Kameela Alibhai is a third-year medical student at the University of Ottawa. In the wake of International Women’s Day, she spoke with me about her experiences as a woman venturing into the medical field.
As part of her training as a third-year medical student, Alibhai is at the Ottawa Hospital General Campus 24/7. Every six weeks, Alibhai and her fellow students rotate into a different major specialty, the start time of which depends on the specialty.
“I could be getting up at 4:30 A.M if I’m on surgery,” says Alibhai. “Or on a day like today, I wake up around 7:30 for family medicine.”
During ehr rotations at the Ottawa Hospital, Alibhai gets the chance to work alongside hospital staff reviewing cases and helping patients both in teams and independently. Alibhai describes the learning experience as putting material she learned in her first and second years into practice.
By July 1, 2023, Alibhai will have graduated and be starting work as a resident physician. She anticipates that the switch from a medical student to a full-time medical professional will be a big jump. “[Working at the hospital as a student] gives you a taste of what it’s like,” says Alibhai, “But I don’t think you truly know how much you have on your plate until you’re actually a real doctor.”
Even as a student, however, Alibhai has an incredibly packed schedule. Depending on the medical specialty they’re learning, Alibhai and her fellow students regularly wake up as early as 4:30 A.M. to work up to 20 hours a day. On top of clinical work, medical students have exams every 12 to 13 weeks, meaning they must cram reading, writing and studying into the few hours of spare time they receive each week. According to Alibhai, “Having to be on your A-game like that everyday can be mentally taxing, for sure.”
Despite the long hours and intense workload, Alibhai says she loves being a medical student because of the human connection it brings. “In medicine, you’re in a really unique position because patients are in these vulnerable spots and they open up to you,” says Alibhai. “When things happen, when they have a death in the family or they’ve just been diagnosed with cancer… they do open up, they want support. As a med[ical] student, I was surprised at how much people are interested in hearing what I have to say. That is, I think, the most special part of medicine… to hear these stories and to be a part of these peoples’ medical journeys.”
Alibhai says the main inspiration behind her pursuits in the medical field is her mother, who is a doctor. “I would see her going into work, she has a couple clinics,” says Alibhai. “She would be working late, into the evenings, during the weekends… Sometimes I would do homework at her clinic and see what she was doing… I saw how hard she worked, and how it wasn’t always glamorous, yet I still wanted to pursue medicine.”
Alibhai, who hopes to become a surgeon in the future, says she has prepared for the position by reading about the barriers that women who work in surgery face. She has already begun to notice discrimination at her daily clinicals.
Alibhai recalls a moment when a female senior resident, a doctor assisting medical students, was mistaken for a nurse. “There’s nothing wrong with being a nurse,” says Alibhai. “But we found that none of the male residents were being asked if they were nurses. It’s little microaggressions like that, where we’re not presumed to be the doctor in the room.”
According to Alibhai, research has shown that female surgical trainees get the instruments taken away from them sooner than their male counterparts when practicing operations. Additionally, female surgeons also tend to get fewer referrals from doctors. However, Alibhai says there exist ways that we can combat these issues. “Just talking about it is one thing,” says Alibhai. “I’m also making sure that when I’m a trainee, I will always introduce myself as ‘Doctor Alibhai’.”
As a message for other women aspiring to work in the medical system, Alibhai says it’s important to have faith in oneself. “You can be whatever you want to be,” says Alibhai. “Make sure you work hard… and once you’re there, don’t doubt that you should be there.