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Conversations That Matter Episode 1: Nathalie May, MD

Nathalie May, MD

Dr. McCrea talks with Nathalie May, MD, an associate professor and sub-internship director in the Division of General Internal Medicine for Drexel University College of Medicine. Topics include:

  • Dr. May's career and inspiration for practicing medicine;
  • The learning opportunities that come with being part of a diverse community;
  • Local community and favorite Philly foods;
  • The challenges facing medical students in 2021;
  • And more!

Read more about the conversation on the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion's blog.

In this episode, Dr. McCrea referenced the concept of a "diversity bonus," which comes from the book The Diversity Bonus by Scott E. Page:

Dr. May and Dr. McCrea also discussed “Educated,” a book by Tara Westover:

Learn more about Dr. May.

Learn more about Dr. McCrea.

Follow Drexel University College of Medicine's Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion on Instagram at


Dr. McCrea (00:00): Thank you for joining us for our fireside talk, Conversations That Matter. Today, I have the privilege of being joined by an amazing clinician and colleague, Dr. Nathalie May, an associate professor of medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine. To know Dr. May is to love Dr. May; her heart and sincere compassion are what make her a true gem. Without further ado, I'm excited to welcome you, Dr. May, to our fireside talk. Thank you so, so much.

Dr. May (00:34): Thank you, Dr. McCrea.

Dr. McCrea (00:36): Oh my gosh, listen, please: Leon. You know, we go back way too far – too many conferences, meetings, sessions – for you to need to call me Dr. McCrea, for sure. Dr. May – or if you're okay with me calling you Nathalie – what, what motivated you to even pursue a career in medicine? How did you get into this?

Dr. May (00:58): So it's a question I get asked often. I was 12 when my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time – I was born and raised in Haiti, so I was being raised by her in Haiti. She developed breast cancer. She came to the United States for treatment because both my parents were here as physicians, and Haiti simply did not have the resources to treat her breast cancer. When she passed I – as she was passing, I remember saying to her, 'I'm sorry I can't help you, but I'll try to help others.' And I never said it was a promise, but in my heart I knew it was a promise. So I pursued studies to make sure that I could help other people.

Dr. McCrea (01:47): Oh my god, that's amazing. And I feel like powerful and yet heartfelt, too, that such a poignant moment in your life becomes the driving factor for starting your career. And so you go and you get all this fabulous education. I did a little bit of homework going in, saw a couple of Ivy league institutions in there. The most recent Ivy league institution is Penn, but I'm a Brown guy, so you know, I'm a little partial in that way. But tell me about your transition and decision to come to Drexel University College of Medicine or its predecessor institutions, because depending on when you came to Drexel, it could have been called something different.

Dr. May (02:27): I remember it very well. I finished my internal medicine residency at Penn in 1997 and I stayed there for my internship and residency. And I was at the point where I had to decide, what would I do next? Would I sub-specialize or would I go on to become an academic educator? So I decided on the clinician educator pathway. I was fortunate in that I had a lot of options, but I found that Drexel was very attractive because we had a lot of residents from all over the place. There were a lot of people from India, Pakistan, Africa, as well as Americans, and being a foreigner myself, I thought, 'Ah, this is a place where I could learn from others and teach as well.' So I chose a position as a clinician educator at Drexel in 2000. So I've been here since then.

Dr. McCrea (03:26): Gosh, that's amazing – and what an amazing place that Drexel is. So that got you here, Dr. May, but tell me what keeps you here, right? Because it's one thing that come into a place, it's another to decide to build a career. I mean, we're now talking about, if you came here in the year 2000, it's now 2021. So you're talking about more than two decades in a place. Tell me about that.

Dr. May (03:50): It has been wonderful. As you know, most people will stay at their first job for a year, maybe two, before they move on. I also looked into that, but I realized what a special place Drexel is. I love that a lot of the clinicians, as well as the educators, are like a family. I really do trust my colleagues, I get along well with them and we curbside each other whenever we need to. We love teaching together, we love practicing together. Drexel has been a second family, so I've stayed.

