Harmony Saunders, MD-PhD student, M1

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 Harmony Saunders, an MD-PhD student, 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 please give me a one minute rundown of your life?

I’m the oldest of five girls. With that came a lot of responsibility. So I grew up being this adventurous child who also cared a lot for my siblings. For some reason, I just assumed I was a leader and basically worked hard. Originally, I wanted to be a veterinary surgeon. So my goal was to go to veterinary school, become a surgeon. And then I had an epiphany my freshman year of college and was like, “I’m going to be a doctor. Why would I go to school for a year so I could cut on animals when I could just work with people?” So, that’s summary of my life.

If you could use only one word to describe yourself, what word would it be and why?

I would choose adaptable because that’s one of my biggest strengths. In every situation, no matter where I am, I’m always very adaptable, even even in my everyday interactions. That’s why people think I’m an extrovert, because I’m really just an adaptable introvert!

Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

Part of me would want to have more time with someone I knew as a child, instead of some famous person, but she happens to be famous. I guess I probably would want to have Flo-Jo as a dinner guest because I ran track all of my childhood and the track team I ran for it was Flo-Jo’s track team. So she was there all the time.

Me and her daughter were almost the same age and I would go to her house all the time. We played together and to this day, I really don’t use the word hate because when I was six or five, [Flo-Jo] told me “Harmony, don’t use the word hate. That’s just a really bad word. You shouldn’t hate anything.” It stuck with me to this day. So I feel like it would be nice to talk to her as an adult person.

She was so kind and so caring. Her voice was so deep and she had such a presence. She had long nails. When I would go to her house, she’d do my hair all the time. She would cook chitlins, which I thought were disgusting. I was like, “Are you cooking those again? I’m not eating any of those.” She was just such a nice person. I always wonder, if she were still alive, what would have happened in my life. Like, how would her daughter’s life be because we don’t talk anymore once her mom died.

I think I’m would have her as a dinner guest because I’d want to pick her brain since she has a lot of good quotes that we use. She seemed like such a great person and as I get older, I’m just amazed. I think she was only like 36 when she died. I just want to talk to her. Then I also want to know if she knew what happened. She died and it still hasn’t really been found out how.

So I think I would want to have Flo-Jo as a dinner guests because her presence resonated with me a lot as a child.

What is your favorite hobby?

I have a lot of hobbies, although they’re all dwindling in med school, but I’d have to say drawing is my favorite hobby. Even though I’d say, in general, my art hobbies, which is probably literally all of my hobbies.

What is a topic you really care about?

There are a lot of topics I really care about, but I would probably say it always comes back to education. The bigger focus is improving the minority communities, specifically the African American community. I always get frustrated about different adversities the community faces and it always boils down to STEM education earlier for minority, underserved — specifically African American — children. Because for me, the only way I broke the possible cycle I could have been in was [through] education. So something I’m really passionate about is getting these young children who are in a vicious cycle of poverty out of it by offering them early exposure and education.

What is your journey into medicine?

For some reason when I was four, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I love taking care of animals. I grew up next to a canyon, so I was always catching animals. One time I fixed a snake that got attacked by a bird and closed his wound. He got away the next day so I assume he lived. I’ve always been like a little Steve Irwin — catching animals. I had cats and dogs and guinea pigs and rabbits, never birds. I don’t like birds, but everything else is fine.

So I just had this streamline focus that I was going to be a veterinarian. Then in seventh grade, I was doing a dissection and we had to dissect an earthworm which was the first thing we dissected. I remember my teacher saying I did a really good job and I looked around everyone else’s and theirs looked like a pile of dirt, but mine, you could see all five hearts. Earthworms have five hearts. So I was like, “Oh, yeah, that was cool. I love dissection.” So I was like, I know, I’ll be a veterinary surgeon! And then from there, I was just like, I’m going to go to UC Davis. I’m gonna graduate the top of my class. I’m going to be in veterinary school somehow, because I didn’t really know that you had to go to veterinary school after undergrad. I thought you go to college and veterinary school at the same place because I didn’t know.

Then I had an epiphany that I wanted to go to med school. So, back to the summary. It took a long time to get here. I pretty much built on my interest in research and added that to my dream and my goals.  Instead of switching paths into research, I just added it [to my path in medicine]. I’m equally passionate about medicine as I am research.

I did a master’s degree because of my love research, and then decided to do an MD PhD because I want to be in school forever. Which isn’t really true. So that was my journey, finding that I really love learning and I really love directly making a difference in people’s lives and that’s possible through medicine.

What are your future hopes in medicine?

It’s been shifting a little since I’ve started. But off of that seventh grade dissection and my love for surgery, I thought I was going to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. But then every surgeon I met — I went to this program between my freshman and sophomore year in undergrad — and every surgeon that presented or talked to us said that they hated their jobs, they miss out on their kids lives, that they wouldn’t do it again. So I basically was like, okay, after 10 different surgeons, different fields telling me this, maybe it’s not a good idea to become a surgeon. But I really didn’t know a whole lot about medicine. I just knew there’s a doctor and there’s a surgeon.

I got exposure to a pathologist who was really happy and I was like, “Okay, I’ll just do pathology.” So from there and my love for research and passion for STEM education, I developed this plan that I would develop my own company because I had this epiphany that there are a lot of scientists that are brilliant that work at universities, but they pretty much hate teaching. I thought it was not their fault they have to teach. They should have place to go to where they don’t have to teach, where they can just do research. So I thought it’d be a good idea to start an institute where basically, they would pay rent to do research — pay rent for common resources. At that company, my only stipulation would be to do research on either orphan diseases or racial disparities and things that would help minority groups. From that research, whatever funding we would get, I could also have programs that are K through post-grad for summers and after school.

