‘You only aspire to what you see…’

25/01/2023 - ‘You only aspire to what you see…’

Dr Gregory Ekatah is a Consultant Colorectal & General Surgeon, Scottish Government Clinical Adviser 2020-2022, Host of RCSED ‘Let’s Talk Surgery’ Podcast and Scottish Clinical Leadership Fellow Alumni (19/20)

Regina Honu, one of the BBC’s Top 100 women in 2017, famously said “You can only aspire to what you see. That’s why role modelling is important”. Ongoing work around promoting a career in medicine and surgery among ethnic minorities as well as lower socio-economic areas, and differential attainment, may look to this quote for part of the solution.

Like a lot of 12-year-olds, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said “I want to cure cancer or at least help people with cancer”. Not because I’d met an inspiring oncologist, but simply because the mother of my then 12-year-old girlfriend had been diagnosed with breast cancer… young love eh? She’s married to someone else now! No one in my family worked in healthcare, no I had doctors to aspire to. I will admit that the drive to be different also fuelled my desire to be the first doctor in the family.

Fast-forward 6 years and a young kid from Nigeria, via A-levels in London, was moving to Dundee University to begin the journey of “curing cancer”.

A whole new world – accents I could barely understand, no one that looked like me, and a sudden realisation that life may be different. Going from an environment where everyone looks like you to one where no one looks like you can be daunting. Throughout my medical career – from my first day at Dundee University, to my first day as a consultant surgeon in Fife, and subsequently a robotic surgery fellow in Singapore, the image that describes it in my mind is… ‘Where’s Wally’ or in this case, ‘Greg?’.

Has this played an impact on my professional and personal life? Overwhelmingly not! I’ve always believed that there is more that unites us than divides us. Therefore I have never focused on the superficial differences. Through medical school, my exposure and experiences were never limited compared with my white contemporaries. In postgraduate training, I felt I could pursue whatever I chose to. ‘You aspire to what you see’, and I saw a bunch of inspirational surgeons (largely white) in my early years as a foundation doctor, coupled with a deeper appreciation of self, my dream changed to tackling cancer with a scalpel. I remain grateful to these individuals. The support and kindness from colleagues was always there and lifelong friendships have been made.

Frontline working with patients brought a lot of challenges but thankfully these have been generic challenges with no relation to race – staff shortages, heavy workload, winter pressures, long waits, etc. I recognise this may not be a sentiment wholly shared by fellow ethnic minority colleagues – I class myself as having been fortunate.

My experience of being a black surgeon / clinician in frontline NHS Scotland can be epitomised, not in the fact that I am featured in a local health board brochure, website and PR material, or that I set-up and host a podcast for the largest surgical college in the UK, but that a young kid like me via a leadership fellowship could end up contributing within the Scottish Government during some of the most difficult times for this country – the COVID pandemic. The ultimate meritocracy where my ability and hard-work were all that mattered.

So, You can only aspire to what you see…. While I didn’t see many or any black surgeons to aspire to for most of my formative years, I looked to others for inspiration. What you see may not look like you on the surface and this was the case for me. But as discussions continue on how to tackle differential attainment, this remains multifactorial and will take more than a blog to discuss. However, can we as a society help? Whilst you may never fully understand the lived experiences of ethnic minority clinicians, creating a supportive and open environment for them to share concerns would be a start. The question “how can I help?” though simple, is very powerful and may start a conversation that could positively impact someone else’s experience.

You can only aspire to what you see…. For my part, I hope that I can be an inspiration to those who come behind me, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds. I hope they can learn from my experience that you can achieve most things.  

You can only aspire to what you see….There are many more like me who have achieved a lot more and can be an inspiration to others to pursue their dreams without fear of being disadvantaged either by the colour of their skin, or sexuality or any other superficial trait which does not define us.

You can only aspire to what you see….You may just have to look a little harder to find it, or it may not look exactly like you, but if you are reading this, that’s a good start. I hope this marks the start of your journey, and someday you too can inspire others who come after you.  

You can only aspire to what you see….As the one of a handful of black consultant surgeons in Scotland, I hope my journey can inspire others to think – yes, I can!

Reflective Challenge: You can only aspire to what you see – I used this in my blog a lot.  If there is nobody that looks like you, what other ways can you see people that can inspire you?

We would like to thank Greg for this guest blog which is part of the Leading to Change Diversity Blog Series. We want to highlight and promote the voices and experiences of diverse leaders at all levels including those working at frontline / grassroots levels. We aim to celebrate diverse leaders who can act as role models for other aspiring, diverse leaders.

Dr Gregory Ekatah – Greg is a Consultant Colorectal and General Surgeon, currently working in Singapore General Hospital, Scottish Government Clinical Adviser 2020-2022, Host of RCSED ‘Let’s Talk Surgery’ Podcast (https://www.rcsed.ac.uk/news-public-affairs/rcsed-podcast) and Scottish Clinical Leadership Fellow Alumni (19/20)

All information regarding our contributors was correct at the time of publishing.

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