Conversations That Matter: Episode 4: Maryssa Lyons, MD and Becks Wilson
Maryssa Lyons, MD
By Lisa Ryan
In “Conversations That Matter,” a blog and audio series, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leon McCrea II, MD, MPH, interviews members of the College of Medicine community about their lives, their journeys in medicine, and their thoughts on diversity in medical practice and education.
In the interview below, Dr. McCrea talks with Maryssa Lyons, MD, a PGY-2 general psychiatry resident at Tower Health – Phoenixville Hospital, and with Becks Wilson, the academic coordinator for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s Women’s Health Education Program (WHEP).
Dr. Lyons has an interest in LGBTQ+ health care, particularly mental health and stigma reduction. They are a lead organizer for the College of Medicine and Tower Health’s annual LGBTQ+ Health Symposium, which helps attendees gain greater understanding of best practices for providing respectful, comprehensive health care to LGBTQ+ patients.
Wilson earned a bachelor’s degree in gender, sexuality and women’s studies from Temple University, and worked for nonprofit organizations around Philadelphia before joining the ODEI team. They organize WHEP monthly seminars and help students who are interested in the scholar tracks, and assist in organizing diversity-focused events, including the LGBTQ+ Symposium.
On our blog and in the latest episode of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion's podcast "Conversations That Matter,” these two members of the College of Medicine community shared their perspectives on their lives and careers, and on creating inclusive and comfortable spaces for queer and transgender people.
Leon McCrea (LM): I think this conversation is really important, as our program has a chance to find out about both of you and your interests. Our audience is made up of folks who are in medicine or medicine-adjacent, so I always like to know: what motivated you to pursue the career path that brought you to the College of Medicine?
Maryssa Lyons (ML): Growing up, science and school were always really fulfilling. I got a lot of affirmation through academics, and I had always had an interest in neurobiology and mental illness. So, after going to my undergrad at the University of Michigan for neuroscience, I had to decide between PhD or MD programs, and who else is going to force me to like a bunch of varied biology? So, MD it was, and obviously I was never going do something other than psychiatry. Right away, I was like, ‘This is it for me. I want to talk all day long.’
LM: Talking for a living – listen, rumor has it I like to talk as well. Being a practitioner of health is not just about being smart, right? The ability to have conversations, to connect with people, is so important.
And Becks, you are part of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. What made you decide to work here at the College of Medicine?
Becks Wilson (BW): In my career, I'm more focused on gender and sexuality education. I worked in nonprofits after graduating, and although that was an interesting experience, I missed being in the education space. So, when there was a position open with the diversity office and with the Women's Health Education Program, it just blended my interests in education and also gender- and sexuality-related topics.
LM: I think that it's important to bring your personal mission to any job that you take, right? Who you are needs to be infused into whatever your professional path is. One of the things I talk about in terms of what it is to be at Drexel, or Drexel-affiliated, is that Drexel has a distinct culture. Tell me about some of the things you’ve experienced that are unique to the Drexel space or keep you coming to work every day.
ML: One big draw and reason why I really connected with Drexel, as well as my residency program, were the faculty and the opportunities for collaboration. Within my program, I can collaborate with people doing work at Drexel and in the College of Medicine. So many people at the College of Medicine are just as passionate about what they're doing as I am about my work, and it’s been so lovely. It definitely keeps me motivated to do a lot of sometimes-stressful work. [Laughs]
BW: I really like the environment of our office. There are always interesting people floating around campus, and on days when students have classes in person, there's a lot of hustle and bustle. People are always coming in and out because the diversity office is one of the only offices in the building that I've seen that just leaves the door open all day. I think there's a lot of camaraderie in the space, and it's been fun to get to know people.
LM: Oh, absolutely. I want to pick up on something you just said, about the idea of open door, and the power associated with someone feeling like there's a space they can enter. One of the things that the diversity office strives to do is to try and make spaces feel more inclusive, but that isn't something you can do just one time, it’s an every day, every minute exercise.
So, when I think about openness and I think about open doors, our audience really likes to know a little bit more about you and kind of some of the challenges that you face, some of the things that have happened in your experiences. When is the first time or the most memorable time that you were reminded either of your race, your gender identity, your ethnicity, your culture, or your religious background?
ML: For me, the biggest, most significant time was during medical school. I went to medical school in a pretty rural, conservative area. I was starting to really consider my gender expression a lot. I'm non-binary and this intersection between gender and the ideas of professionalism is a really big theme in my life. In medical school I had several patient encounters where patients would ask me to leave the room because of my gender presentation. I tried to approach the administration and an individual there said that I should think about how I present myself and how that affects patient care. So, I said, ‘Yeah, I am reaching the 10 percent of LGBTQ patients that feel comfortable with me instead of with a lot of my colleagues. So, I am thinking about my patient care.’ [Laughs]
That’s one reason why I wanted to work around Philadelphia: I wanted to work with a more diverse patient population. Because the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of ways in which I'm never going to fit someone's stereotype of what a doctor is, and by trying, I make myself so small and so limited and so uncomfortable that I'm not able to be my most helpful or productive. I'm at my best as a clinician when I'm able to navigate the world comfortably. Being allowed to express my gender identity makes me a better clinician.
