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From Far-fetched Dream to Reality: Monica Branch Matches to PM&R Residency

During a clinical rotation at Stroger Hospital of Cook County, Monica Branch, a fourth-year Chicago Medical School student, found herself involved in a common medical dilemma: in treating a patient for pain, was she also feeding addiction?

The patient, diagnosed with sickle cell disease and a "frequent flyer" in the hospital's emergency department, was seeking pain medication.

"He was very defensive," Monica recalled. "He wouldn't let anyone touch him." 

Monica asked for a one-on-one with the patient, and she listened as he explained that his pain regimen had stopped working.

"He let me examine him," she said. "It was such a powerful moment. He was a middle aged, homeless black man with a history of drug abuse. He knew he was labeled a drug seeker. 

"But you can't underestimate sickle cell pain," she said. "And clinicians have to acknowledge their emotions and biases, and the stereotypes that feed those biases, in making treatment decisions."

"I'm in pain," is an assertion that Monica will hear often over the course of her career. How can she, or any health professional, trust what is so often a subjective experience?

"I think if we can just get out of our own way and sit and listen, we can learn so much about our patients," she said. "It can cause you to check yourself: Yes, we can inadvertently create drug addicts. But we can also create trusting relationships that will help us relieve pain and suffering."

Monica served in the Wisconsin Air National Guard while earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in kinesiology, the study of body movement, then enjoyed a successful career in training and sales for medical device companies. While she was drawn to medicine, she struggled to convince herself that the calling was hers to follow.

Growing up in Milwaukee, WI, the nation's most segregated metropolitan area, according to national studies of 2010 Census data, there was scant evidence that black children could become doctors. 

"My natural curiosity about the human body made that goal visible but not realistic," Monica said. "It was a far-fetched dream that I kept putting off."

On March 17, Monica participated in national Match Day, along with 185 other members of the CMS Class of 2017 who earned spots in top medical residencies across the nation. She learned that she will spend her graduate medical training in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago.

"I like the collaborative approach of PM&R," she said. "Doctors know a lot but they don't know everything. You need a team to provide care for patients with complex needs. That's a core belief of the specialty."

As a 2015 Franklin Fellow, Monica led an HIV awareness program among local high school students. 

"It helped that I am black," she said. "We tackled stereotypes and how they manifest in so many ways. These kids understand that stereotypes and the fear they create rob them of opportunities. They need an example. They need something positive to do. They need someone to believe in them."

A recipient of numerous RFU leadership awards, Monica has been heavily involved in community service and service to RFU, particularly around diversity and inclusion. As a tutor and mentor and curriculum writer for the Future Health Professionals Club at North Chicago Community High School, she identified with students who see far too few health professionals who look like them.

"I learned how much people of color are needed in our community to be role models, to provide exposure, to make our young people understand that it's realistic and achievable to do this kind of work," she said.