The apple doesn't fall far from the tree when it comes to one inspiring pair.
In March, Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester and Dr. Jasmine Kudji made headlines for becoming “the first mother and daughter to attend medical school at the same time and match at the same institution,” according to Kudji Sylvester’s medical school.
The mother-daughter duo both committed to start their medical careers at the LSU Health system in Louisiana. Kudji Sylvester is one of nine incoming family medicine residents at LSU Health Lafayette and Kudji joins 10 other general surgery residents at LSU Health New Orleans, both part of the National Resident Matching Program.
For Kudji Sylvester, it’s been a 27-year dream come true. “I've always wanted to be a physician,” the 49-year-old told TODAY. She and her family first came to the U.S. from Ghana when she was two years old and eventually settled in Louisiana. During a family trip back to the West African country, a young girl approached Kudji Sylvester and her mother, asking them to help her sick child, an indelible experience that affirmed her desire to help others. “Seeing that disparity really, it shook me, you know, and it made me want to do something about it.
“But then as life happens, I found myself pregnant with Jasmine when I was 22,” Kudji Sylvester explained. “I had to put my dream of being a physician on hold because I needed a job. I needed to bring in an income. And so that's where being a nurse came in.”
She started her career in healthcare as a nursing assistant for two years, before becoming a registered nurse for eight years and then returning to school again to become a nurse practitioner for nearly a decade. “When Jasmine was in college, I was like, you know what, this is the perfect time for me to pursue my dream of being a physician.” So in 2013, at the age of 43, Kudji Sylvester enrolled at University of Medicine and Health Sciences on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Kitts.
Kudji’s journey to medical school was more traditional. As a young girl, she would frequently shadow her mother at work. “Being exposed to patients and being exposed to medicine at such an early age, it wasn't really something I just decided to do. It's just something that was always a part of my life ... so much of it was just natural,” Kudji told TODAY. She started medical school in 2015 two years after her mother, going immediately after her undergraduate studies to Louisiana State University in New Orleans.
The Kudjis supported each other throughout their medical school journeys and their shared experiences brought them closer together. “You learn to really trust one another and the lines of motherhood really get blurred. She becomes my best friend, you know, she becomes my confidante, during the whole process,” Kudji Sylvester pointed out.
“The thing that's difficult about medical school is that not everyone truly understands what you go through during those four to five years that you're there. So having my mom be the person who does understand that was great. You're just able to rely on each other throughout the entire process,” Kudji said.
"It's not often that I see people that look like me in my field so that's why it's so important to us to make sure that we do show our faces and spread our story.”
As the Kudji women prepare to start their residencies during the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve embraced a unique perspective on the unusual circumstances. “As a mom, I'm very concerned about starting in the middle of a pandemic. We worry about having enough PPE. I worry about my child, potentially being exposed to COVID. But at the same time, you know, this is what we signed up for.
“At the same time, it also gives you an opportunity to see disease processes that you probably would never see, be a part of a solution that you probably never get an opportunity to be a part of, you know, and really get an opportunity to educate the public. So it's all about perspective and what you can contribute during this time.”
Although it has been 156 years since Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African American woman to earn a medical degree and 121 years since Dr. Emma Wakefield-Paillet became the first black woman to practice medicine in Louisiana, the number of black females pursuing medicine hasn’t grown much since.
In a 2019 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, only about 5%, or 45,534 of physicians surveyed identified as black or African American. Kudji said, “It's honestly not very common. Like 2% of physicians are African American women. Even at the hospital that I'm going to start working at, there's only one African American female surgeon out of probably about 50.
“Female surgeons in general are just uncommon. It's not often that I see people that look like me in my field so that's why it's so important to us to make sure that we do show our faces and spread our story.”
“It's so important because when I was coming up, I remember watching 'The Cosby Show' or 'A Different World,' and we would all run to the television in college when that show would come on because you didn't have that. It was the first time you saw an African American doctor, African American attorney and a family and you saw that image before you," Kudji Sylvester said.
To give young black girls and women a look into their lives, the Kudjis are sharing their personal experiences online. Kudji explained, “We created a blog called The MD Life, where we try to explain some things that we struggled with, like how to apply to medical school, how to get into medical school, how to become a surgeon, and explain it to people and provide information that we wish we would have had from the beginning.”
Both mother and daughter will start their residencies on July 1. Kudji Sylvester will be based in Lafayette, Louisiana for three years while Kudji’s surgical rotation will last five years and require her to travel between Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans.
“When you're young and you don't see someone that looks like you doing something that you want to do, when you see other people doing it, you kind of start to think well, maybe these people are inherently somehow better than me," Kudji said.
"And so, that's why I think representation matters. It shows young people or even older people that, no, there's nothing inherently wrong with you, you're not less intelligent or less capable. You know, you can do it too.”