Alumna Crystal Sosa '10 talks COVID, bias in medicine Sophia Van Beek

When Crystal Sosa was five years old, she would find her parents’ prescription bottles and read the labels out loud, translating from English to Spanish. Sosa, who graduated from Masters in 2010, is now in the third year of her neurological residency.

She said, “I've wanted to be a doctor since I was young. I knew this from childhood.”

Crystal Sosa is now a neurology resident at Wake Forest Medical Center in North Carolina. Credit: Wake Forest Medical

A Tower staffer during her time at Masters, Sosa spoke with Tower over Google Meet, still in her medical scrubs, right after she finished her shift at the free clinic in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she now lives.

A Bronx native, Sosa completed her Undergraduate Degree at Mount Holyoke College after graduating from Masters, and double-majored in chemistry and psychology as a pre-med student. Sosa attended medical school at the University of South Carolina, Greenville.

The daughter of Dominican immigrants, Sosa grew up in the projects and came to Masters through a program her middle school teacher recommended to her.

“One day she pulled me aside and told me, ‘Crystal, I think that you need to be a little more challenged. I find that you do really well in school and there’s a program I want to refer you to, to see if you can go to any specialized schools in the city, or any private school that will help nurture your talent,’” Sosa said, adding “It’s a sad reality: no one wants to be honest and say that unfortunately a lot of the inner-city schools have very limited resources, and these teachers didn’t want me to end up with talent I wouldn’t utilize – which unfortunately happened to a lot of people I grew up with.”

Sosa liked Masters because although it was a boarding school, it was close enough to visit her family in the Bronx.

She said, “I was so nervous. It was one of the first few times that I was in a place where most students around me were white. I felt insecure.”

Sosa’s parents encouraged her education wholeheartedly. They had a very limited education, as neither graduated high school, had children as teenagers, and spoke no English. Sosa said her education at Masters gave her the opportunities and tools she needed to succeed in the professional world as a physician.

Now, Sosa has graduated from medical school and is studying within the neurology department at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. She has been working in a “packed” intensive care unit, where she has treated both COVID patients and other serious cases.

COVID-19 is both more likely to affect people of color and take on a more serious, deathly manifestation with POC. One explanation is that the more an individual is exposed to the coronavirus, the worse the infection is: this is a concept called “viral load”, according to Sosa.

“I’m literally sitting in my car outside the free clinic, where 98% of the patients we see are minorities,” Crystal said, “and a lot of minority families live in multigenerational households. I lived with my parents, six siblings, and maybe a grandma or two.” Members of large households are exposed to the virus again and again. Additionally, she said, minorities are more likely to work in factories, where some of the worst outbreaks occur.

Sosa was the only neurology student of color in her class, so she is more aware of racial disparities in the healthcare field than her white peers.

“We were taught how to advocate for ourselves and others,” Sosa said about her time on Tower. This translates into her career in medicine. “As a doctor of color, I tend to be a bit more of an advocate for patients of color.”

Regarding bias in medicine, Sosa added, “It really does start from the secretary checking the patient in, to the CNA (certified nursing assistant) who is taking the vital signs, to the nurse who is taking care of the patient at the bedside, and all the way upstream to the physician. If things are missed from the bottom, they’re going to be missed at the top.”

Sosa went on to explain that there is research that shows Black patients are less likely to be taken seriously about complaints of pain than white patients. This dismissal of a patient's pain is attributed to the assumption that the patient in question is engaging in "drug-seeking behavior" which is when a patient who is trying to get drugs to feed an addiction falsely claims pain or discomfort. In such a scenario, a patient's real pain and important symptoms of serious conditions are going unnoticed and untreated.

She said, “I’m very much pushy. I like to take my patients’ concerns seriously. I also make it known to everyone that these are my intentions, in an effort to help my colleagues understand the importance of advocating for their patients of colors.”

“Of course, when I was a student, I would hear little comments,” Sosa said about her time at Masters. She described being the butt of racially-motivated jokes. “It’s hard for white students, at Masters in particular, to know these things. Because a lot of these students are affluent. They come from rich families, they come from families that are very privileged, and they benefit from their whiteness and their privilege. You know, they don’t want to talk about that.”

Sosa has reflected on the BlackAtMasters Instagram (@blackattms) and the Better Masters Plan. “I think it's going to be a slow progression through dismantling racism but I think people really have to be open to it.”

During her third year of medical school, Crystal Sosa had a son, KJ, but still managed to graduate on time.

Sosa with her son, KJ. Credit: Crystal Sosa

“I was pregnant, going to the hospital at 5 in the morning, standing on my feet all day. I faced some microaggressions and blatant ignorance. A lot of the male attendings were very unforgiving. They would say things to me like, ‘Don't think just because you’re pregnant you’re going to get any special treatment.’ Mind you, I’m like nine months along. I did it. I’m a strong girl. I made it,” she said.

Crystal signed off by reiterating the importance of advocacy. “Continue to advocate for people. If you don't already, do community service and use your platform.”

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Sophia Van Beek