Dr. McCrea (04:28): Oh, that's awesome. That's awesome. So it sounds like there's a really unique flare – you talked about so many colleagues that, you've connected with and have grown and become part of who you are. What are a couple of those unique characteristics that make a person a dragon almost for life?

Dr. May (04:47): [Laughs] We'll have to ask other people, but I can tell you what I think. I think Drexel is a special place because it attracts people who want to do good in the community, who also want to pursue scholarship, but it doesn't force you to go down a specific pathway. Meaning some people like to do research and practice; some people just like to practice. Some people like to teach and practice. Drexel gives you that flexibility. I wanted an institution that would prioritize family. As long as I did my work, I did my teaching or I saw my patients, I could come home and also have family time. And I think most of the people here found that in Drexel and a lot of people have stayed. Even those who have left miss Drexel and they miss the family-like atmosphere that Drexel provides.

Dr. McCrea (05:41): Absolutely. You know, I think about that in my own department of Family Medicine, that my entire department not only knows me personally, but I feel like they know my wife, Nikki, and my kids as well, and that we are all part of one big family. So you talking about being here essentially over the of two decades. What is slash are your professional roles in the College of Medicine? I'm sure you've worn a few hats over the years.

Dr. May (06:06): I have, I have. And it's all been an honor to do so. When I first started, I was simply a clinician educator. I did a lot of precepting in the residency clinic. That led to me being promoted to an associate program director for the, internal medicine residency, and that was fabulous. I taught or mentored a lot of residents, and that's been great. I've also served as, well, when we had Hahnemann, I was the treasurer of the hospital.

Dr. McCrea (06:40): Oh, wow.

Dr. May (06:40): It was quite an honor since it was during the time that they were transitioning to a new owner. That was very interesting. I've served many roles within the DUP, which was formerly the Drexel University physician group. I also served as the chair of one of the committees that we had back in the day, the communication committee, which allowed us to make sure that all our voices, all the clinicians' voices were being heard in terms of what we needed, and what would help most. I also chaired the professionalism committee, as well as a committee where we actually helped to ensure that all the medical assistants across all the fields became certified and were competent to do their job.

Dr. McCrea (07:32): That's fantastic.

Dr. May (07:32): More recently I've transitioned to the medical school, where I am the sub-I director, primarily for our students who are doing medicine sub-I. So that includes all the students within Drexel, since most of them do have to do one – most, but not all.

Dr. McCrea (07:48): And Dr. May, by sub-I you mean like sub internships? These are like senior level medical students who are getting ready for their next step into residency?

Dr. May (07:57): That's exactly right.

Dr. McCrea (07:59): Okay, great.

Dr. May (08:00): So, fourth year medical students who are doing a sub-internship in one of our affiliate hospitals, where they can act as an intern to show their abilities – develop their skills as well as show their abilities. So it's an important job, and it's an important role for the students, also. I also serve as – we have pathways if a student is going into surgery or medicine or family medicine and so forth, and I'm one of the associate directors for those students going into medicine.

Dr. McCrea (08:34): So you wear many hats, you have worn many hats, it sounds like you will continue to wear many hats. You know, to that end, what do you think is on the horizon for you next professionally? What's the next challenge, right? It feels like you've navigated being an excellent clinician, you are now molding future careers as an educator. You know, Dr. May, when you think of what's next, what's the next challenge? What are you thinking?

Dr. May (09:01): I don't know. I enjoy everything that I do and I take things one day at a time and I look forward to staying happy while I'm teaching and seeing patients.

Dr. McCrea (09:11): Alright. That's good.

Dr. May (09:11): It will come to me. I'm happy with what I'm doing right now.

Dr. McCrea (09:16): [Laughs] Awesome, awesome. Listen, I'm not trying to push you in any direction. I'm always curious what people are thinking. You know what, let's pivot a little bit, because you know, we've gotten your professional piece, but you know, the community at large is going to want to know a little bit about Dr. May away from the office and away from the educational arena. What part of the world do you live in? You know, Philadelphia and the surrounding areas are full of neighborhoods and sections. What part of the world do you call home?

