In the past three years as a paid student intern at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Edmund Mbugua learned how to calm down patients, stock anesthesia carts — and confront some “subtle hints of racism” on the job.
Mbugua, who’s 18, is one of 25 Boston teenagers graduating this week from the Student Success Jobs Program at the Brigham. Mbugua’s dream is to treat patients on his own. He plans to enroll in Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences this fall and earn his doctorate in physical therapy. I caught up with him one recent morning in the phlebotomy lab where he greets patients, stocks vials for blood, and wipes down chairs after patients have their blood drawn.
What surprised you about the hospital?
“There’s a lot of blood loss with surgery,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be all over the floor.” He learned that at age 14, when he got to see an open-heart surgery between stocking operating-room carts. He felt lucky to see it: “Watching a surgery at 14 is something not a lot of people do.”
What else did you learn?
“Customer service.” Once, he was cleaning up the phlebotomy lab just after it closed, when a woman came up with her mother in a wheelchair. “I’m sorry, ma’am, this lab is closed,” he recalled telling her. “She just exploded” in anger, he said. At first he was taken aback: “I wasn’t used to someone talking to me like that.” But he learned how to stay calm. Patients get frustrated, he said: Before a long surgery, sometimes “the last thing they want to do is have their blood drawn.”
What would you change about the hospital?
“There aren’t that many people like me” in higher-up positions, he observed. Mbugua, whose family is Kenyan-American, lives with his mom and his brother in Boston’s Fenway area. “People who are African-American work in the caf,” or at the valet stand, he said. They are “not so much surgeons or doctors.”
How has that affected you?
One time, Mbugua said, he was walking through the phlebotomy lab in his lab coat, and a white patient grabbed her purse so he didn’t steal it. “Even if I have a lab coat, people still look at me as though I’m not supposed to be there.” He reckoned that’s because “they don’t see many people like me working in the hospital.” (The Brigham workforce is 5 percent black, Native American or Hispanic.) Mbugua said he sees himself as changing perceptions, one person at a time: “It’s a long process, but if I can touch one or two people, that’s better than no one at all.”