From Self-Doubt to MD: How We Achieved Our “Impossible” Dream

From Self-Doubt to MD:
How We Achieved Our “Impossible” Dream

Hello! We are Dr. Brandi Jackson and Dr. Brittani James. We are twin sisters, best friends and medical doctors. Together, we overcame naysayers, academic failures and self-doubt to achieve our dream of being MDs. We are now both practicing physicians working with vulnerable populations in Chicago’s West and South Sides. We are also dedicated to nurturing the next generation of diverse doctors.

We want you to know who we really are. It’s easy to simply look at where we are now and think we are special or somehow different from normal folks. Trust us when we tell you, that is simply not the case. Our close friends have seen us broken, beaten down and hopeless. Our family knows that we have not always believed in ourselves or thought that we would make it to the finish line. And yet, we did it.

Ultimately, it was from our times of struggle and uncertainty that the idea of creating the Med Like Me community of today was ultimately born. We want to empower every day people to better understand their medical care and health. We also want to help others achieve their dream of becoming doctors too. These missions are more than just goals. They are our life’s work, and why we feel we were ultimately put on this earth.

This is our story.

Where it All Began

We were born and raised in Twinsburg, Ohio. Yes, that’s right, we are twin sisters from a town called Twinsburg! And before you ask:

  1. No, our parents did not move there when they found out they were having twins. Our mother’s family has lived there for generations.
  2. No, there is not an unnaturally high number of twins in Twinsburg. It got its name from being founded by twins.

Twinsburg was both a wonderful and problematic place to grow up in. In a practical sense, it was a diverse place overall. The town was ultimately quite segregated however, with lower-income, primarily African-American residents, living in a smaller section of the city. That part of town is where we were raised.

Us at Twinsburg’s annual Twins Day Festival (note the creepy number of twins in the background!)
Our mom made sure we were in the same classes so we wouldn’t miss each other during the day. And course we had to dress alike every single day!

We’ve both always been drawn to science and excelled academically, so we were in Advanced Placement and Honors courses in our school system. We were frequently the only African-Americans in those classrooms, despite Blacks being around 13% of the total population in the town. That ultimately created this interesting dynamic in our day-to-day life, in which we spent the school day being one of the few African-Americans in the classroom, and then going home to a primarily Black neighborhood.

Between Two Worlds

There has always been a tension in living in those two realities. There’s a pressure to “perform” and be “on” when you are the only person of color in a space, lest you inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes about your race to non-people of color. Many of us have come to know this performance as “code switching”. It’s an art we perfected from an early age. It was a skill set that allowed us to thrive in academic institutions, but not without personal cost to our sense of self.

A school dance photo – Naturally we didn’t have dates so we hung out together instead!

In any event, we went on to tie for second in our graduating class with the same G.P.A.–to the decimal point. We had over a 4.0. We even gave a joint speech at graduation!

We applied to college together, without much guidance. We talked ourselves into applying to one Ivy League school. Mind you, we barely knew what an Ivy League school was, just that if you were “smart” you should try to go to one. Since we finished second in our high school, we reasoned that we must be objectively smart and it was probably worth a try.

Feeling Like Imposters

We should take this time to point out that despite our grades, neither of us have ever considered ourselves geniuses. We studied hard, yes, but we recognize that even then we felt like “imposters” subconsciously. We doubted ourselves. We worried that the “secret” was that we were not as smart or brilliant as people held us up to be would be realized at any moment. We want to share that with you because we think those thoughts are prevalent among women, African-Americans and other minorities who are not traditionally held up to be the picture of success. The point is that those thoughts plagued us for most of our life, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.

After all, that’s how internalized inferiority works. 

But we digress.

We went on to apply to a single Ivy League School. We wish we could tell you we did extensive research, but with little guidance, and believing it was a long shot anyway, we did a google search to see which Ivy League was the closest to our hometown. That school turned out to be Cornell University. So we applied there, early decision. Both of us got in.

Telling our family we BOTH got into Cornell!
Telling our family we BOTH got a full tuition scholarship!
Our Aunt couldn’t handle it…
High school graduation photos! BTW, these were legitimately popular haircuts in 2006 so don’t hate!!

Outsiders in College

As it turned out, getting into Cornell turned out to be one of the biggest turning points of our lives. But even bigger than the acceptance, was the scholarship that came with it. The scholarship made attending possible. It changed our world.

College was a culture shock. The feelings of imposter syndrome came back with a vengeance. All around us our fellow students seemed to all come from money and the advantages money bought. Several were “Legacies” or descendents of past Cornellians. They knew the ropes of college well, as their families had gone to Cornell for generations.

We were both drawn to other scholarship kids and also first generation college students, finding a kinship in their unique struggles in higher education. The academic competition was steep, a foreshadow of what was to come in medical training. Graduating as salutatorians of our high school was par for the course rather than a shining achievement. And for both of us, being African-Americans and from a working-class background, amidst a sea of primarily upper-class, white classmates, was a recipe for feeling out of place. That feeling would persist well into medical school.

The Decision to Pursue Medicine

We majored in Biology (Brittani) and Psychology (Brandi) and leaned on each other through the hard times. It wasn’t until late in college that we began to consider medicine in a serious way. Cornell had an exploratory summer program in New York City which exposes you to careers in medicine. Brittani attended the program and through it, saw her first Black female doctor in the flesh, in passing.

