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This Doctor Can: Jamilla Hussain

For South Asian Heritage Month, NIHR Clinical Lecturer in Palliative Medicine, Dr Jamilla Hussain, talks about how her upbringing in a Pakistani community in Yorkshire, shaped her life and career.

My parents migrated from a small village in Pakistan in their late teens having never been to school. My five brothers and sisters and I grew up in a close Pakistani community in Yorkshire and although this would be classed as a ‘deprived’ community-we weren’t aware of this growing up, it was all we knew. It was home.

My parents did not have aspirations for their children to go to university, especially the girls. In truth, we were expected to finish school, get married and raise a family. My parents couldn’t read or write, didn’t attend parent’s evenings due to the language barrier and school was just a rite of passage before marriage. This expectation however did come from a place of parental love.

As with all the kids from my community, I was in the lowest academic sets in school - but I got lucky. My white British secondary school maths teacher ‘accidentally’ gave me the higher-level paper in our SATS exam. I did so well he was able to use this to argue that I should be moved up to the higher sets. There was a lot of opposition. I wasn’t great at languages - not surprisingly as we had no books at home and English was not my mother-tongue, and for the school timetable to work I’d have to move to the top sets for every subject. The system didn’t allow for such disparity. Life changingly for me, my maths teacher continued to pursue this, and the school gave me a shot.

I hated it. I struggled to fit in and make friends in my new classrooms brimming with well-dressed white middle class children-so I stuck to my work and was the first ever Pakistani at the school to get straight As. None of my teachers had predicted this, not even the supportive ones. Kids from my community were not expected to achieve and I now recognise that this can be incredibly damaging and is something we have to struggle against for the rest of our lives. What saddens me the most however is that I was the only ‘lucky’ one from my community in that year group… and undoubtedly there were kids just as bright as me who were overlooked.

My eldest brother fought for all three of his sisters to attend further education, despite the perceived taboo. University was a massive cultural shock, but like many I found my tribe, found my feet and started to explore the wider world and wider me. However, 14 years after graduating I still find my imposter syndrome is more insidious than my peers, I’m less self-assured, not as ‘rounded’ and still don’t quite fit in.

But it has been COVID-19 that has changed things for me. For the first time in my life, at 37 years of age, I have started to really consider inequalities in relation to race, ethnicity and deprivation. The last 18 months have opened my eyes to inequalities, which despite my own ‘lived experience’, is something I am only just starting to understand and process. But COVID-19 has also helped me to recognise the privilege my upbringing and community has given me. It has given me unique insights and a passion and drive to reduce the barriers to equitable access, quality of care and outcomes for those from minoritised groups, that others may not prioritise in the same way. It has also allowed me to champion the core values the women in my family and community taught me from such a young age, that kindness, compassion, family and community are the cornerstones to a good life and a good death.

I wanted to write this piece, not for me (I’m an introvert and very private), but for other kids who are not expected to become doctors by anyone and grow up in an environment that does not enable them to even consider this possibility. For others starting out in medical school/training with a similar background - if I’ve managed to do it, you absolutely can, and medicine will be so much better for it.

Undoubtedly, we have additional barriers and therefore need different support for truly equitable opportunities - denying this does us a disservice. Ask for mentors - there are kind people out there who will go out of their way for you, and sadly they will need to go out of their way. Just like my brother and math’s teacher early on, I still need advocates today, the system is far from perfect but there are many people out there willing to help, find those people.