Dr. May (09:45): It is right outside Philadelphia. It is literally, I want to say 10 minutes from Philadelphia. I live in Penn Valley; some people call it Narberth, because Penn Valley and Narberth share a zip code. It is a suburb of Philadelphia, but it's so close to Philadelphia that 10 minutes later I'm in Philadelphia. My kids usually say they're from Philadelphia.

Dr. McCrea (10:06): Yeah, absolutely. Is there anything special or unique about this area? Because I'm imagining, as people are listening to us having this conversation, it could be faculty members who are coming to the area. It could be students who were thinking about Drexel as a possible medical school choice for them. You know, when you were picking and deciding where to live, what makes Narberth and Penn Valley special?

Dr. May (10:29): It's special because it's a diverse community. We have people from all over: transplants, as well as people who've been here forever. My church is not too far from my home, which is nice, and the commute to work is easy, it's 20 minutes. Even though when you're here, like I am in my yard, you may not think you're in Philadelphia because it's quiet, but if I need to get to Philadelphia, I can get in pretty quickly. So great neighbors, great neighborhood, great schools. And that's why we chose this area to live.

Dr. McCrea (11:02): Alright, awesome. Then, you know, we've been surviving this pandemic. Some people have been thriving, some surviving, but we're all trying to manage and negotiate it. One of the things that my family has embraced is that we have a enveloped a Friday night tradition of Friday night takeout in order to support local business and to figure out how to continue to enjoy good cuisine. Do you and your family have a favorite takeout location?

Dr. May (11:30): I can tell you that my son loves Vietnamese food, and it seems every night that we're not cooking, he's asking for some sort of Vietnamese dish. So we've actually taken takeout from most of them around here, including one in Manayunk, one in Bryn Mawr, and one in the city. So yeah, Vietnamese food seems to be his favorite, this season.

Dr. McCrea (11:59): Oh, man. That's awesome. You know, we actually enjoy Vietnamese food too. And I always say like, 'The more spice, the more better,' and that's not really good English, but it definitely, you know, rubs and warms my soul. The other thing we've started to do as a family as we were kind of all together was, we sometimes pick up either extra reading or extra screen time. Now, are you guys enjoying streaming anything on TV right now? Anything on Netflix or Amazon prime or, you know, what's the Dr. May household looking at on TV these days?

Dr. May (12:32): Fortunately for us, we don't stream together. I don't stream anything, I'm more of a book person.

Dr. McCrea (12:39): Okay.

Dr. May (12:40): I have no idea what they're streaming but I know they are, because I'm still paying for Netflix.

Dr. McCrea (12:45): [Laughs] I'll take that. So, what are you reading then, since you're telling me you're a book person? What either has been a fun book that you've read recently or what's on your nightstand right now?

Dr. May (12:57): I read on Kindle, so nothing on a nightstand. [Laughs] I've been listening to some audio books. A recent one is "Educated."

Dr. McCrea (13:08): Absolutely fantastic book. Oh my gosh. You know, really great look at, how it is that we design our educational system, what matters in terms of being a high-quality educator. That's a fantastic read – so great to know that you've been reading that. All right – so you've been in Philadelphia for a while now and I always ask everybody: what's your favorite Philadelphia-known food? You know, is it a cheesesteak, is it water ice, is it a pretzel?

Dr. May (13:40): For me, it's probably a Rita's water ice.

Dr. McCrea (13:43): Yes. Now are you straight water ice or are you more gelati? And do you have a flavor?

Dr. May (13:49): I like cherry, cherry water ice. The gelati is good sometimes, but I'm more of a straight water ice. [Laughs]

Dr. McCrea (13:58): [Laughs] My favorite I think is mango, I'm a mango water ice water guy.

Dr. May (14:02): I like mango too.

Dr. McCrea (14:02): Yeah, mango is definitely my zone. [Laughs] Oh my goodness. So listen. So you talked about "Educated,"" this phenomenal book. You know, one of the things that I do in the College of Medicine is I work very specifically in areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. And there's a book that came out not so long ago that talked about the 'diversity bonus.' And so when I say the words 'diversity bonus' to you, what comes to mind in terms of what that means or what that could mean for our community?

