Reaching for the stars to touch lives on earth

March 2017 - Vol. 36, No. 02

Rosandra Walker, MD
Harry Barnes Endowment Resident Travel Grant Awardee

The answers to some of our biggest challenges here on Earth may lie in the concepts we cultivate while designing human travel to planets light-years away. That is the vision of the “100 Year Starship Project,” which Mae C. Jemison, MD, the keynote speaker at the 2016 AAO-HNS Annual Meeting and OTO EXPO and principal of the project’s foundation, described in scintillating detail. Dr. Jemison and her team have come together to make human travel to other solar systems possible within the next 100 years. The first woman of color to travel in space, she graduated from Stanford University at the age of 20 with dual bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering and African/Afro-American studies, and then from Cornell Medical College with a medical doctorate degree. As I, a second-year resident at the University of Texas Medical Branch, sat among the greatest minds in medicine, I was filled with awe at the thought of how circumstance had come full circle. Listening to her speak was an especially meaningful moment for me as Dr. Jemison was a childhood hero of mine and one of my inspirations to pursue a career as a physician. Seeing her on stage was a reminder that to make extraordinary things happen, I must not only think outside of the box, but also think outside of the stratosphere.

Sujana S. Chandrasekhar, MD, our immediate past president, had taken the stage moments earlier and brought the auditorium of hundreds to raucous laughter as she asked unsuspecting victims to pronounce “Oh-toe-lair-in-gall-uh-gee” on camera. During a heartfelt and powerful speech, Dr. Chandrasekhar touched on her own culturally diverse background and the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion within our specialty to provide the best care for patients.

Physician diversity comes in many forms—race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, disability, culture, geographic location, sexual orientation, age, and experience. For example, as a woman, first-generation American of Caribbean descent, the first physician in my family, a former high school track runner, and childhood fan of professional wrestling who traveled to Tibet for college study abroad, I bring a unique perspective to different situations. A sobering reality in otolaryngology is that certain groups are disproportionately underrepresented. As someone who is part of a particularly underrepresented group in ENT, I have first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced by those of a background similar to mine.

Attending the Academy meeting allowed me to assemble resources and connect with other professionals to further the vision that countless others share with Dr. Chandrasekhar. I am especially grateful to the Diversity Committee and Lisa Perry-Gilkes, MD, past committee chair, for providing me with the means to attend this conference through the Harry Barnes Endowment Travel Grant. Harry Barnes, MD, a fellow otolaryngologist, was the first African-American to be board certified in any specialty and serves as yet another shining example of the astonishing legacy within our ranks.

The conference served as an exceptional opportunity for my professional and personal development. I absorbed knowledge and wisdom from the experts who presented posters and sessions on the latest in otitis media recommendations, cleft palate repair, leadership lessons, “scary cases,” and so much more. The OTO EXPO℠ did not disappoint as vendors and representatives from across the globe amassed the latest in surgical innovation, technology, and information.

I visited multiple committee meetings, including those of Women in Otolaryngology, Diversity, and Humanitarian Efforts. While at the Humanitarian Efforts Committee meeting, the question was posed of how to transport and maintain surgical equipment abroad, such as microscopes? What if we approached this question in the same manner as 100 Year Starship team? Dr. Jemison’s team must devise ways to get people, technology, food, and more to places that are not easily accessible in distance or time. This same line of thought could also help us to answer the question of bringing ENT care to some of our most geographically isolated patients here in the United States.

The President’s Reception was the time to see old friends and make some new ones. Later, at the National Medical Association reception, otolaryngology luminaries welcomed me with open arms and gifted me with an autographed copy of Essential Otolaryngology. In it, Dr. Lee wrote, “A good doctor takes care of the disease; a great doctor takes care of the patient”— his take on the old Oslerian adage.

Overall, I felt motivated, engaged, inspired, humbled; most of all, I felt at home.

Dr. Jemison challenged us to “consider the extraordinary.” As technology and the medical landscape continue to drastically evolve, our field must continue to evolve with it and even outpace it. Eventually, we will have to ask ourselves what the practice of ENT looks like on another planet in another galaxy. While this may sound fantastical, it is exactly this mindset that will inspire us to harness our collective potential and innovation. This is what will continue to thrust otolaryngology forward for the benefit of our specialty and our patients—whether in this world and lifetime, or out there in the next.