Location: Miami, FL
Some people know early on that they want to go into medicine. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, their response is “a doctor” and they never waver. Priyanka Kamath was not one of those people.
In fact, being a doctor was the one thing she knew she didn’t want to do. Prianka’s mother had pursued medicine later in life, starting when Priyanka was in middle school. Both of her parents were born and raised in Inida, and Priyanka’s mother had not been encouraged to pursue anything beyond her bachelor’s degree and her arranged marriage. Luckily, Priyanka’s father was raised in a more progressive family and he encouraged his wife to pursue higher education and the medical career she had always dreamed of. So in her late thirties, Priyanka’s mother began medical school in Tampa, Florida, where the family had moved, and Priyanka would meet her after school at a book store throughout high school so that they could both do their homework. “I saw how hard she worked,” Priyanka says. “And I wanted no part of that.”
Priyanka instead pursued studies in anthropology and economics at the University of Florida. But by then her mother was in residency and Priyanka caught glimpses of the world of medicine beyond the textbooks and the late nights of studying. “I saw her in the field helping patients,” Priyanka says. “I admired her and saw her as a role model.” Priyanka had also realized, as she matured, that the easy road was no longer as appealing to her. The challenging nature of pursuing medicine was no longer a deterrent and was, in fact, appealing to her. “I knew how hard it would be,” Priyanka says, “but that is what I wanted.”
Since she had not decided until she was graduating that she did, in fact, want to pursue medicine, Priyanka wen to India for six months after applying to medical school. She lived with her maternal grandparents in Mumbai and worked with an organization that provided aid to women and girls who were victims of sex trafficking. Priyanka saw the roles that poverty and gender disparity played in the victimization of these girls, many of whom fled arranged marriages. “It was eye opening to see things that I never saw growing up in an upper middle class family in the United States,” Priyanka says. She sees now that this experience helped shape the direction of her medical career. “I didn’t know it at the time,” Priyanka says, “but women’s health was my calling.”
Priyanka dedicated herself to working with women. “I feel like I have been advocating for them my whole life,” Priyanka says. “So ObGyn felt like a natural fit.” She is now in her final year as the Gynecologic Oncology Fellow at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida. She sees patients in clinic, performs surgeries, and helps teach and train the medical residents. But she wears many other hats too – social worker, administrator, advocate – in her work with the hospital’s indigent patients. They face not only health challenges but many other obstacles that need to be addressed. Working with the hospital’s underserved population is a lot of work, but is also what Priyanka finds most gratifying in her job. “As tiring and as challenging as it is,” she says, “I constantly come back to it because it gives me a sense of purpose.”
She has seen firsthand some of the problems with our health care system and the fact that so many people are uninsured. “People don’t get primary care and a lot of things are missed until the end,” Priyanka says. This is especially true in an oncology setting, where early detection is key to survivability. She is passionate about preventive care and screening (which is how our paths crossed) because that can not only help the individual patients, but lessen the burden on the health care system as a whole.
“Even if it means I am out of a job,” Priyanka says of the interventions that could prevent the gynecological cancers she treats, “it will be worth it.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Priyanka and other health care providers from Jackson Memorial Hospital at a talk I gave in Miami. I found myself reflecting on how lucky their patients are to have doctors and nurses (and Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants) who are so passionate about their work and about improving not just their patients’ health but their lives. And I thought about how comparatively easy my own cancer journey was without the added burden of poverty. It is a reminder yet again that poverty underlies so much, even societal and health problems that initially appear unrelated. For instance, recent stories I have heard about the Corona virus discussed how unfeasible it is for some people to quarantine themselves (because they do not have sick leave or disability and need to show up at work in order to get paid) or arrange for child care if schools are shut down due to the virus.
Poverty is, indeed, the big divide. It often sets in motion a parade of horribles that are compounded with each misstep and missed opportunity to intervene or change course. I am so grateful that is not a hardship I know firsthand and I am equally grateful that I have encountered so many fine people- like Priyanka- who are dedicated to trying to level the playing field in their professional arenas.