HERstory: Dr. Elizabeth Dalchand
Elizabeth Dalchand is a PGY-2 at Stony Brook Emergency Medicine Residency Program. A native New Yorker, Liz attended Stony Brook University School of Medicine and made the decision to stay at Stony Brook for residency. Not only is Liz one of the co-founders of the Stony Brook chapter of Fem in EM she currently serves as Wellness Chief, co-coordinator of journal club, part of the GME inclusion and diversity committee and runs an Instagram food blog! I had the honor of sitting down with Liz and learning more about her and how she does it all.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from, what do you like to do for funsies?
I’m originally from Jamaica, NY. I’ve always been a New Yorker, never have left the state, except for vacation of course. Let’s see, there's so many things about me [laughs]. My parents are immigrants, never went to high school or college so I guess I was the first person to graduate high school in my family. I have 2 younger sisters, we all went to Barnard College, an all female college, and I majored in chemistry. I love my sisters, we have a very close relationship. For fun I love playing with my dog, taking pictures of food, and going to casinos [laughs]. Oh, I’m also Guyanese, I love people knowing that about me.
So you’re not Indian?
It’s interesting, technically my ancestors are from India but there are a lot of different cultures we are influenced by. We have ties to African American culture, Portuguese, and Dutch so I would say if you look at my culture and my upbringing it’s much more similar to a Jamaican or Haitian household vs. an Indian household. Our food and our cultures are a lot different, our music is similar but also different.
How do you try to keep your Guyanese culture alive, has it played a role in the way you grew up?
I love our soca and dancehall music and listen to it almost every day as well as eating traditional Guyanese food whenever I can. My best friend started a company called Bruk Out which is a Carribean magazine that I help out with and it helps me keep in touch with my culture. I actually named it! Guyanese people don’t really prioritize education, but my parents did because their lack of education prevented them from being financially stable and getting jobs. My parents speak in a very thick Caribbean accent, a lot of people can’t even understand them even though they’re speaking English but because of that correct grammar was pretty hard for me to learn.
How did you find yourself at Stony Brook?
I initially went to SB for medical school, I knew I wanted to go to a state school and be close to my family in Queens so SB made the most sense to me. Also at the time I was in a relationship and my ex went to NYCOM so it made sense for both of us to be on the island at the time. I knew I wanted to specialize in Emergency Medicine for a long time, when I was in college I did a lot of volunteering in the emergency department and it was a natural fit. When I started to think where I wanted to go for residency, deciding between the city and staying at Stony Brook, SB just had so many pluses that I wanted to stay. I love Long Island, I met my fiance James at Stony Brook and we both wanted to stay.
So going back a little bit in time, what inspired you to pursue medicine?
That’s a great question. I knew I always wanted to help people, which is such a stereotypical answer. I went into college thinking initially I wanted to be an engineer and was going to be a math major but I didn’t like the classes. I started volunteering at Harlem Hospital and I really liked it there but at the same time I didn’t know where life was going to take me. Having a job was something very important to me because finances are very important to me. My family and I went through a lot of financial turmoil so at the end of the day I knew I needed a job that was going to provide me financial security. When I was thinking about it I would either graduate from college and go for a PhD in Chemistry or I would go to medical school, those were the only two options. I will say that my parents didn’t like either of those options, they really just wanted me to graduate from college and get a job.
Do you feel like you eventually won over the support of your parents?
My parents always gave me their support. I had a tough time my first semester of college and that is part of the reason why my parents wanted me to drop out to get a job and help them financially. After I got through it they started to see that I was making a sacrifice to be able to financially help them later down the road. Now that I’m a doctor they’re as happy as can be, of course!
So we’ll go back a little bit to something you mentioned earlier, you met your now fiance during medical school and you’re now working together in the same residency program. How do you manage? Not only do you work in the same hospital you could be on the same shift working together and then have to go home and still see each other more! Any advice for people looking to couples match and even possibly be in the same program?