Dr. May (14:35): I have not read the book you're referring to, so –

Dr. McCrea (14:38): That's okay. But just when you hear the word 'diversity bonus' –

Dr. May (14:42): What comes to mind is the ability for everyone to benefit from everyone else. No two people are alike, no two cultures are alike, even within the African American community. People differ in what they think because a lot of us have different backgrounds. For example, even though I'm African American, my parents were from Haiti.

Dr. McCrea (15:05): Okay.

Dr. May (15:05): And yet we can learn from people who are from Nigeria, the Caribbean, as well as people who were born here. So even within the African-American community, there is diversity and we can learn from each other. If we extend it even further to other people who are not brown or Black, you can learn from so many different cultures. So for me, the diversity bonus is being able to learn from all the cultures that surround us and with whom we interact.

Dr. McCrea (15:36): It looks like you captured the full essence of it, Dr. May, without even cracking a book. It looks like you hit that nail right on the head. [Laughs] You know, one of the things that that happens to many of us as we transition to this path of medicine is that we are often confronted as firsts, as onlys, as different. When is the first time as a clinician, or when's the most memorable time, you've been reminded of either your race, your gender identity, your ethnicity, your culture, or your religious background? Can you think of a time when you had an interaction in your journey that reminded you of who you are and one of your defining characteristics?

Dr. May (16:19): That's the hard one. Because my colleagues are as wonderful as they are, it doesn't happen when I'm with them. However, with patients, of course sometimes that comes up. My patients come from every single race and culture, and I enjoy every single one of them. But there have been times when patients might remind you of your skin color, and it's an important reminder to stay professional and to take care of them. Because usually, at least for me, I can't speak for others, but at least for me being in a professional setting, some patients may make a comment that's meant as a compliment, but it serves as a reminder that you are Black, or not like them.

Dr. McCrea (17:10): Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that you – the idea of the reminder and the idea that this concept of microaggressions can take place and sometimes patients aren't aware of how they're impacting us or peers are not aware of how they impact us. And that becomes a real challenge in terms of how we build and repair and negotiate that. Absolutely.

Dr. May (17:31): And I didn't use the word microaggression because some of them have been with me for so long, and I know they love me and trust me and so forth, and if I were to say to them, 'That's a microaggression,' they would be hurt because they don't mean it that way.

Dr. McCrea (17:44): No, absolutely. And, you know, you bring up an important point, which is the idea of relationship developing in terms of how that breaks down barriers. Brian Stevenson, the author, often talks about this idea of being proximate to one's community and the closer we are to individuals and individuals who are not exactly like us, the more we begin to learn about shared experience. You mentioned how diverse your background is. You mentioned how diverse your neighborhood is. You mentioned how diverse your colleagues are and how that has created a greater appreciation for each other's experiences. And as a result, you've created an environment that is incredibly supportive. So I'm bringing it back a little bit to the classroom for a minute, because as an educator, and this doesn't have to be necessarily in the diversity space, what do you think the biggest challenges are facing our students? These Drexel students now, You interact with them all the time. What's the biggest challenge for a medical student right now?

Dr. May (18:47): Right now, honestly, I think the biggest challenge is how to navigate education within the COVID world, but also within everything else that's been going on around us since last spring, when we had the unfortunate George Floyd incident. I think a lot of students are afraid to speak up in some ways, and they're finding it difficult to really express their feelings out of fear that they will be misunderstood at times. But for the most part, most of the students really don't know what medicine's going to look like in the next year or two, because COVID has changed so much.

Dr. McCrea (19:33): Mhm, absolutely.

Dr. May (19:33): I think those are the big things that are on their minds right now.

Dr. McCrea (19:37): Absolutely. I think about my path to a medical career in terms of thinking about challenges, and thatI am really successful not just because of my own hard work and talent and energy, but also because I have had to develop a support team, individuals who are going to help and guide me along the way. Can you tell me a little bit about your team? Who has helped you navigate this process to develop such a successful career?

