In celebration of Women’s History Month, this month’s narratives are dedicated to highlighting the voices of women. Each story is unique, intimate, and powerful. Readers, please come open-minded and ready to engage with the following stories. More importantly, be ready to interface with an intimate space and allow yourself to step inside someone else’s life. The following is the narrative of Haleigh Harper, a first-year medical student at KUMC. Enjoy.
Note: The third interview question is credited to the NYT article “The 36 Questions that Lead to Love.” The interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Can you give me a one minute rundown of your life?
I grew up here in Kansas City, Missouri and I went to school in Virginia and then after graduation, I lived in DC for a few years, worked there for a while. Then, I decided to go back to school. I was not pre-med in undergrad so I did a one-year post-bacc program to take all my pre-med classes and applied to KU for medical school.
If you could describe yourself in one word what word, what word would it be?
The word I came up with was curious.
Could you elaborate on that?
So I had to take some time off to make sure medicine was right for me because I never really thought I would go into medicine. I actually remember in college, seeing what my pre-med friends were going through and I was like, “Well, I don’t know what I want to do with my life but I am NOT going to medical school”. So I’ve had different career paths because there are so many things that I think are interesting. For me, I really have to try something out to fully experience it and immerse myself in it to know if it’s right.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you choose to have dinner with?
Oprah Winfrey. I know that’s such a cliche answer, but she is someone I admire.
Do you listen to her SuperSoul podcast?
Yeah, I watch the shows! I don’t have a typical Sunday routine like going to church every week or anything, so it’s like my Sunday thing, with the whole point of her talking about spirituality and she chooses amazing people to talk to and I love the way that she interviews people.
What is your favorite hobby?
It changed in the past 24 hours to playing with my new little puppy! My sister just trained a puppy a couple of months ago, so luckily she’s helping me with potty training. He’s been really good about it. No accidents in the house so far.
What is a topic or a subject that you really care or are passionate about?
So my background and what I studied in college was environmental sciences and environmental sustainability. I think climate change is one of the most important issues right now and will be for a long time. I always thought I was just going to go into environmental policy. I took all the classes that I needed to but it was pretty depressing, honestly, because I felt like the ‘good guys’ never won. I think it is a complex issue because a lot of times there is misinformation out there and I think it’s really difficult to make the huge changes that need to be made. So that’s something I care about, but I know that I can’t necessarily do it for my whole life. I was really conflicted about it, actually. It helped me to realize that your career can be different than a hobby or passion that you care about. It’s okay if it isn’t your whole life all the time. In fact, a lot of times it’s better to separate your hobbies so you don’t get burned out, depressed, sucked in, or overwhelmed.
We’ve already addressed your journey to medicine a little bit. You didn’t always know you wanted to become a doctor, so at what point did you switch from environmental science to medicine?
Yes. So after graduation, I was working for a marketing company based here in Kansas City, but I was in their DC office. A lot of our clients were in health care and I really enjoyed that part of the work. I remember having a conversation with a marketing executive.
She joked, “Oh yeah you know I always wanted to be a doctor, but that didn’t happen. So this was the next best thing.”
And I made a joke, “I always wanted to be a doctor, too, but it didn’t work out for me either.”
Then she very seriously pulled me aside and said, “Listen, you are very young. You have nothing holding you back and if you’re serious about this, you should pursue that”.
That really struck me because those are the things that I said offhand and didn’t even think anything of it when I said it, but then afterward, what she said stuck with me. I knew that I never wanted to look back and think, “I could have done it at that point, and why didn’t I?” So it was in my head. I was curious about it, but kept pushing it away as I pursued a career in tech instead.
Then I applied on a whim for a post-bacc program to see if I could get in. That worked out and I spent that year asking questions, talking to doctors, shadowing, and really trying to picture myself in this world and I decided to go for it. It was a lot of self-reflection trying to figure out what was important to me in a career; what it means to help people; and what my role is. I believe to whom much is given, much is expected. I think that’s also a very millennial thing to wonder ‘what am I passionate about? What’s my purpose in the world? What am I giving back in my profession?’ Those are the kind of questions I started asking, and medicine just kept coming to the forefront.
It felt really crazy. At the time, it felt like a big leap.
You know those things are never easy to deal with, those “what if” questions. It’s also scary because you were comfortable.
Yes. That’s exactly it. I was very comfortable and nothing was really wrong. It wasn’t like I didn’t like my job. I loved my previous jobs. And I loved the people that I was working with. I had a great life. I was very comfortable but still had those questions tugging at me in the back of my mind.
So we’ve kind of already touched upon this. What are your hopes in medicine? What do you hope to do or make an impact on?
I love when you were talking about giving a voice to those who don’t have one or who aren’t heard as much as they should be. I think medicine is a lot of advocacy. I mean that’s how I see our role as a physician is advocating for our patients at all times. So I hope to fulfill that role and be an advocate for my patients.
Do you have any idea what specialty you’re interested in? I know it’s really early.
It is early and I also change my mind all the time! I feel like that’s my part of my story when I have to change my mind a lot, but I’m trying to put a more positive spin on the curiosity, that I’m curious about a lot of different things. I worked in a breast cancer research lab the year before I started here at KU and really loved it. I think cancer research is really exciting. And then I loved the aspect of getting to work with women. I enjoyed my projects because we got to work with radiologists, surgeons, primary care physicians, pathologists. It was really cool to see how all the different specialties intersected.
What does being a woman mean to you? How has your identity as a woman shaped or impacted your life experience?
I do identify as a woman and I think I’ve been lucky enough to always have really strong female mentors. I hadn’t realized it until I was looking at [this] question that I’ve only ever had female bosses, which I’m realizing now is kind of unique. I guess I’ve never really thought of it otherwise because I’ve had such strong role models; I’ve never felt held back or impeded by being female. I think we are living in a really exciting time now where the idea of feminism is changing and the definition is changing. I think it used to be almost a negative word and that you had to be a very certain way. But, I see being a woman as being multifaceted. I’m proud to be a female and I think I’ve been lucky to have great women in my life who’ve shown me that you can be a career woman; you can be a mom; you can be a sister and a daughter and a friend. I think that’s the interesting part about being female is that we have all of these different sides that are able to adjust to situations and [we can] mold ourselves to adapt to whatever environment that we’re in.