontario, but we did not remain helpless in the midst of desperation. My mother and father, two educated Somalis with graduate degrees, worked at the local racetrack doing janitorial work while going back to school. My mother’s medical degree was not recognized in North America, and I saw how devastated she was not being able to practice medicine given the hard work, sacrifice and determination it took to achieve that lifelong goal. However, she continued to help others and went on to work for several government agencies that helped new refugees settle in Canada. The fact that my mother could not use her healthcare skills only gave me more drive to become a physician.
Suleiman is an assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Feinberg. She performs minimally invasive hip and knee replacements at Northwestern Medicine locations
I completed my undergraduate studies in physiology and neurobiology at the University of Maryland, but it wasn’t until I attended Howard University College of Medicine that I wanted to become an orthopaedic surgeon. I would walk the hallways and marvel at the pictures on the walls of impactful African-American surgeons like Dr. LaSalle Leffall. These surgeons trained at a time when they were the only doctors providing care for the underserved. They championed access for all at a time in our country when healthcare was a privilege and not a right. Howard gave me the will, purpose and confidence to seek a surgical sub-specialty in which the majority of physicians were Caucasian males. I was in an environment where women and African-Americans were encouraged to pursue orthopaedics, which was not the case for friends of mine at majority institutions. I did not realize this until my first away sub-internship elective. There, I was asked for the first time, “Why are you doing orthopaedics and not pediatrics or OB-GYN?” I went on to hear the same question from 20 other orthopaedic programs.
AT NORTHWESTERN, there was an expectation from the beginning that I belonged, that I was valuable and that I had something to offer not only this institution but also my sub-specialty.
Northwestern was distinct in my mind, at least initially, because they had a different question. During my fourth-year sub-internship elective at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, I was asked, “What do you hope to accomplish in orthopaedics?” At Northwestern, there was an expectation from the beginning that I belonged, that I was valuable and that I had something to offer not only this institution but also my sub-specialty. I share this story when I talk to medical students of color and women interested in pursuing orthopaedics. I tell them to search for a program that is asking this question, or something like it. I am extremely grateful to Feinberg’s Office of Diversity for affording me the opportunity to rotate at Northwestern. From the day I arrived on campus for the residency showcase as a third-year medical student and during my time in the visiting student clerkship, I felt valued and supported.
This fall, I became the first African-American woman to join the faculty in Northwestern’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. This has weighed on me heavily and pushed me to mentor those who should follow in my footsteps. I owe it to my family, who sacrificed so much, to help bring the next generation forward.
Read about a recent paper Suleiman published that provides an updated look at the current representation of women in orthopaedic surgery residencies, academic positions and specialty societies here.