I think because we’ve been together for so long we know what each other’s ticks are. When we’re at work we don’t really bother each other, we’ll pick each other’s brains and brainstorm about patients. There’s never this idea that one person is better than the other. There is a balance there which I think is really important. We work together as a team. Where we differ is when it comes to leaving work. When I leave work - I leave work. I don’t like to talk about work at home. If I had a cool case sometimes I’ll bring it up but that’s about it. James is the complete opposite. Sometimes I have to tell him “Hey we’re not talking about work we’re watching TV instead.” Fortunately he doesn’t get annoyed by this! We also just enjoy each other’s company when we’re not at work. Since we spend most of our time at work it’s obviously going to come up in conversation but it’s nice to keep things separate, like if we have a date day we just don’t talk about work at all.
So you are an extremely busy person, not only are you a second year resident, you are our wellness chief, you help run journal clubs, you’re part of the GME inclusion and diversity committee, and you have a pretty successful Instagram food blog. What made you want to take on this extra work with starting Fem In EM @ Stony Brook?
I think it was really important for me to do it because when you look at our department we have maybe 5 female attendings and in our residency class we only have 4 females out of a class of 16, in some places this may be the most they ever see. I think it’s nice to bring this culture and community where we can bond together and talk about our shared experiences and support each other. For example talking to my male attending when it’s that time of the month about my cramps is just awkward. It’s little things like this that just made me feel like we needed a community to feel supported by each other.
Do you feel like during your experience whether it be as a student or during residency that you have ever been treated differently because you’re a female?
For a large portion of everything yes. I mean even as a kid I knew my dad really wanted a son. My dad never told me that I couldn’t do things as a girl but culturally he would treat me differently - for example when I turned 21 he never offered me a beer and today he still doesn’t because I’m a female but he’ll offer one to James because he’s a man. Now I just grab my own beer out of the fridge. I realized for older generations this could be an issue. In college whenever we would go to conferences only the Barnard women who were chemists would be the only women there. It was crazy to see how few females in STEM fields there were. When I went to medical school it was the first time I saw half or even maybe more than half of my entire class be female. As I started to go off and do my sub-Is I started to realize I wasn’t seeing as many females in the emergency department as I was used to seeing in the classroom. I get called a nurse all the time. For instance yesterday I saw a patient and he told me “Hey nurse, I’m not putting my mask on.” I explained to him I was a doctor and yet everytime I interacted with him he would only call me nurse. This was really frustrating. And of course my male attending walks into the room and he calls him doctor, shows him respect and the courtesy of putting his mask back on which he never gave to me. For me that is just one of the many times I have been in this situation. It can be hard to talk about it with the guys and explain how frustrating it is because it just doesn’t happen to them and they don’t understand it.
What would you say if you were sharing this experience with a male colleague and he kind of just wrote you off like it’s not a big deal?
Honestly I would be so furious, not that I could imagine any of our co-residents acting like that. You would have to be so oblivious to the world that is happening around you to say that this isn’t a big deal. If you aren’t the person who is experiencing this all the time you can’t tell me when I get upset that it’s not a big deal. It happens way too often and sometimes it is just easier to roll your eyes, walk out of the room and not correct them.
What are your hopes for starting Fem In EM @ SB?
I hope that it will continue in the years coming. That it will continue to provide a community for the females within our emergency department and encourage them to speak their mind. Hopefully it will help change the culture. Also I hope it gets more females interested in our program. I want them to see we have a good community and support system here. I think this community is missing from a lot of programs and I would really like for it to continue here.
Do you have any advice for the female medical students that are looking to apply to EM or for those female residents who look around at their program and realize they’re in a boys club?
I definitely think you should look for a program with females in leadership positions. I think this really sets the tone for how supported you are going to be. When I interviewed here I was lucky enough to interview with Dr. Otterness and Dr. Ahn. They’re both APDs, in a place of leadership and you could tell they really loved the program and it made me want to come here even more. There were other programs I interviewed at where there were no females in leadership roles, not even female chief residents and it was uncomfortable and discouraging.