Dr. May (20:09): Thank you. You know what, it always starts with family. I have two younger sisters. They are not in medicine. One is an attorney representing Jazz at the Lincoln Center – she went to Brown.

Dr. McCrea (20:24): Brown U! Brown U! [Laughs]

Dr. May (20:27): And my other sister is in business. She went to Yale and Harvard business school. The three of us have been a huge support for one another. I also have my husband, we've been married for almost 30 years, so he's come along. I met him when I was 19, so you can figure out my age. [Laughs] My children are a little bit older now, they're not young kids like yours, they're 18 and 20. So, the support starts at home, but it also extends to your work family. And my colleagues have been very supportive of my choices and helping to guide me. Some of them have been here 30 years, some of them have been here 20, like me, but we have a family, both at home and at work. And that definitely helps a lot. My church, I mentioned my church – I have good friends in my congregation. I serve as an elder in my church.

Dr. McCrea (21:25): You mentioned a few things and these are the things I just want to highlight for our listeners. So you mentioned family first, and family can be your actual blood family. For some people, it can be your family or your close friends. But there is some component of family because we're not always going to be fed at work. There are the colleagues that you are able to develop, but then I also think you mentioned a really important component, you mentioned it more than once during our conversation already. That's the idea of believing in something. The idea of faith as an important component of helping people through their walk, I think is another incredibly important part of developing that support, because we know that there are going to be challenges that push people in all kinds of directions. And so as we get ready to bring this to a close, I've got a couple of other things I just want to throw at you. What are your thoughts on social media these days? What are you using? Are you a Facebooker? Are you on Twitter, or Instagram – where are you at in this zone? Because I feel like as we mature in medicine, we're having to start to become more nimble in its use.

Dr. May (22:24): I am resistant to social media. [Laughs].

Dr. McCrea (22:29): [Laughs]

Dr. May (22:29): The only social media I use is LinkedIn, and that's more of a professional development. My kids are on all those other things, but I've resisted.

Dr. McCrea (22:40): I'm so impressed!

Dr. May (22:40): I have to! I won't be able to do the things I enjoy if I'm stuck on a screen all day, so I try not to do.

Dr. McCrea (22:47): Then the last thing is, is that I always think back to my time before I became a doctor, when I get with friends from when I grew up or, or high school reunions. And I think that to those superlative days, you know, in your high school yearbook, 'most likely to,' 'I was going to be.' So, Dr. May, looking back, what were the superlatives for you in high school? You were voted most likely to do what?

Dr. May (23:13): I was voted most likely to succeed. I was fortunate.

Dr. McCrea (23:16): [Imitates bell ringing] Ding, ding, ding, ding!

Dr. May (23:16): [Laughs] I'm sure many others did too. I went to the United Nations school because when I came to this country, I did not speak English, so my mom put me in a school where I could learn English as a second language. And so my affinity for diversity dates back to the 1980s, when I came here. I finished first in my class, which was fortunate, and I think that's why they voted me most likely to succeed.

Dr. McCrea (23:49): Oh, my gosh, well, listen, clearly they got it right, which is absolutely awesome. All right, Dr. May, it has been a fantastic opportunity for us to have a conversation. I definitely want to open the floor to you if there's anything else you want to share with our listeners in terms of either life experience, or anything else you want to share about the Drexel University community.

Dr. May (24:12): I think Drexel University is an awesome place to be. I've had the opportunity to interview some students for admissions and I hope they come. Because once you're here, we take care of our students. We have plenty of resources for them. I don't think anyone who matriculates at Drexel can go wrong. And I just wanted to thank you for this opportunity.

Dr. McCrea (24:31): Yeah, absolutely. So, listen, this has been wonderful. It has been a great opportunity for us to have a conversation with Dr. Nathalie May, who is an associate professor of medicine here at Drexel University College of Medicine. I am, again, Leon McCrea, here with you for another fireside talk: Conversations That Matter. Thanks so much, and we look forward to talking to you again soon. Bye-bye.

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