BW: I can't think of one moment in time that really stands out, but I feel like I'm reminded of my identity every day in small ways. I use they/them pronouns, I'm also non-binary, and being misgendered so constantly is just a reminder. I'll just be going about my life and have one idea of how I see myself or how I think that other people will view me, and then coworkers or students, or a waitress or someone, will get my pronouns wrong or use gendered language. I feel like it's a daily reminder that how I view myself is not how other people view me, which brings up a lot of feelings. It's really frustrating.
LM: Becks, how do you process that? I think that all folks who carry some component of themselves that is not the quote-unquote “norm” have to figure out not only how they navigate the world, but how they process it when the world doesn't receive them in the way that they want to be received. So, how do you process those daily insults or daily micro- and macroaggressions?
BW: Definitely taking time to just care for myself afterward, whether that's allowing myself to vent my frustration in a healthy way or taking a moment to re-center and shake it off. But I also think community is really important, knowing that there are people out there who view me in the same way that I view myself, whether that’s my partner or my friends. Being in spaces with other queer or trans people is really powerful. Like at the LGBTQ+ symposiums this year, there were moments where the only people with their mics on were other queer or trans people. In those moments I'm like, 'Okay, this is nice.' It's like being reminded of your gender in a positive way instead of the negative way that you get so frequently.
LM: You know, the idea of community, I think it's so important. There's a lot written about why phenotypic racial groups, for example, might all sit together at a lunch table. If you're a part of a marginalized group, you get it. You're like, ‘Because sometimes I don't want to explain myself.’ I do want to have a well-integrated lunchroom, but sometimes it's okay if folks pod together around shared lived experience.
ML: I've had really similar experiences to Becks in that way. I didn't have much access to a trans community until I came to Philadelphia, and it's been just so great for me to make trans friends. It’s so wonderful, the idea of being around people who I know see me how I see myself. I don't have to worry if in, in someone's mind, they're seeing me as a woman or they're seeing me as someone else. I just get to be and exist and feel seen in that way. I can be far more vulnerable because I don't have to be constantly communicating my gender in all these trillion ways.
LM: That’s super important. What's the next step to create more inclusive environments, so you don’t have to feel in every iteration, the need to reaffirm who you are? How do we help people not see the world in a binary way? What are some of the opportunities for students, staff and faculty to engage in this challenge?
BW: Educating yourself is really important. You can seek out information if you're like, 'Well, I don't know what being non-binary means.' You don't have to just continue to not know; you can Google it. I was talking with somebody recently who was like, 'Oh, sorry, I got your pronouns wrong. I'm just really bad at pronouns.' And I was like, 'Okay, well, you could practice.' It's about not waiting for people to educate you and not seeking them out for them to explain things to you. There are so many resources out there, and if you just put in a little bit of effort, you can educate yourself. It’s also important to be aware that you'll be wrong sometimes. Humans make mistakes, and we just have to own that and try to get used to being uncomfortable sometimes. I think people really, really hate to feel uncomfortable, but we will all have to be uncomfortable at different points if we're going to create more inclusive spaces.
ML: I think one thing, too, is thinking about how people who are allies, and other people outside of the community, can really work to bring other people into the community. One of my limitations is that if someone doesn't understand being non-binary and feels some type of way about that, that's a person who might not want to listen to me. So having people who are allies bring other people into the conversation is so powerful. I've been approached by students who want to know, 'How do you talk to faculty? How do you help people respect your identity?' And there's a point where advocating for yourself can get so tiring. I think it's really great to have support people in your life who you can vent to, but who will also to be able to support you in social situations and work situations.
LM: I'm really curious about your thoughts about something we can do to make the T College of Medicine and other medical education ecosystems more inclusive.
BW: Since I work at the College of Medicine, I'm thinking more about something curriculum-based.
If we're going to take gender or sexuality or identities as an example, I think it’s important to take education around that and weave it into the curriculum so that students aren’t just getting information about it once or twice throughout medical school.
ML: Honestly, my residency program has really succeeded at affirming me every step of the way. I was able to easily arrange to get top surgery. When I started my residency I had a conversation with my director, Dr. Sudak, and she was just like, ‘Okay, we're going to make this happen.’ My schedule for residency was planned around having top surgery. And if I have issues with any attendings I work with in any system, my faculty are willing to advocate on my behalf. So, I think what’s important is really just coming in with that mindset of supporting learners and residents so they can be their best selves, whatever that means for them. If that had happened earlier in my career, in my life, I would be flourishing even more now.
As a person working in medicine, there are so many barriers and opportunities for growth for everyone, myself included. I think the more we talk about these types of things, the more we are all able to reach our fullest potential and really do the best for ourselves and our patients.
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