Letter to my younger self

Letter to my younger self

Dr Dainia Baugh

Monday, November 30, 2020

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OVER the years, I've kept a photograph of a highly driven schoolgirl cradling a trophy she worked hard to earn as the top Monday-Friday student in a certain Mr Abraham's Common Entrance extra lesson.

Each time I revisit the youthful zeal in the photograph, I can't help but wonder what it would be like to testify to that younger self— to offer her insight into the future, to let her know that despite her 10-year-old apprehensions about life's uncertainties, her sustained hard work would see her through to bountiful success.

Back then, I was fortunate enough to have been brought up in a family of high achievers, by a mother who demonstrated to me and my siblings the importance of integrous effort. Ours was among a close-knit community of civil servant families in the Queensbury neighbourhood in St Andrew —with over 15 children all about the same age. Those days we delighted in calling ourselves the 'Queensbury Massive'.

Yet, I was always a bit atypical. While other children were interested in, well, being kids, I was hiding away under a bed diving head first into a book. Even at such a young age, I was channelling a big personality at St Andrew Preparatory School, earning for myself the endearing nickname 'mighty-mouth' among the teachers.

But being well rounded and a role model to my peers wasn't entirely for anyone else's approval. It was mainly a result of the internalised values instilled by my family—I genuinely believed that everything I did should be done to the best of my ability. Our self-assured never-give-up attitude was no accident either; it was how my family was able to navigate a very trying time.

That year, around the time I turned ten, my siblings and I lost our father. Only a year earlier, our sister had drowned. Perhaps even worse than the effect these back-to-back tragedies had on us, was the effect it had on my mother, who in short order became a single-parent breadwinner. I can still remember one instance where her grey eyes softened, and you could literally see in them her pain. That moment, though brief, was telling of what we went through.

My mother, though heartbroken, refused to yield. She soon after steeled herself, accepted the hand life had dealt her, and with a fierce determination that has to this day remained etched in my mind, started forging forward. How could I not inherit this resolve?

At Immaculate Conception High School, this is where my interest in “fixing things”, which ultimately led to a career in medicine, began. A teacher, dissatisfied with how outspoken I was, took it upon herself to strip me of my Grade Captain badge. Though this incident could have been demoralising, I did not yield, and used that opportunity to remind her, and myself, that while I could be stripped of people's praise, and while in life things might not turn out the way I want, what I have inside my head and my heart can never be removed. It was not an act of disrespect nor defiance, rather a declaration of determination, to act on what I knew was right, rather than remain silent and compliant.

Since then, life has taken me to many unfamiliar contexts and has allowed me to blaze my own path. Be it my sojourn from home to earn my MD in Memphis, Tennessee, being the first black doctor at a programme in Melbourne, Florida, where I was brought face to face with my fair share of racism, followed by the triumph of serving on the academic faculty of Vanderbilt University, School of Medicine and consultant at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I navigated those experiences with grace and resilience because this is how I was raised.

Holding that photograph and reflecting on my younger days, I think of my son. I can't help but connect the little girl standing in that garden, to the man he has become. Could I speak to her, I would tell her, cradling that trophy, that she would not only succeed, but she would be passing on all her life lessons and her family's values to a young man who would grow to undoubtedly become her greatest achievement.

Dr Dainia Baugh is co-founder of the Heart Institute of the Caribbean (HIC) and HIC Heart Hospital.

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