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Student Spotlight – Jessica Charles: Navigating the Cultural Divide

First-year Geisel School of Medicine student Jessica Charles’ enthusiasm for exploring the world is rooted in her heritage. “Because of my background, I am very interested in exploring cultural diversity through different media,” she says. “My father is from Trinidad, which is extremely diverse with a population descended from indigenous tribes, including Arawak and Carib, African slavery, Indian indentured servitude, and Chinese immigrants all blended together.” Charles’ maternal grandparents, from the Bahamas and Barbados, are equally diverse with a blending of indigenous peoples, Brits, Scots, and Africans.

Navigating the world when you are mixed in this way can be challenging, she notes. “When I was young I was confused, and I decided I was white,” she says. One day after school, Charles announced her decision to her aunt, a professor and child psychologist who had a strong influence on her life. “When I said I was white she started laughing and said, ‘No, sweetheart, you are a person of color,’” Charles recalls. “And I didn’t need anything more than that—I’m a person of color. A colorful person.”

Charles’ interests are as colorful as her heritage—dance, food, and learning new languages are among her passions. Self-described as somewhat intense, she is “someone who is always moving, always doing something.” As a music minor, she delved into global cultures through music, which aligned with her interest in global health, and her paternal grandmother’s practice of Chinese herbal medicine spurred Charles to travel to China to study traditional Chinese medicine.

Jessica Charles tries something new while studying in China.
Jessica Charles tries something new while studying in China.

Fluent in Spanish, she learned Mandarin while working in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood. “At that time,” she says, “I wanted to learn a language different from my own and because Mandarin, English, and Spanish are the three most common languages spoken in the world and I wanted to be able to speak all three in order to communicate with as many people as possible worldwide.”

Though her appetite for varied experiences was broad, a chaotic New England childhood drove her to seek solace in her studies, eschewing the latest dance craze and other distractions that occupied her cousins. Because of her studiousness, she was able to encourage her Caribbean relatives to seek medical treatment by elucidating some of the general physiological mechanisms of disease and responses to treatment—even though they spoke English, the cultural divide was wide and they were somewhat distrustful of physicians in general. “They were more willing to trust what someone they knew did to treat their illness rather than see a physician,” she says.

Through this experience she developed an expertise in cross-cultural communication, and by the time she was 14 years old she was sure of two things: she wanted to be a doctor and she wanted to work predominantly with women. She intended to become an advocate for women like her grandmother, who had 16 consecutive pregnancies—the last two against medical advice.

Charles suspected giving birth to 16 children might not have been her grandmother’s choice—if she had a choice. Deep cultural differences, including a lack of access to reliable information and options, along with the power dynamic within her marriage, ruled out access to contraception and abortion. Charles’ suspicions were later confirmed and it made an indelible impression on her.

Though she speaks warmly of her grandmother, she says, “For me, it is very important to make sure that women are not being coerced. That there isn’t any misunderstanding regarding options or treatment—I want to make sure the women I’m treating understand they do not have to live a life that someone else has decided for them.” She also thinks it’s essential to listen carefully to patients who may not be forthcoming about what may or may not be affecting their decisions in order to figure out what drives them.

As an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Jamaica Plain, MA, one of Boston’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, Charles heard a plethora of stories about life-altering decisions. Citing cases ranging from a visibly upset veteran, who had no choice in the matter, being transported to a detox facility that didn’t use narcotics to take the edge off withdrawal—“he looked at me and said he’d begged his doctor not to send him there”; a 400-pound drug addict who overdosed, and when revived began crying that he didn’t want to die; a light-sensitive, easily startled meth addict going through withdrawal; and the wife of an unresponsive patient who did not want to obey her husband’s advance directive.

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A fan of world music, Jessica learned to play the tambura—a four-stringed, fretless instrument that provides the harmonic base in Indian music.

It was an eye-opening experience for Charles. “While riding in the truck you learn a lot about yourself, and about people and their experiences—they tell you their frustrations and everything what went wrong right up to their current situation,” she explains. “It is an important experience to have if you want to become a doctor because when you are in the ambulance you are the doctor.”

She and her partner EMT, both diminutive, worked in Boston during the city’s record snowfall. She recounts the difficulties of moving people from their homes into the ambulance on snow-covered ice and through deep snow among the job’s challenges and says, “You are always facing mortality—theirs and your own.

“When you get called to people’s homes, you don’t know what you are getting into and there’s nothing you can do about it because you have to get the patient into the ambulance no matter what.”

Although she honed her skills in a gritty urban neighborhood, Charles is interested in helping those in rural environments, whether globally or in the U.S. She is here at Geisel in part because of its strong commitment to rural health, and she actively participates in the Migrant Health Project as a dental services coordinator. The Migrant Health Project provides free mobile medical care, and dental care, to migrant workers in New Hampshire and Vermont. This summer, she plans on working with young Native American girls in Minnesota.

Charles is a firm believer in the value of broad cross-cultural experiences. “You may not speak the same language, but there are many ways to connect with people,” she says. “When people see a doctor they are bringing with them everything that has happened in their life, a compilation of their stories—it’s important to meet them where they are rather than trying to get them to come to you.”