PORTRAIT OF A PSYCHIATRIST
–Series Chair, H. Steven Moffic, MD
Before I began my career as a child psychiatrist in Mid-Missouri, I worked in a small women’s clinic thousands of miles away. The plan was to stay in the Middle East, where I was married and had two children. But when my husband was offered a scholarship to pursue his doctorate in the US, we decided to embark on this adventure together.
I was not prepared for the obstacles that awaited me. Other than my husband and children, I knew no one in this vast country, with street names I had never heard of and foods I did not recognize. Studying for the multiple exams—ECFMG, FLEX, and Visa Qualifying Exam—was overwhelming. I found a babysitter in our apartment complex, and every morning I dropped my children off on my way to the library.
After about a year of studying, I finally passed my exams, but the journey was far from over. I needed a different visa to begin my training. I struggled with the acculturation process. My accent made me extremely self-conscious. There were not many people who looked like me. Even buying clothes was a challenge, and not just because we were raising a family on the salary of a doctoral student. I couldn’t just walk into the mall and buy a hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women.
I was overjoyed when I was offered the opportunity to start my residency in Mississippi, even though I didn’t know where it was until I looked it up on a map. To my disappointment, however, my immigration papers were not completed in time. Two years later, in the early 1980s, I was given another opportunity, this time at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
I began my residency with a mix of excitement, determination, and apprehension. I remember one of the senior residents telling me that I would not be able to become a child psychiatry fellow while wearing hijab because I would “scare” the kids. These words shook me. My hijab was an important part of my faith and identity. I decided my hijab was non-negotiable, but so was my commitment to become a child psychiatrist. I would embrace both.
I felt I had to work twice as hard as everyone around me and dismissed the micro- and macro-aggressions from colleagues and patients alike.
I quickly built a rapport with my patients and their families, taking extra time to listen to their stories and to do everything in my power to help them. I worked long hours and wrote detailed notes. On occasion, there was a patient or family who expressed doubt in my abilities. Thankfully, in time, my dedication and care enabled me to win them over. Some of them actually referred other family and friends to me, which I would remind myself of the next time I had a family that would take one look at me and my hijab and decide I was a foreigner who did not know what I was doing.
My husband’s support was key. He did a lot with our children so that I could meet the demands of my residency and training. I felt I had to work twice as hard as everyone around me and dismissed the micro- and macro-aggressions from colleagues and patients alike.
Despite the challenges, I loved what I was doing. My family was growing, and my career began to take off. I accepted an opportunity to lead a medical unit at a children’s hospital in Arkansas. It brought with it additional responsibility and challenges, which I strove to meet at work and home. I remember rushing from the hospital to make it to my child’s school play after a grueling day. Even as a department head, like most psychiatrists, work-life balance was difficult to achieve.
We eventually moved back to Missouri, bought a house, and decided we were done moving. Missouri would be our home.
Then came 9/11.>