No excuses: Melissa Charles, MD,PhD

When my mentor read Melissa’s story and found out she had graduated from Oakwood College and then Loma Linda University School of Medicine, she called me and told me I had to get to know this incredible young woman and interview her for my blog. I was ecstatic when she agreed to be featured on the blog. I have met a lot of amazing and incredible women but I have to say this young lady tops the list. Many would have given up on their dream and taken the easier path. It’s not like she didn’t already have a back up degree she could use to make a good living and live a comfortable life. But that was not her ultimate goal and she would not allow hurdles along the way to stop her from reaching her destination. I hope you will be encouraged to keep one foot in front of the other no matter how hard things get.

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What made you choose medicine and what is your specialty of choice?

It’s interesting when I get asked that question I tend to fumble because I initially had no interest or intention to go into medicine. I was in an art high school; majored in studio art which encompassed drawing, sculpting, painting etc. Henceforth, I appropriately had artistic aspirations to become a “Salvador Dali” or “Basquiat” of my generation. Interestingly, my serendipitous encounter with medicine was one of convenience and requirement. I needed 40 required volunteering hours to graduate from high school, and I did them at a medical center within close vicinity of the art studio. I was young at the time and I didn’t have the psychosocial maturity to recognize that my concern for societal well being, and being interdependent with humanity was epitomized in that experience. I suppose that concern emanated from my early childhood in Canada. There I learned to value the common thread of the human experience by interacting with people wether it was in a homeless shelter, with my multicultural classmates, or with my siblings. By no means was choosing medicine a “Eureka” moment, but volunteering planted the seed. Furthermore, I always loved scientific inquiry, although at the time I didn’t know what it was. I was just an annoying curious student. My love for investigations was cemented in undergrad, during a summer internship at Washington University in St-Louis. I learned about the feasibility of a physician scientist dual Doctoral Program (MD, PhD) and the rest is history. It feels almost as though God guided my steps. I suppose the choice was protracted and occurred over years. I will begin my Anesthesiology residency this summer (2018).

What drives you and motivates you to do what you do?

Fundamentally, I have to say that the sacrifices of my parents to ensure that I was born in North America, and had access to opportunities they didn’t have, drives me. Reading up on Dr. Ernest Everett Just, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, Dr. Charles Drew, Dr. Mary Maynard Daly, or Dr. George Washington Carver is remarkable and motivational! What they did in an era with much less opportunities than me is downright outstanding. Additionally, I’m pretty relentless when it comes to reaching goals. If I set out to do something, I’m pretty intense and will push until it happens. It is a characteristic that has served me well, but at times have been detrimental. Many times I wanted to throw in the towel when I was living in my car. In hindsight, I probably should have. It isn’t anything I would wish on anyone going through medical school. But when I think about my ancestral history and the complexities of my parents’ history, I knew that giving up was simply never an option. No matter how long or tortuous the journey.

resilience1What have been your biggest challenges to reach your goal of graduating medical school?

Funds, and keeping my morale up were challenging. My program did not provide stipend allocation during the medical portion of the curriculum, and my background made it difficult to obtain private loans. What people fail to tell you is that besides tuition there are registration fees, books, licensing exam costs, licensing practice material, residency application fees, flights to interviews, and accommodations for doing clinical rotations at away institutions, etc. All of that cost me an arm, two legs, my spleen, my social life and my frontal lobe! I was eviscerated with the cost of medical school, despite having tuition covered. So, I lived out of my car. I had a friend who helped jumpstart my car many times, when it wouldn’t start in the morning. I did hair weaves for people, and sold art to make ends meet when I was short on cash. On occasion, I received help from friends, and family who got wind of my situation. While medical school itself posed many challenges, it paled in comparison with the circumstances I dealt with. Being around obnoxiously competitive classmates, or being yelled at by an attending physician wasn’t scarier then waking up being yelled at by a mentally ill homeless man. I was concerned daily about where I would shower, and where I could park my vehicle (which at the time had no AC/Heater) without getting a ticket, avoiding neighborhood patrol, peeping toms, homeless people, etc. I tried my absolute best to never look like my circumstances but keeping my morale up during that time was hard. My best friend in Toronto checked in daily to ensure I was still alive, and cracked some jokes to remind me of my humanity. Also having a sick parent did not help contribute to the emotional toll.

What are your success habits, daily habits that are tried and true?th

1. Make yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily goals. The yearly goals are broken down into attainable monthly objectives, which are then subdivided into weekly goals, and so on.

2. Estimate the time required daily for each goal, and organize your day accordingly.

3. Take one day off, and reevaluate your week, by honestly assessing what went well, and what didn’t. Tackle the following week with the necessary adjustments.

4. There are times when you can’t see that far. The urgency of life does that sometimes. Just make goals for the next hour, and make it through the day.

How do you push through your worst times?

  1. Pray.
  2. Hang on for dear life.
  3. Distract myself with something that brings me joy ( for me it was art, and my guilty pleasure Wendy Williams 20 minutes Hot topic on Youtube “How you doin” 🙂
  4. Meet whatever deadlines. No excuses.

