Keeping Your Dreams Alive
Written by Amaryllis Sánchez Wohlever, MD
I grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, known tenderly as “La Isla del Encanto” (The Island of Enchantment). My mother (my Mami) was Assistant Secretary of Labor for the island of Puerto Rico. One of my best memories around age 13 was watching her at the podium during a press conference at the Department of Labor. I recall noticing I was the youngest person in a room full of reporters and bright lights. Mami addressed us with her usual confidence and grace. Toward the end, she declared, “Our young people are the hope of our land.” And looking straight at me, she paused poignantly and added, “I believe in them.”
Never taking her eyes off me, my bigger-than-life mom went on to describe qualities she saw and nurtured in me that made her believe in a better future for our world. She spoke of honesty, integrity, and a sense of justice. She spoke of charity and love for one’s neighbor.
As if time stood still, the moment stayed with me. Her loving gaze and words have followed me all my life. And I’ve needed both, as I lost her less than a decade after that meaningful day.
Still, her example and impact were so profound, I was able to press on, and I know she looks down from heaven with a full heart when she sees her little girl. Such is the impact of a life well lived, a life lived with intention.
Throughout my school years, I excelled academically. I was active in student government, theater, volleyball, dance, and service organizations. I was your classic overachiever, well liked and admired by teachers, peers, neighbors, and my friends’ parents. Despite all this, when I met with a high school guidance counselor, she told me not to consider medicine and then shared her vision for my future. I ignored it.
In contrast, a college counselor believed in my potential and made sure I met all the requirements to pursue my dream. With his guidance and support, I switched majors, applied to medical school, and was accepted—a dream come true!
All of us come upon discouragers along the way, but we choose how to respond. Years ago, I told someone I hoped to publish a book someday. Immediately, she urged me to give up my dream. Four published books later and counting, I recall that conversation not with bitterness, but with gratitude for the encouragement of those who have supported me as I’ve planned, prayed, and pursued all my dreams.
Words have power
Every new year, I choose a word or phrase to help anchor my life. In 2021, I chose to focus on “words” and the phrase, “God gave you words to bless.” The choice to use words to discourage or speak life is ever present. Gaining self-awareness about the impact of our words—especially self-talk—can bring insight into how we feel about ourselves, what we choose to say out loud, and how we act.
The way we think about ourselves can be an ally or a major hindrance toward fulfilling our potential. Thus, we must pay attention to our inner dialogues and silence our inner critics.
Dreams begin in the heart and mind, through emotions, thoughts, and ideas. They are kept alive by nurturing them, acting on them, and through the encouragement of others. Particularly for people in disadvantaged groups, it is important to distinguish ‘safe’ people to share your dreams with from those who may discourage or derail us. Our precious dreams, particularly in the early stages, are to be shared with people who care about our lives and future enough to provide sound advice, encourage us, and help make our dreams come true.
My high school counselor’s limiting beliefs were a potential obstacle in my story. Her biases, not my qualifications, led to her conclusions. Although we cannot control people’s perceptions and beliefs, we are in full control of the way we respond to their words and actions. This is the type of higher thinking people in disadvantaged groups must master, and the earlier, the better.
It's always about people
As a Hispanic woman in medicine, I will continue to face prejudices, biases, and strange scenarios that may threaten my self-esteem and dampen my hopes. But I have a power that is often not exercised by those who would choose to live offended rather than rise above ignorance and prejudice. I recognize we all have biases, we all need to continually learn and grow, and we all need one another. There is tremendous power in humility, self-awareness, and the hope that comes from knowing we’re all living this human experience together.
I was blessed with cheerleaders who knew and believed in me and my abilities before I fully knew myself and my own capabilities. My mother, a special teacher in high school, and a friend from church who became family have all been essential to my achievements. I’ve also stayed close to physician colleagues who value and embrace who I am and my calling in life. We help one another grow. These people are gifts and, when we find them, we must stay close, being intentional to nurture these relationships.
Beyond reaching out to such mentors, it is important to have sponsors throughout our medical careers. For women in medicine in particular, we are often not mentored with growth and advancement in mind. As a result, countless women with strong leadership skills are looked over despite being highly qualified for promotions in their field.
Lessons from the Pandemic
The pandemic has been brutal on physicians, with too many struggling in silence, afraid to seek help, and often not supported when we do seek help from our institutions. As a profession, we have become too dependent on systems that don’t have our best interests or our patients’ best interests in mind. As I mentioned in a 2019 article, our autonomy was snatched from us while we were too busy caring for people, neglecting ourselves, and too exhausted to notice.1
The brokenness of our healthcare system has been on full display throughout the pandemic. Just last month, another article recounted more heartbreaking stories of physicians seeking help to no avail, with tragic consequences. We deserve more after years of sacrifice to serve people well, and our patients do too.
Those of us who choose careers in medicine must do so with our eyes wide open. Success requires support from people who believe and invest in our personal and professional growth and wellbeing. For Hispanic women in medicine, groups like #LatinasinMedicine can create a sense of connection and camaraderie. They help us connect with others who know and love aspects of our culture that fill us with joy and ground us through a sense of community.
For me, caring for Hispanic patients over the years has been a source of tremendous joy. Meeting their needs has made it easier for me to live far from my Isla del Encanto. Their joy when they learn I speak their language fills me with a strong sense of purpose every time.
Keep hope alive
Back in middle school, my Mami was the brightest light in that conference room. She sparked a fire of hope in my heart by speaking words of life. Her unwavering faith in my abilities became a part of me, pulling me up during moments of doubt. I show my gratitude by doing the same for my children, my colleagues, and anyone who will listen.
Don’t let anyone dim your light. Live with intention, ask for help, and surround yourself with people who care about you and will speak truth to encourage, edify, and challenge you. Reach out to these lanterns of hope along your journey; it will make all the difference. •
Author Bio: Amaryllis Sánchez Wohlever, MD is a family physician, a life & leadership coach for physicians, and the author of Recapturing Joy in Medicine, among others. Her book has been called “a love letter to the medical profession” and “chicken soup for the physician’s soul!” She is a national expert and keynote speaker in physician wellness, “burnout” prevention, and leadership development. Her website is htpps://faithfulmd.com
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1Wohlever AS. "Burnout" in the Workplace: Strategies, Omissions, and Lessons From Wounded Healers. Am J Health Promot. 2020 Jun;34(5):568-571. doi: 10.1177/0890117120920488c. PMID: 32394744.