Basically, that’s kind of what I wanted to do originally, but then I thought about adding a clinic and the hassles of adding that. This is just getting too big. So basically, I’m not really sure where it stands right now because I also got pulled in the direction of global medicine. Even then I thought, Okay, I’ll just have a site in San Diego, then I’ll have one in Atlanta. And then I’ll have one in Ghana. That’s three different sites in my company and it’ll be The Minority Research Science Institute. It has name and everything. Then I realized there are companies that do similar things that I could just take over and take in that direction. But I’m still figuring out how to piece it all together. And getting back to my love of surgery, which would make it look drastically different, probably more on the global medicine side and STEM education, just by showing up instead of having a massive research institute.

What does being a woman mean to you?

To me, it’s kind of like being black. It’s the first thing when people see you. As soon as someone sees a female, they populate their mind with these preconceived notions about you being a female. Sometimes I feel it more in SER weeks than in school, but you’ll come into a room of physicians, but mostly surgeons, and they see you, but then they see the male. They’ll say, “Hi” and address the male. And you’re invisible until you say something. And it’s not even intentional. It’s just this preconceived list of ideas that they have about you being a female.

So it’s kind of like this image I wear on my body — that’s what being a woman is — whether you like it or not, that’s part of who you are, and you can’t really get away from it. So then you just embrace it. And you start to find meaning, and what that is for you.

So for me, it means that as a woman, you have the ability to not just be seen as a woman, but to prove people otherwise. And then you also have the opportunity to be a leader. And basically once you embrace being a woman, you can embrace being a strong woman, which is basically like Michelle Obama. (Laughs) You can be a mom, you can be a surgeon, and you can be a scientist, all at the same time in the same body, and everyone will be so surprised. Sometimes it’s added things like, if a man does the same thing, it’s not as surprising. But if you’re a woman, and you do it, it’s amazing. But I think that’s part of being a woman. Something about our physiology, I feel like it makes us more adaptable, more able to balance many things at the same time, kind of different than men. That’s just an opinion.

I guess that’s what it means. It’s just like this preconceived notion and trying to break down that preconception.

How has your identity as a woman shaped or impacted your life experience?

Well, one thing I will say is that it’s amazing how much pressure you have when you’re a woman. Even if you think you don’t. Like, I’m a mom. It’s amazing to see how much even a child already knows you’re a mom so they have higher expectations of you. It’s like this unspoken thing that even babies know. Expectations are just always higher.

I guess for me, I take it as a challenge to be met and I’m like, Okay, that’s expectation. I’m going to surpass it. That’s just my personality. But I think that’s how it shapes a lot of things I do. I enjoy climbing mountains and overcoming things. So it’s like, okay, you think I’m just a woman. Let me prove you otherwise, which makes me take on more in my life than I had to. Also, there’s a sense of duty.

Can you speak about your motherhood?

I didn’t always want to be a mom. When I was in high school, I decided I might want to have kids, even though I also wanted to be this big, hot-shot veterinary surgeon. Maybe I should have kids too. I was always nervous about how it was going to work, but since I’m an extreme planner, I had decided, Okay, if I’m going to do a master’s degree, I’ll have my first child during my master’s degree, because that will be logical time. It’ll be a little less stressful. I guess it was, maybe. A Master’s in Science isn’t easy — a lot of research, a lot of juggling.

It’s interesting because something about once you become a mom — like the moment you become pregnant, not really, I’d say, it more hits you when baby’s born — you instantly start having this sense of clarity. It’s one of the things that drove me to stop trying to prepare the perfect medical school application and just apply because I was like, No, I need to do this. I need to do that. Then it was just like, I’m mom now. I need to apply because it’s just needs to happen. I just can’t wait anymore. I can’t just prepare, prepare, prepare. I can’t just aim, aim, aim, and never shoot.

It also makes me see the relationship with children and their moms differently. I mean, I haven’t done anything with peds yet, but just on movies and things, whenever there’s a mom and a child, you see it so differently. Because you’re a mom and there’s this unspoken bond. At the same time, there are all these expectations.

Oh, you’re a mom. You’re supposed to be home and cook me dinner.

Oh, you’re the mom. You’re supposed to read stories at night.

And it doesn’t really match up with like, Hey, I want to be a surgeon. I want to study 24 hours a day.

Because I want to do both, basically, all it’s done is made me decide, I’ll do both. Everything might take longer. So, I’m gonna try to be home to cook every now and then. When I am home, I have to put everything away and just be home. Although, it doesn’t always happen that way. I always think, This is my child. I’m my child’s only mom. I can’t like take it for granted.

It makes you more patient and more able to cope with hard things in life. If anything, there’s something hard, you’re less willing to get all upset about it because you’re used to things going wrong when you have a child. It’s like nothing goes on my schedule. I’ll just suck it up and go with the flow.

It’s really been great. After tests, when I come home, I have this little three year old come up to me like, “Oh, did you pass your test?” Because he just knows stuff. He’s just too smart for his own good. Or, if I’m watching one of Dr. Woods lectures and there’s a heart, he’s like, “Mama, what’s that? I want to see!” It’s really fun to see how curious he is. I hope he likes science.

It’s nice to watch this person grow. It gives you this sense of time. It makes you think, Oh, my gosh, I’m getting older. Oh, my goodness, time is passing by. Every day, they’re so much bigger than they were the day before. And every day, it’s harder to lose track of time. So it keeps you grounded and out of the stress, worry of life. I feel like it can be more chaotic, but there’s a lot of happy times. There’s no other way to summarize motherhood.

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