When Yusef Yousuf was 10, he had a health scare that set him on a path to improve medicine.
He was playing soccer at lunch with his friends and took a tumble, fracturing his arm below the shoulder. His mother rushed him to the local hospital, where the doctor noticed something unusual on the X-ray: an unexplained growth that could be cancer. He told Yousuf’s mother that it needed to be surgically removed immediately.
Yousuf’s mother, Fardus Mohamed, listened carefully to the doctor and felt panic rising. Having moved to Canada from Somalia with her husband, Abdi Yousuf, a decade earlier, she spoke some English and got the gist of what the doctor was telling her. But she felt he was condescending. She didn’t catch all the medical jargon and she didn’t like his pushy manner.
Instead of just giving in, she insisted on a second opinion.
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Eventually, Yousuf did go in for surgery to remove what turned out to be a fairly common bone cyst. The doctor at Sick Kids hospital took the time to carefully explain the situation to Mohamed before anything was done to her son. With a cast on his arm, Yousuf was soon back to kicking the ball around with the other kids.
Now 30 years old, Yousuf is about to graduate with his MD from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and begin a residency in family medicine serving other newcomers to Canada.
“As somebody from a lower socio-economic community, I witnessed first-hand a lot of the health disparities in terms of access and language and cultural barriers when immigrant populations are dealing with medicine,” Yousuf says. “My motivation to go into family medicine was really to be an advocate for these patients.”
It wasn’t until Grade 11 that Yousuf started taking school seriously, but his mother was right there with him, keeping an eye on his grades, keeping in touch with his teachers and pushing back when the school guidance counsellor suggested vocational training. His mother knew he could pursue engineering, medicine – whatever he might wish. Yousuf soon realized science was his passion. He enrolled in honours biology and psychology and then signed up for a master’s program in medical science at the University of Toronto, intending to become a researcher.
On the first day of class, Yousuf looked around at the 200 students in the lecture hall and found his was one of only two black faces. So he set out to help others join him.
He connected with other black grad students and set up a club to mentor black undergrads who might be interested in pursuing a master’s or PhD. He also volunteered to help other economically disadvantaged students or those who have a disability to thrive in the health sciences.
Yousuf found he loved medical research and published several papers on how to preserve muscle after burns during his studies, but a few chances to take care of patients made him realize his true calling was in the community.
“What drew me to medicine was the ability to interact with patients, learn about their lives, and really be kind of a role model and advocate for them,” he says. “It satisfies my scientific curiosity as well, so it feels like the perfect mix for me.”
When Yousuf got into medical school at the U of A in 2018, he says he was nearly as happy about it as his mother. It seemed natural to follow the same model of advocacy for fellow black students that he had already practised in Toronto. He and three other students – Ibrahim Sadiq, Anulika Nwakaeze and Adesewa Adeleye – founded the Black Medical Students’ Association (BMSA) in 2019.
They wanted increased black representation in the student body and faculty, and enhanced training for future doctors. Their ultimate goal was better care for racialized communities.
“If there are more doctors who came from similar backgrounds such as my parents, then people like my parents are going to be able to have greater access to healthcare and have physicians who actually understand their background and their language and where they’re coming from,” Yousuf says.
With support from then-associate dean Tracey Hillier, BMSA helped the U of A update its admissions process, bringing in black and Indigenous community leaders as advisers and allowing students to write an essay explaining their experiences. Six new black medical students were admitted in the first year, compared with only two the year before.
“We wanted to level the playing field a little bit in terms of black and other marginalized students and give them a chance to shine through in their applications and reduce some of those biases,” Yousuf explains.
Yousuf took on a summer studentship to work with assistant professor Jaime Yu, who oversees the dermatology and musculoskeletal medicine course for medical students. Together they revamped the dermatology unit with new case studies, updated images of darker skin and broader descriptions of how skin diseases present.
Skin cancer, for example, can show up as a dark spot on pale skin and be quickly diagnosed, whereas it often affects the nails and soles of the feet of black patients. If doctors don’t know what to check for, it may be missed until it’s too late, as happened with singer Bob Marley, who died of the disease at age 36.
“Acne or eczema or psoriasis might look very different in somebody who’s black versus somebody who’s white, so we felt there was an important need to expose students to this and help them become familiar with diagnosing common skin conditions in persons of colour in order to avoid worse outcomes,” Yousuf says.
Implemented that fall, the changes got positive feedback from students. Yu recently heard from a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax who wants to implement similar changes there with Yousuf’s help.
“Yusef’s passion to get involved is spreading, and now he’ll be able to mentor somebody else who will grow this work in the future,” Yu said.
While he’s had a few run-ins with racial slurs over the years, the pressure of being the “first” or “only” black face in the room has motivated Yousuf to excel and fight for change.
“I always feel like I’ve got to be a little bit better than my peers or people around me,” he explains. “I have to impress a little bit more just so that, you know, I represent my people well, and people don’t fit me into negative stereotypes.”
Yousuf begins his two-year family medicine residency in Toronto on July 1. He will gain experience in emergency medicine, pediatrics, gynecology and obstetrics while working alongside other family doctors, and will then be qualified to start his own practice.
“I think he’s going to be a phenomenal family doctor,” Yu said. “He has broad interests and is a very strong communicator. I think he just cares about his community.”
Yousuf’s dream is to serve Toronto’s immigrant communities as a family doctor. No matter where he ends up, he will continue to feel his mother’s guiding hand as he interacts with patients every day.
“I try to be patient and explain things to them in layman’s terms,” Yousuf says. “They wait for a long time to come see us, and so I feel like as medical practitioners, we have to be patient with them, give them the time that they deserve and just be able to communicate with them in a way that works for them individually.”
| By Gillian Rutherford
Gillian is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
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