By Jean Daniel François, M.D.
You are destined to greatness!
I was born and raised in the West Indies. I was the oldest of nine children. My mother was a single parent full of hope for her children. I am not ashamed to tell you that I know a lot about poverty. Pressed by all circumstances, my siblings and I struggled to make it against all odds. I remember vividly the many instances when we would go to school on an empty stomach, and return in the afternoon, still hungry with only some water to drink or some beans to eat. Some nights, when it was evident there was nothing to eat, no corn meals ready, I would dump some sugar into lukewarm water, add some lemon – when available- and make lemonade, to drink of it, just to get something into our systems before I went outside on the street light to study, and leave some of that lemonade for the following morning just in case! But, just before we went to bed, my mother would remind all of us: “a piece of gold remains very valuable even in the midst of mud.”
I grew up in a big family where my grandfather played a key role in my life. My biological father traveled to the United States before I was born. I didn’t hear from him or meet him until I was about to finish junior high school. He and I started direct correspondence only after I managed to obtain his address, under secrecy, from one of his aunts. During the first eight years of my life, I considered, beside my mother, my grand father as my hero. He was always there when I needed him. After a week working miles away from home, he would come home. He was never too tired for me. He sat in his arm chair, he would put me on his lap, look me straight into the eyes and tell me what a great guy I was, and I was going to make it big in life. He would remind me how he had learned to read late in life, at age 11, yet still managed to become a community judge. He told me I was very special and how I was going to be such a success. I learned to love my grandpa. He showered me with love beyond belief.
Unfortunately, grandpa’s health was not so great. As a kid, I was unsure of what was happening, but he became ill and his health went down hill fairly quickly. Hospital facilities were great distances away, physicians were scarce, adding to those conflicting viewpoints regarding how to care for him, not to mention his superstitious cultural beliefs that some jealous friends was trying to “eat him”…my grandpa did not make it. I believe my hero died of some cancer that went to his brain and caused some seizures. I still believe that grandpa died because of lack of adequate medical care. Deep inside I felt an urge to do something, if not bring him back to life, at least to help prevent such a nightmare that can overwhelm other young people. I felt compelled to help in appeasing or eliminating human suffering, and to provide better quality of life and better medical care. I knew right then and there that I had to become a physician.
However, the road was not easy. After Grandpa’s death, I dedicated the following 15 years of my life to the struggle of helping my mother raise the other eight of my brothers and sisters. In the early part of the 1970’s, I emigrated into the United States “with a small suitcase and a head full of dreams”. However, upon arriving here, my first hurdle was to learn how to deal with my father and my stepmother. There I was, self confident, in the land of opportunity, where I believed there was milk and honey. I could not wait to share my dreams with my biological father, who I only met once for a few hours as an adolescent. My father’s words to me were blunt: “forget about it! You could never become a physician. Do something quick to take care of yourself”.
I could not believe my ears. I did not say a word. But deep inside I was determined to prove him wrong. I could not help but look back to my early years and the precious time that I had spent with Grandpa, who was so encouraging. Somehow there were two conflicting messages resonating in my head: My grandpa had said “I could do anything”; my real dad told me “I could not”. I felt so lonely at a cross road. I was in a foreign country with a foreign language and a different culture. I quickly discovered two things:
a) It costs a lot to live here.
b) Without my help, my mother was not going to be able to provide for my other siblings.
I had to rediscover my priorities. Over the next twelve years, a few things happened. Those things made reaching my dream of becoming a physician very difficult.
1- I opted to help my mother not only to survive there, but also to find ways to bring all of my family to the States legally. To reach such a goal, I started as a messenger for a “fortune 500” company but kept “my head full of dreams”. I moved up to clerk, junior financial analyst…all while going to school full time at night.
2-I got married to my high school sweetheart: the most beautiful woman in the world.
I was a bit distracted, and wanted to be content with what I had. I took all the pre-requisites for medical school. Nevertheless, I thought I would stay in the accounting/management field. After all, I had a family to support: a wife and kids, and my mother with breast cancer. I wanted to continue the usual rat race. But in my mind, I could not deny the fact I knew I was destined to do a little more. There was a constant void that I kept ignoring, like a recurring indigestion. I talked myself into accepting the new standard dictated by the various circumstances.
I never forget that afternoon, at a New Year’s Eve party; a man came out of nowhere, tapped me on my shoulder and told me: “you are a doctor, aren’t you?” I said NOOOOOO! Emphatically. Then my heart was coming out of my mouth, I was sweating, hot, panicking. I felt as if my grandpa was looking straight into my eyes and telling me “you are going to do great things…nothing can stop you… nobody can stop you…” I left the gathering and went back home. I felt like I had let my grandpa down. I felt like I had let myself down and I wanted to prove to my father that he was wrong. After a sleepless, agonizing night, I decided to go back to my initial goal.
I applied timidly to less than a dozen of medical schools. I only got two interviews. Somehow God helped me to get accepted at one of the two schools. I left my job against all advice; I started medical school at 35, after five years of marriage and no kids. The first two years were tough: two premature kids 3 & 4 pounds in 21 months, a wife with preeclampsia and prolonged hospitalization. I chickened out; I had a tough time keeping the grades. I wanted to quit but my wife convinced me to take a leave of absence instead. Away from medical school for almost 2 years with no job; I tried but could not even drive my uncle’s taxi cab for some real money. I was miserable, like a fish without water. So, I returned and finished medical school. After graduation, I went into internship and residency in my early forties with a lot of debt, including student loans.
Today, obviously I am not rich financially, but I am proud to report to you all, my dream has come true. I am a practicing Physician!! I believe I must have taken care of thousands of patients with all kinds of neurological illnesses, including brain metastasis, and seizures. I am also the spiritual leader of a community based church. I do regular radio session to instruct people about their health and other subjects that can help them face the various challenged of life. I have written a few books. All, because I love the fact I can make a difference in people’s lives.
I am happy to tell you: YOU CAN DO IT TOO! You can do anything you set your mind to do if you keep at it and believe in yourself.
Jean Daniel Francois, B.S., B.Th., M.A., M.D.
Author of The No Nonsense Approach to a Successful Life ( Les Clés de la Réussite Authentique)
Tips for a Successful Career in Medicine