Despite the brevity of the encounter, something clicked at that point. After talking with each other about what Brittani had seen and done through the program, being a doctor suddenly seemed possible for both of us.

And so it was ultimately the perfect combination of experiences that opened our eyes to what was possible – getting into Cornell, being able to afford Cornell due to scholarships, taking part in a pre-med program and seeing a black female physician. It’s humbling to stop and put that into perspective.

Realizing We Had No Clue How to Become Doctors

Once the decision was made, we realized we had no clue how to go about getting into medical school. Sure, we’d picked up the basics just being around other pre-med for years, but there is no substitute for having a mentor in your corner who has done it. In the beginning of it all, we were lost. However, with our family’s and each other’s support, as well as a lot of books and google searches, we were able to find our way.

We ended up maxing out more than one credit card to cover application and interview costs. We also had to cut several interviews from our roster because we were simply unable to afford to travel to them. Despite it all, we were both accepted into multiple medical schools. We were broke, but hopeful. We’d made it past another huge hurdle. It was time for the next leg of our journey.

College graduation…Struggle shoes and all!

We decided to attend different medical schools. Given the fact that we had spent just about every waking moment together since the day we were born, we figured it was time to experience life on our own for awhile. We both yearned to experience life as a “singleton” and stand completely on our own. Brandi attending Northwestern University Feinburg School of Medicine and Brittani attending the University of Michigan Medical School.

A False Finish Line

There’s a temptation to feel like you’ve “made it” once you get into medical school but in reality, it’s the start of a whole new leg of the journey. Neither of us fully grasped that when we made the decision to separate for medical school. Being apart from each other meant we each lost a huge source of support. We both struggled in our new environments, emotionally and academically.

Suddenly, old ghosts of the past, telling us we weren’t “good enough” or deserving  to be doctors came back with a vengeance. We each had to rebuild ourselves, without each other, and learn to find our own individual strength. It was not easy. Each of us considered quitting more than once. It all just seemed too hard.

But honestly, in those times, the thing that kept us going was the people back in Twinsburg. Not just our family, but the African-Americans we grew up around in that small, segregated corner of the town. We just kept going back to them in our heads. These were good people with hopes and dreams like everyone else. They worked hard and dreamed of better futures despite their circumstances. They loved and laughed, despite how the outside world saw them. We were not better than them. We were the same as them. But for some reason, the stars had aligned to set us on a trajectory to be in medical school.

Medical school graduation x 2

Pushing through training meant being able to amplify their voices. It meant being able to advocate for them – and people like them – to the people with the power to shift the social determinants of health and make the lives of those from communities like ours, better.

And so, you can see that growing up where we did set the stage for our shared interest in uplifting underserved communities. Not because we feel sorry for the people in these communities, but because we are them.

Coming Full Circle

Today, we have come full circle. After completing medical school, we joined up again in Chicago. We moved into apartments 3 doors away from each other in the same building. We worked in the same hospital for residency, the University of Illinois at Chicago, one of the top Medicaid providers in the state.

Momma and Poppa Jackson at Brittani’s Residency Graduation

We both went on to be elected by our peers as Chief Residents of our respective residency programs there, one of the highest honors that can be given to a medical trainee. We are now practicing physicians, serving underserved populations in the Chicago area just as we set out to do from the very beginning.

We can tell you that all the sleepless nights, doubts, blood, sweat and tears was worth it in the end. Our work fulfills us in ways that we never dreamed possible.

And now that we’ve done it, we want to help others do it too.

Brittani’s Wedding Day

To Those Who Want to Better Understand their Health

We created Med Like Me because long before we were doctors, we knew very little about even the most basic health topics. Many members of our family and family friends have been harmed by the modern healthcare system. They have been judged, not properly informed about what was being done to them, overlooked and given low-quality care. People are mistrustful of doctors and hospitals and we don’t blame them. The system is broken.

But we believe that a change must and will come. We believe that a more just and equitable health care system is not only necessary but inevitable. We want to bring patients back to the center of medicine, and that starts with giving you the tools you need to thrive in your journey for health and wellness.

And it is our privilege to walk with you during that journey.

To Those Pursuing a Career in Medicine

We created Med Like Me to be a resource for you whether you are contemplating if this should be your journey, if you are just starting your journey or if you are deep in the midst of your journey. We created it to be a resource for answers, sharing knowledge or simply just support. We created it assuming you don’t know the first thing about becoming a doctor, like we didn’t all those years ago. We designed it assuming you did not dream of being a physician from the day you were born, and that you were not born into a family of physicians. We do not take for granted that you have friends who have been through the process, or that you even know what questions you should be asking. We created it because we once felt as overwhelmed and uncertain as you may feel right now – but we pushed forward and reached our “impossible” dream. 

Just like you will.

We believe in you. We got you. We KNOW that if we did it, you can too. Even if you’re not yet convinced of it yourself.

You got this.

We Are Here For You

In the end, our greatest hope is that the Med Like Me community acts as your anchor in the healthcare storm when you need one. We’re rooting for your success and sharing in your triumphs. You are family.

With love,

Dr. Brittani and Dr. Brandi

Thank you for taking the time to ready our story! If you have an interested in us speaking at your next event, diversity consulting or media appearances, then feel free to go here and send us a message. We look forward to hearing from you!

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