A Hero In Scrubs — #TheWomanCrushWednesday
The Woman Crush Wednesday series will highlight the extraordinary women in my life who exemplify character, kindness, ingenuity, and intelligence. I am grateful that I learn from these individuals and I’m excited for all they will do, and where they will travel. This piece will feature Dr. Omolola “Lola” Brown.
Great people will give you extended blessings. Friendship: sharing time, memories, and vulnerability are among the greatest gifts we can offer one another. In meeting Lola, I understand how fortunate I am that great friends will enable you to expand your circle of love.
Lola and I solidified our friendship as the world was set ablaze during the COVID19 pandemic. But before Lola was saving lives, including mine, she was navigating her way through the world as a daughter of the diaspora, the United Kingdom, and South London — trying to piece together what all of that meant, to become the incomparable woman she is today.
“I didn’t know people spoke the ‘Queen’s English.”
“I didn’t know people spoke the ‘Queen’s English,’” an astonished Lola thought on her first day when her classmate introduced herself. Part of a small group of working-class children awarded scholarships, Lola left her state school and enrolled in James Allen’s Girls’ School (“JAGS”) — the independent school* for girls in Greater London. Surrounded by pristine buildings, aristocratic activities, and unparalleled education opportunities, Lola quickly realised how out-of-place she was and that she needed to adapt to survive.
“Football is a poor man’s game” she learned quickly, as she attempted to bond with her new peers with the only cultural references she knew. Entrenched in a world of lacrosse and fencing, Lola sought refuge in her fellow proletariat sistren, ironically, the exact behaviour these schemes were ostensibly meant to dismantle. That said, when you’re surrounded by children who don’t know how to pay fare on a public bus, you may instinctively retreat to the people you know.
Finding Her Place
An immeasurably bright student, akin to Albert Einstein, Lola academically excelled but socially withdrew. From parents with formerly enslaved ancestors who returned to Nigeria, to a white Cambridge-born grandmother with Jewish-Polish ancestry, and a step-grandfather raised on a slave plantation in Barbados — Lola, born in central London, is an exalting embodiment of the diaspora. Identifying as Nigerian when she was young, at age twelve, Lola made a fateful trip to the United States that completely recalibrated her views and understandings of race. Visiting her cousin, and seeing the glaring segregation of Texas, Lola understood the compartmentalising nature of race relations in the United States and home in England. Disconnected from her schoolmates in this capacity and others, she actively sought friendships in her community to find a sisterhood of Black women.
Like many Black girls raised in a society where they are taught they’re less than, Lola wanted to be what was considered beautiful — though unsure of what that meant. In seeking friendships with other Black girls, she at times experienced bullying because of her lighter skin, making her wish she was darker. Interestingly, Lola notes that her lighter skin combined with Afrocentric features didn’t open the doors that many darker women assumed it would. It wasn’t until university and making mixed race friends that Lola understood what this elusive Eurocentric aesthetic masquerading as a “standard” mainly benefits those with melanin ancillary to their European features, not the other way around.
More so, in a world with binaries, with Lola’s Jewish ancestry, she’s drawn to Holocaust survivor stories. She was brought up listening to stories of her step-grandfather being so egregiously mistreated in the United States, that he returned to Barbados and then set-sail to the United Kingdom. In the midst of this, speaking Yoruba in some places and shedding her Cockney accent in others, where was she to fit in a world where you can only check one box? We are all amalgamations of so many identities and elaborate lineages. If we were taught that at the outset, instead of constantly being forced into square pegs when we are complex human beings, it would be for the better of our society. It would edify our world.
An Ad-hoc Calling
Gifted with an aptitude for both the arts and sciences, similar to Leonardo DaVinci, Lola excelled as an art student with a subsidiary interest in chemistry and molecular sciences. Because why not be so brilliant and so gorgeous?
Initially drawn to interior design, Lola was studying for her GCSEs* and A-levels* in the arts. She would peruse through art galleries in her spare time, drawing the interiors of the space. One day, a classmate off-handedly remarked, “what Black person does art and what artist do you know that makes money?” Discouraged, she shifted focus. With her natural aptitude in sciences, Lola steered herself into something more “stable.” Her professors protested to her mother, seeing an extraordinary creative talent they hoped would flourish — but Lola was undeterred. Through a hopscotch decision-making process only a teenager could muster— she decided to become a doctor — because that’s what people who studied science did. Not with passion or conviction, Lola simply decided to enter one of the most sought after and difficult professions on the planet. Once more, with her natural brilliance, she was accepted to the Imperial College London — one of the most competitive and renowned universities for sciences and medicine.
On the first day of university, Lola and Dion, the only Black friend entering Imperial College from JAGS, examined the incoming class photos to see if there was anyone else who looked like them. Spotting just two faces, which became their best friends, Lola and Dion ran and embraced one of their new classmates as she moved into the residence halls. A quartet that grew, these brilliant students navigated university together as Black girls in science, mostly working-class comrades, and as sisters to one another in the face of micro and macroaggressions. From South London to JAGS, from the United States back to London, Lola finally found herself, her place, and her tribe.
The girls spent their entire university careers together, even visiting one another when one left London to study abroad in the United States — which is where my life intersects with Lola. Because one of those women, Lianne, studied abroad at UCLA in Los Angeles, and I lived in the same co-op dormitory as her — though not as a UCLA student — I can write this piece today. She is a mutual best friend — part of our shared lineage. However back in London, these women lived together, took the bus to South London to buy food and cook together, and supported one another as they worked every weekend to finance their studies. They partied when they could, and consoled each other when ignorant and racist classmates would mock them and question their capabilities.
