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PPMW: Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Stephanie Purnell (SP): I grew up in Northeast Washington, DC and went to Elizabeth Seton high school in Maryland. From there, I went to Cornell University for my undergrad degree in science and technology studies and then to Howard University for medical school. I graduated from my residency program in June of this year and am now working at PPMW as one of the Co-Directors of Primary Care.

PPMW: Was medicine something you always were interested in?

SP: I always told myself I wanted to do something where I could help people. My mom is from Guyana and I think for a lot of first generation children, it's kind of their parents hope that you'll be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or something like that. I didn't have a lot of pressure, but I definitely enjoyed the sciences and that, coupled with the idea of being able to help people, led me down this path and it's been extremely rewarding. I love taking care of people.

PPMW: It's definitely the immigrant story. You want your kids to succeed, not struggle. Was that a burden for you?

SP: I think I always wanted to make my parents proud and one way to do that was to do well in school and to meet certain goals for which I'm grateful. I also think my personality is such that I needed the straight and narrow of medicine. You go to school, you do these things, you take these exams and you'll reach your goal and get to help people. So it worked for me.

PPMW: How do you think medical school at Howard might have been different from a non HBCU school?

SP: I'm grateful for the education that I received from Cornell but the feeling of belonging, the feeling of really being seen as a person, is something that I did not get there. Going to Howard was the best decision I made for my education, hands down. Howard pours into their students as individuals. From the administration to my colleagues, it just felt like I was back home with people who cared about me succeeding. I wasn't just a number, I was a real person: “this is Stephanie and she's interested in this line of work and she struggles with these things and this is how we're going to support her.”

I think also seeing so many young black people doing so well and being supported in the same way that I was, was really encouraging. There's a lot of pride for people like myself, people that graduate from Howard to take care of marginalized populations.

PPMW: Did you have any mentors that really were important in your education?

SP: I couldn't have gotten this far without mentorship. Dr. Pamela Coleman was probably my greatest mentor in medical school. She’s a urologist from the Washington, DC area as well. After my first year I was like well, let me start networking and getting to know some of the different fields. I decided to shadow a bunch of female surgeons and I met Dr. Coleman who welcomed me with open arms. The Department of Urology at Howard University was rather small but she had a lot of patient volume and was just very encouraging — “come in after you're done with your classes, you can shadow me in the clinic “—  and we actually developed a really strong bond. She took herself very seriously but then also had a sense of humor and it just worked well. She helped me believe in myself, encouraged my interest in research, and has taught me how to navigate the world of medicine as a woman of color. 

PPMW: What was it that attracted you to working at PPMW?

SP: The overall mission of Planned Parenthood — “Care No Matter What." I cannot say enough how important that is to me. It's tough to be sick and harder still to find places where you feel safe and respected. There's also a component of autonomy that sometimes medicine misses out on that Planned Parenthood really is intentional about: what is it that the patient is saying that they need. And of course, the fact that I'm interested in reproductive health and family planning made it all the more attractive.

PPMW: In June, the Supreme court overrode Roe V. Wade and, as a result, abortion is no longer a constitutional right. What does this mean coming to PPMW at this time?

SP: It definitely feels like the right time to be involving myself with PPMW, especially knowing this is going to deeply impact communities of color who already have very different experiences with the medical system. 

As a woman of color who brings my own experiences with doctors, I think it allows me to see how important it is for patients to have advocates like myself who may have experienced a little bit of paternalism or may have been ignored or a complaint of mine downplayed. Ultimately, I think that my presence could help patients feel a bit more comfortable, a bit less judged, and a bit more safe with the decisions that they're making. Patients of color may be a little bit less hesitant when they know that they can come to a facility where they're people that look like them that they can trust a little bit more.

PPMW:  As a new Co-Director of Primary Care at PPMW, what do you want prospective patients to know when they come to visit you? 

SP: I would like to think that coming to see me means you're going to have an experience where you can be your full self. You can show up 100%.  This means not feeling ashamed dealing with sexually transmitted infections, wanting to have an abortion, or seeking a vasectomy at the age of 22.

So, I'd like to be somebody in the community that folks know that when they go and speak to me, that they're getting evidence based medicine; that they're not going to be forced to make any particular decision; and that the encounter will be satisfying. It's not going to be a quick two minute look over and then “I'll just have you follow up with me in six months.” It's “come and see me consistently, come and see me every two months, if we need to.” I really want the experience to be comprehensive, so much so that my patients will hopefully bring their friends and family to PPMW for care. I want to be known as someone who’ll provide care that is comfortable, safe, and provides people with dignity.



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