Olamide Dada is a final year medical student and the founder of Melanin Medics; a charitable organisation established to support black current and future doctors by promoting diversity in medicine, widening aspirations and aiding career progression. Here, Olamide tells us about an experience in medical training that changed the course of her career.

In my life, I have always been conscious of race. Perhaps, not really by choice but more so by experience.

A particular occasion, in my third year of medical school during my first work placement stands out very strongly for me.

I had the opportunity to observe a surgery in theatre. It was normal practise for students at my stage to go into theatre but opportunities on this particular rotation were few and far between. So, me and my placement partner were keen to take it up, especially as I was considering surgery as my speciality and this would be my first ever time going into theatre. To say that I was excited was an understatement.

However, I was also extremely apprehensive. And not for the reasons you might expect, because I’m not scared of blood, nor am I squeamish. I was only worried about one thing.

My hair.

I had waist length box braids. Now, this is a hairstyle that is normal to me, I’ve worn it this way since I was a child. As someone of African heritage, we call it a protective hairstyle because it helps keep textured hair healthy by limiting its exposure to any damage caused by changes in the weather. But, unfortunately, at this time I knew my hair was going to be an issue.

Olamide in 2018 showing her hair at the time of the placement

The changing rooms.

I was in there for almost an hour, trying to manoeuvre my hair, anyway I could, into three or four scrub caps simultaneously. Scrub caps are incredibly restrictive, so this was pretty much mission impossible. At this point I was close to tears and incredibly embarrassed. I was also frustrated because I knew that my placement partner, who had been waiting for me outside, would probably never have to experience anything like this in his life.

Then, a feeling of hope, I had been seen. A scrub nurse walked in on me a few times while I was struggling with my hair. Rather than just silently observing, she chose to acknowledge my struggle and empathised with me. Before I knew it, she had come back with a shower cap-like, surgical scrub cap – much more expandable and I was finally able to fit my hair into two of these caps.

During that moment, it dawned on me that a decision had been made without considering people like myself. Growing up, I learnt to embrace my hair. But what I perceived as a cultural norm, became a barrier in a different environment. A barrier to accessing learning opportunities. A barrier when considering my future aspirations.

Why does this matter?

Surely, it is just a scrub cap? Perhaps, you think maybe next time I should just make sure I have a more suitable hairstyle. Well, of course I would have done if I had known I was going into theatre, but this was a one-off opportunity.

It still plays out my mind today. I know I’m not the first to experience something like this and that I will not be the last. Unfortunately, the experience affected me so much it has been a deciding factor in my not choosing a career in surgery.

Despite this, I choose to be hopeful. I choose to believe that we are more aware of the changes that need to be made to create truly inclusive spaces. Our real-life experiences inform change. I have seen the efforts being made to make surgical scrub caps more inclusive and suitable for dreadlocks, hijabs, turbans and more.

Whilst a scrub cap is just a scrub cap, it is also one of the myriad of things that need to be adapted within healthcare to make it more inclusive. But before any change – our awareness is the first step.

Watch Olamide’s presentation at the GMC 2020 conference here.

‘Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced,’ James Baldwin

For more information on Melanin Medics, visit here.