Orthopedic oncology surgeon to aspiring doctors: Don’t be afraid to ask
Justin Bird, M.D.
Many of the important things that we really want to accomplish in life, we can’t do alone. So, you have to identify the people who can help you achieve your goals, then be brave enough to ask them for help.
It wasn’t until later in life that I started to understand this. Networking, in particular, can really open doors for you. But it involves talking to people and letting them know what you’re interested in, then seeing if they can somehow help you or connect you to other people who can.
The process isn’t easy. Because you can’t always trust that just because someone looks like you, they’re going to help you. Or that just because someone doesn’t look like you, that they’re out to harm you. You have to learn to read people.
But as I look back now, I can recognize many of the people who were pushing me along or giving me opportunities to become an orthopedic oncology surgeon. I feel like I owe it to them now to pay it back, by giving other aspiring doctors the same thing.
Take advantage of available resources
In my family, there was always an expectation that you would do well, despite any challenges you might face. And I was the kind of person who kept my struggles private anyway, so I figured out a way to do most things myself. It was only later on that I started to realize it’s fine to ask for help.
The biggest revelation about this came in college, when a good friend of mine was taking a biochemistry course. She was a great student. And one day, she said she was going to the teaching assistant to get some tutoring. I was surprised and asked, “Why would you need tutoring? You're a straight-A student.” And she replied, “Guess what? That’s why I'm a straight-A student.”
I had never used a tutor or a teaching assistant before. But suddenly, it dawned on me that they’re actually there to help you get better. And if the objective is to truly learn the material and maximize your understanding of it, why not use those resources?
Identify your supporters
In medical school, I was often the only Black student in my science classes. So, there were times when I felt kind of alone. That changed when I was accepted into a minority medical education program and spent a summer in Chicago with other minority students preparing for a career in medicine.
But there were a lot of other people there who were willing to help me, too, and I didn’t realize that early on. I met some very supportive people at Cornell who didn’t look like me, but they recognized there was racism in the system. And they said, “You know what? I don't believe in that and I'm going to help you.”
Anywhere you go, I think you’re going to find a mixed bag of people. You just kind of have to sift through it. And when you find people who are genuinely trying to help you, gravitate to them, take their advice and use it to counteract any negative influences in your life.
Pay it forward
For young people who come from hard social or family circumstances, sometimes it can feel like there are no resources out there, and nobody who will help you. But there are many of us who have gone through similar experiences, and we feel like we owe it to those who helped us to help others.
One way I do that is by taking excellent care of my cancer patients at MD Anderson. I have access to everything I need here to maximize my skill set and give our patients the best results. But another way is through mentorship. I want to give the next generation of aspiring doctors the opportunity to identify their interests, too, and the platform to fully develop them. Hopefully, if I can do that, then they can take the baton and carry it even further.
Justin Bird, M.D., is a surgeon in Orthopedic Oncology at MD Anderson and the director of the IDEAS Lab.