Why Dr. Ayonrinde believes Community is key to Black physician identity and wellness. 

Dr Oyedeji (Deji) Ayonrinde earned his medical degree in Nigeria, specialized in general and addiction psychiatry in the UK, with qualifications in the history of medicine and an executive MBA. With over two decades of psychiatry in the U.K, he has practiced across three continents and has so far, survived six Canadian winters. 

“Nothing can truly prepare you for a Canadian winter,” he said. “Whenever I meet Canadians, no matter how nice they appear, I know they’ve got a tenacious streak.”

Dr. Ayonrinde has experienced first hand the ways the intense cold can apply to the culture as much as it does the climate. Many Black physicians and medical students, whether newcomers or born Canadians, contend with the challenges of being Black in this country. When it comes to medicine, being Black often means being one of very few who look like you in the spaces you frequent, learn or practice. This can be deeply isolating, and lonely. 

“Loneliness is ultimately bad for physician wellness” he said. “At the core of Black identity is a sense of community. Community that supports faith, food and family values…community that allows for authentic expression of the self. Spaces that cultivate both psychological safety as well as identity safety are crucial to Black physician wellness.”  

Without such spaces, physicians aren’t adequately set up for sustainable, long-term success. This can unwittingly affect patient care and their professional fulfillment, leading to burnout.

He describes identity safety as distinctly different from psychological safety, in that it is the freedom, comfort, and safety to be one’s authentic self. Not feeling pressure to button up, code switch, or leave your jollof rice at home in exchange for a cold sandwich–all in the effort to avoid additional experiences of being othered. 

Few traditional western medical institutions and workplaces prioritize cultivating community and creating such safety for Black professionals and learners. Dr. Ayonrinde credits organizations like the Black Physicians Association of Ontario for filling in that gap and providing a safe place to land, connect, reach into, and be embraced.

Of similar importance, is the element of representation. BPAO provides a network of Black physicians who are making a positive impact on their organizations and the community at large. He believes this has a significant impact on medical students, and students across the sector. 

“When you see people who look like you in leadership positions, it’s easier to believe it’s possible, you’re less likely to feel like an imposter.” 

Some institutions in the province are working to increase that representation, starting with processes of truth and reconciliation. This is true of Queen’s University, where Dr. Ayonrinde serves as an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, Clinical Director for Community Mental Health, as well as the Chair of the Commission on Black Medical Students

This month, he was the master of ceremonies and participated in the planning of the Queen’s University event, unveiling a plinth honouring students impacted by the ban on Black medical students in 1918. This ban lasted until 1965. Each of the  students pressured to leave during the year of the ban were called by name and recognized, their stolen careers and futures posthumously acknowledged. 

Photos from Queen's University

Photos from Queen’s University

The whole event was Black planned, designed, implemented and delivered. It was not a day for being rescued. Black physicians, students, professionals and the community filled the canopy, taking up space. 

The event was rooted in themes of honouring the past, dignity in the present, and hope for the future. Every detail from the kente patterned table cloths, to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s classical renditions of negro-spirituals playing on arrival, was carefully crafted with intention. Each with the purpose of illustrating the brilliance of Black people and culture over time. 

“In all my work surrounding these difficult issues, I try to move the harshness of the truth from the head to the heart. The core of the matter is, it’s a nasty and damaging past,” said Dr. Ayonrinde. 

Change happens when we feel something. Minds and hearts were recalibrated that day.  People definitely left the event feeling something.”

The unveiling revealed more than the plinth. It showed the strength, power and beauty of Black people. It fostered the very safety Dr. Ayonrinde believes to be so crucial to physician wellness–including his own. He left the event filled with the fruit of community. He shared the warmth he experienced when an elder physician outstretched their hand offering brotherhood, and the pride he felt seeing all the medical students ready to occupy the sector with excellence. 

He, much like the BPAO, aims to be a champion in the effort toward seeing generations of Black physicians who are both competent and confident. He stresses that this can only be done in community. We couldn’t agree more. 

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