The Conveyor Belt to Physician
Lola completed her studies, chose Obstetrics and Gynaecology as a specialty, and became a doctor in 2009. Having spent time with birthing units during her preliminary rotations, Lola concedes that the version she saw, where medical students are exposed to less complicated matters and happier moments, may have painted a rose-colored projection of what her field was truly like. Earning a competitive seven-year residency placement in London, the day she was to begin, the unthinkable happened.
As the day started, Lola began to have stomach pains and mild bleeding. Knowing she was pregnant, Lola was examining her options as her loving family told her that whatever her choice was, they would support her. Upon examination, Lola was admitted and diagnosed with a live ectopic pregnancy — the most serious and potentially lethal. Immediately prepared for operation, the last thing she remembered was the trauma of the bright lights and messaging family, and the hospital of which she was to begin working, to inform them of her medical condition. She had a fallopian tube removed and forty-percent of her fertility reduced. Afterwards, she returned to work — helping women deliver babies, all the while wondering if she could ever have one of her own.
Masters and Supper Club
After working for years, Lola realised she needed a reset and took a yearlong break. Channelling her creative side, she began a supper club and hosted dinner parties. Even more so, the academic inclination returned, and Lola decided to get a masters in business. Quite literally, she was browsing online one day and said, “why not — I’ll get a masters.” Determined to restructure the National Health Service, she figured with a business degree and medical experience she could be the change she wanted to see in the world.
Though beginning to take a life of their own — Lola’s supper clubs wouldn’t last as long as she thought they would — because Lola met her future, now ex-husband, and quickly became pregnant with their son — the beautiful Rahim. As such, the nausea made it difficult to continue cooking, and she returned to practising medicine.
Career Shift to the Front Lines
Remembering the hours her mother worked, Lola decided to switch specialties and become a general practitioner (“GP”) — so she could spend more time with her son. Her marriage was breaking down and she prepared herself for life as a single mother, and made career choices accordingly. As she began her second GP rotation, in Accident & Emergency (“A&E”), what was supposed to be four months became nine because the United Kingdom, along with the rest of the world, was experiencing its first wave of the novel Coronavirus.
Thrust into the unknown, Lola chiefly remembers having so much fear during this uncertain time. How she had her mother and son move out of her home, afraid she would bring the virus back with her. How frustrated she was that people initially weren’t following guidance. That’s what I remember so vividly from the outset of the pandemic. Lola on Instagram, which she uses for fitness journaling and life journaling, fighting back tears as she beseeched us to stay home, and save lives — including hers. Lola worked tirelessly with her colleagues, all of which have trauma from this period. Like many around the world, the United Kingdom would applaud their frontline staff for their bravery during this crisis. Eventually, because the public did follow guidance, A&E calmed and returned to a normal pace, and Lola ended her extended rotation. She told me once a semblance of normalcy returned, she felt fraudulent when people would clap for her, because she was “just doing my job.”
If “not all heroes wear capes,” were ever applicable, it would be here.
Recovering after birth and postpartum, on maternity leave Lola saw her size change drastically. Misunderstanding hunger and thirst, a common mistake, her body’s fat percentage, more important than any scale value, reached a level of which she was uncomfortable. Finding something affordable, she positively channelled social media and created her fitness and lifestyle Instagram page, to share her journey and help others. Because in all aspects of life, she exudes benevolence.
This is where I found Lola, an extended friend who became a great one. After living abroad for the first time, my body didn’t react well to the diet of which it was exposed. I wrote Lola, in February 2020, kismet timing if there ever was, and pleaded for her help. Along with her friends and family, we formed a fitness health group, and had something to concentrate on that was non-Covid-19 related. Lola somehow found the energy to coach and encourage us, while being a mother, daughter, and emergency physician during a global health crisis.
I remember being so afraid during those months, as millions lost their jobs in the United States, eventually becoming one of them. I remember the destabilising sense of having so little control of my life. But what I could control were the checkmarks on my calendar for exercise, and the photos I sent to our group of my healthy eating. What I could count on was the encouragement of my group and the support of my extraordinary coach. I didn’t realise until the following year that this group, and the incredible friends I made within it, were my coping mechanism of the pandemic. They grounded me and kept me sane. I’ll never be able to repay them.
When Lola reflects on her beginning days as a physician, she remembers being so depressed because she had hoped one day she could conceive, and never knew if she would. When she became pregnant and had her son, that wound finally healed. Despite being extraordinarily talented, Lola’s unsure where her future lies in the medical field. She knows she wants to engage in her creativity, that she likes health and fitness, and uplifting people whenever she can. More than anything, she cares about being a good mother to her son and having enough money to live. She needs not material things, but the emotional safety of a healthy life for herself and her family.
Lola’s come a long way from the angelic-faced South London girl who appeared at an independent school in the late 1990s. She can go as far as the speed of light can take her — but she being the scientist can confirm how far that will be with more precision than I can.
Lola is an alumna of James Allen’s Girls’ School, London, where she earned A’s in biology, chemistry, and physics. Lola earned her Bachelor of Science in Psychiatry and Psychology, with Upper Second Class Honours. Lola earned her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from Imperial College of London, School of Medicine. Lola then earned her Masters of Science-International Health Management, with Merit, from Imperial College Business School, London.
Lola is a mother. Lola is a proud daughter of South London and identifies as a South Londoner, Black British woman. Lola is a physician in the NHS. Lola is a health coach. Lola is a mum. And today, Lola is my #WomanCrushWednesday.
If you would like to follow Lola on Instagram, click here.
*For American readers, this article was written in British-English, the spelling is different. Also, in the United Kingdom, “independent school” is what Americans consider to be private school, and “state school” is what Americans consider to be public schools. GCSE and A-levels are exams that British students take to complete their studies and enter university.