What 3 lessons would you impart to the up and coming young black female undergraduate or medical student that you learnt or you wish you had known?

  1. Research the programs thoroughly (seek for mentors that look like you, and/or have your best interest at heart); not every open door is for you.
  2. Taking a year off or however long to bolster your application, or to simply figure yourself out is not the end of the world. Believe me!
  3. (This is a 2 in one) Know yourself and do YOUR best. Do not let your emotions dictate your actions; emotions are fleeting, actions aren’t. 

What was a typical day like for you as a medical student?resilience2

The first year of medical school was intense but more consistent. The second year of medical school was less predictable due to labs, and continuity clinics. I lived in a room until the landlord sold the house during my second year. I didn’t have a car my first year of med school, so I walked everyday about 5 miles, rain (which was rare) or shine . I biked at one point until the bike got stolen. *Shrug*

03:30 – wake up- brush my teeth- get situated- eat something

04:00 – 06:30 review outline material for the 4-hour lecture

06:30 – 07:00 get ready, pack lunch-dinner and snacks (already prepped for the week on Sunday)

07:00 -12:00 – go attend class- flashcards while walkingResilience3

12 pm-1pm – eat lunch review “easier” lectures

1-1:40 – quick gym sesh (treadmill)

2:15-8:00 – study at the library

8:00-9:00 – walk back home (I live in California so the heat was unbearable unless I walked at night)

9:00-9:30 – review flashcards, and summaries of lecture.

10:00 – sleep and repeat

My first year was the most organized. Second Year, I was class president, and didn’t have the same predictability as first year. I did not run for the presidency again once I knew my circumstances were changing.

What is your biggest accomplishment so far?

My biggest accomplishment so far is not losing who I am. Surely the academic accomplishments are noteworthy, and I don’t undermine their importance. I’ve won first place prizes for a few scientific poster sessions during the MD/PhD matriculation. I’ve been fortunate to publish scholarly articles, attend conferences, teach at local Universities, and have given invited lectures. But I can’t take those prizes to the grave. I am fundamentally wiser, and have remained the same Melissa.

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What is your greatest  moment thus far?

  • My church family back home, and my Alabama “family” (who practically adopted me while in college because I couldn’t afford housing) showed up at my graduation. I didn’t want any pageantry or celebration that weekend; I just wanted to get the degree and sleep. Well, they surprised me with a dinner, and it was the most moving moment of my life. They all spoke about when they first met me, and the impact little old me had on their lives! I was flabbergasted! I’ve never been celebrated in that capacity. I was surrounded with love, and I couldn’t stop crying. It was an emotional day, one I wish I could have frozen in time. Seeing all the familiar faces of people I loved made graduation a weekend I will never forget.
  • When I knew for medical reasons my mother couldn’t travel from Canada to California to see me graduate I mailed her a large framed graduation picture. I Facetimed her to see her reaction, and I can’t put in words the overwhelming satisfaction I had seeing her face light up. It was a moving moment, and hearing her say how proud she was made me happy. She gave me her life savings when I left home to pursue this goal ( ~800-900 dollars) and told me to make her proud. It all came full circle.

What is the best advice you have received?

Oh wow, there are so many good ones. My Aunty Valerie London would say “You can only walk on water by stepping out of the boat”.

Dead or alive who are your top two people who inspire you?

My Aunty Valerie London.

The Late Dr. Maya Angelou “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise”


angeladavis1What does it mean to you to be a black woman in these times?

Being a black women today is liberating. While I understand that there are many diverging narratives about what a black women is and how she is viewed, I ascribe to the one that is uplifting and empowering. I see so many women of color today breaking barriers, and pursuing careers once reserved for men; in sports, business, medicine, science, entertainment, etc. Nowadays, black women are making choices about their bodies, motherhood and marriage which at a point could never occur. I think of Winnie Mandela, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, who had to fight for their voices, in contrast with the privilege we now have with social media and the internet. The black woman’s history is a global one. I have benefited from the collective efforts of the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and from some bad ass chicks who shut shit down so gracefully and eloquently. I mean, can we talk about authors like Nikki Giovanni, Harriet Washington, Audre Lorde and activists/politicians like Coretta Scott King, and Shirley Chisholm! Chile, these are some baaaad chicks! Ultimately, there are still challenges that lurk; some of which I’ve interfaced. These challenges can sometimes present themselves as micro-aggressions that masquerade behind the political correctness, and “civil” discourse. But ultimately, in these times it is wonderful to be black, and to be a women. I feel privileged to be both.

What are your makeup must haves and your classic fashion pieces in your closet?

Must haves include:

Faux lashes- Downtown LA, you will find some great lashes at ridiculously affordable prices. Like 50 cents a pair!!

Eyebrow pencil- Rimmel dark brown

Concealer- MAC and Tarte

Setting Powder– When balling on a budget I use Coty Airspun loose face powder (Walmart) otherwise Cover FX and Laura Mercier powder.

My closet is relatively small, it all fits in a tiny carry on bag: Besides the hospital scrubs, I’d say my trusty faithful pair of black Sam Edelman pumps.

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