You’re from Jamaica, Queens and there are some negative connotations with the area, growing up in this area do you feel like there were more things you had to overcome to get to where you are today living in bougie Long Island as a doctor?
It's so funny because where I went to middle school and high school [Queens Gateway] there were no white students, the students were Black, Indian, Bengali, and West Indian. When I went to college it was completely different, Barnard was 61% Caucasian (33% Jewish). I was lucky that my best friend from high school went to Barnard with me and we were able to be roommates and we were the only colored people on our floor. We would hear the other girls on the floor talking about us and referring to us as “those black girls”. It was so uncomfortable, but fortunately we were able to make friends on the floor because initially it was really awkward. That was probably one of the toughest experiences I’ve been through but because of that it has prepared me for an environment like Long Island where it is less diverse.
Being out here in Long Island do you feel like you’re treated any differently because you are a person of color?
It’s interesting because I feel like being in this profession and part of a new generation where there is more respect for people of color for the most part if I’ve ever been in a position where I have felt disrespected it wasn’t because of my skin color.
So we’re back in yet another wave of COVID and we are constantly surrounded by people who are very sick and dying because of it, how are you dealing with it?
I have a bad coping mechanism, which I’m aware of. I do suppress a lot of the stuff that happens at work. I like to keep things that happen at work at work, I try really hard not to bring that stuff home with me. In the moment I feel it and will reach out to someone or post something on social media but after that I move on. If I keep carrying those feelings with me they’ll consume me and I have dealt with depression in the past and don’t want to ever get back to that.
Wow, honestly knowing you now and throughout our time in residency I would’ve never suspected you have battled depression in the past, what would you tell other people dealing with mental health issues that also aspire to a career in the medical field and may think it’s not possible?
From middle school all the way through college I went through a huge phase with bulimia and depression and took Prozac for a long time before I decided to go to therapy. When I was in college I decided I didn’t want to take medication anymore and needed to find a healthy way to be able to get off the Prozac and still protect my mental well being. But then my dad had a heart attack and he couldn’t work anymore which brought on a lot of financial stress. When I was in my first semester of college my family was really struggling. Our house was about to be foreclosed and neither of my parents could find jobs especially having very little education. At that time I knew I needed to help my family out and took on 3 jobs despite not doing well in school. I would sell sneakers, babysit, tutor...literally anything to make money to help my family. This just drove me deeper and deeper into my depression and bulimia. I hated everything about me and my life and just everything. This made me want to leave college because I just couldn’t deal with the stress anymore. At this point I wasn’t in therapy and at the point where I felt like I was going to burst. But I knew I had to make time for myself. I didn’t want to be a quitter and I wanted to be a role model for my sisters to graduate college. I finally got myself to therapy and started talking about things and coping. Eventually I was able to get off the medication and just continue with therapy. I realized that I needed to work on myself and help myself and as that happened things in my life just started to change for the better. Everyone has their own struggles and I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I did better in school, I continued to work to help my parents, found time to have a social life, and found outlets for my issues. I started this food blog as a way to cope with my bulimia. I had a very unhealthy relationship with food and one of my outlets to deal with my depression and bulimia was to stop looking at food as something disgusting and instead see it as beautiful and I wanted to showcase that. It’s also just a fun hobby to do and keeps me sane. It also provided me with a small amount of income too!
In the moment you feel like you're not going to get out of the rut you’re in but what I would say to anyone dealing with mental health issues is that you can get out and it's okay to take medication and go to therapy to help you get to a better place.
Thank you so much for sharing your incredible journey with us. Before we sound off any last minute advice you would like to leave with your fans?
I would say don't be afraid to go after what you want even if you think you can’t do it or won't make it. Keep working and you’ll get there. Don’t let anyone bring you down. Most importantly - find something to smile about every day.
Elizabeth Dalchand, MD is a PGY-2 Resident at Stony Brook Emergency Medicine. She can be found on Twitter @lizdalchand
Amanda Correia, DO is a PGY-2 Resident at Stony Brook Emergency Medicine.