Mother and Daughter Graduate Med School, Match Together

Eleanor Cummins

June 11, 2020

Cynthia Kudji deferred her dream of becoming a physician when she gave birth to her daughter, Jasmine. But in some ways, the delay couldn't have worked out better: This spring, within weeks of each other, mother and daughter both graduated from medical school.

Neither got to celebrate properly: Both Cynthia and Jasmine saw their commencement ceremonies disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Cynthia isn't too upset about not having a traditional graduation, Jasmine hopes her school, Louisiana State University (LSU) Health, will reschedule an in-person event for the fall, if only for one meaningful moment: The institution allows family members who are physicians to hood graduates. Jasmine wants to give her mom that honor. After all, Jasmine's love of medicine owes a debt to Cynthia's dreams.

Cynthia Kudji (L) and daughter Jasmine will be doing their residencies together at LSU Health.

Although they may not have gotten pomp or circumstance, the newly minted Drs. Kudji got something better. They matched together into residency at LSU Health — Cynthia in family medicine, and Jasmine in surgery. "I feel like we're definitely covering [the full] spectrum of care," Jasmine says.

Both credit their bond for getting them through sleepless nights, financial hurdles, and career-defining rotations. "We were feeding off each other," Cynthia says. They plan to face the challenges of residency the same way: Together.  

A Dream on Hold

Cynthia has wanted to be a doctor since she visited Ghana at 17. There, in the country where she was born (her family moved to the United States when she was 2), a mother brought her sick child to the Kudji family and asked for help.

Cynthia doesn't remember much other than the small girl had a raging fever. The mother "felt that, because we were from America, we could help her child," she says. Except, they couldn't.

They put the child in a bath to cool her down but she was no better the next day. The experience changed Cynthia's life forever. "Just seeing that kind of disparity really shook me," she says. "I wanted to do something."

After their trip, Cynthia enrolled in Tulane University as a biology major with plans to apply to medical school. Then, during her senior year of college, she became pregnant with Jasmine.

Cynthia Kudji holds newborn daughter Jasmine. Motherhood derailed her plans for medical school then, but she became a doctor this spring — as did Jasmine.

Motherhood complicated Cynthia's plans. She had never considered a career outside of healthcare but felt medical school would be too demanding with a newborn. Her pastor encouraged her to train as a registered nurse instead.

To pay for that education, Cynthia worked as a maid and a nursing assistant. She applied for other assistance, too, such as food stamps. Jasmine's father left the family shortly after her birth. "I could have just been part of the statistics — single mother and that's it," Cynthia says. But she never lost sight of her goal.

Cynthia has always kept her daughter close, for many reasons. "I took Jasmine everywhere with me," she says. "Everywhere. Every clinic, every class." That was partly out of necessity, as child care is expensive, but it also provided an opportunity.

For as long as she can remember, Jasmine has been exposed to the inner workings of healthcare, as well as Cynthia's passion and determination. As a child, Jasmine spoke with patients and played with stethoscopes. It was all by design, Cynthia says. "That was my whole concept: I want her to be better than me." This led Jasmine to a love of medicine in all its forms, from watching her mother provide care in small communities to fictional and reality TV shows about doctors.

Cynthia eventually became a nurse practitioner but still felt she had holes in her knowledge. "Being a nurse practitioner, I had it made," Cynthia says. "I had a career. I was making money. I was taking care of my child." But she wanted to learn more.

"I had to go," she says of medical school. "I had to go, because it was the dream." By the time she acted on that dream, it had become Jasmine's dream too.

Muddling Through Med School

When Cynthia enrolled at the University of Medicine and Health Science (UMHS) on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts in her 40s, she was worried that her time outside the classroom would be a liability. "I was very nervous about competing with students half my age," she says.

For Cynthia, mastering the foundational science proved the most difficult. "I thought, initially, that I was going to have some kind of advantage, because I was a nurse practitioner," Cynthia says. "They humbled me the first week." She remembers taking a blood pressure reading — something she did every day at her job — and getting it wrong.

Driving home, Cynthia realized she would have to continue to humble herself in order to learn. She worked with UMHS to personalize her course load. Instead of taking six classes at a time, she took three or four. By slowing down the process, and working closely with her study buddy, Jasmine, she got through. 

Jasmine's struggle wasn't so much the material itself but how to effectively approach it. "I think when I first started medical school, that initial transition from a normal 21-year-old lifestyle to just studying all day, that was difficult for me," she says.

Her undergraduate major was English. She was used to being graded on argumentation and style and struggled with rote memorization. "Even though I took the prerequisite courses [as an undergraduate], having to take multiple science courses at one time was overwhelming to me," Jasmine says.

Her mother's academic advice was helpful, but Jasmine says that it was the emotional support she valued most. "Medical school is one of those experiences other people [not in medicine] don't fully understand," Jasmine says. "A lot of people go to their parents for help or understanding, but she really, truly got what I was going through."

Instead of general empathy or encouragement, Cynthia gave Jasmine practical advice, med student to med student. "If I was burned out and didn't want to study for 3 days, a lot of people would be like, 'Jasmine, you can do this, you've gotta be a doctor!' But [my mother] understood," Jasmine says. "She was like, 'you know what? Go to sleep. Relax. I get it.'"

The Kudjis' simultaneous medical school experience wasn't without its downsides. The double tuition put significant financial stress on the family. Cynthia didn't work while completing her MD. Instead, her father borrowed money against his house, and her sister took out a loan.

Jasmine received a scholarship to cover the cost of tuition but still has about $200,000 in debt from other costs. Both feel the expense was worth it. "It just goes to show that if you want something bad enough and you're willing to work for it, you can [have it]" Jasmine says.

Next Stop: Residency

Although the Kudjis will be in two very different specialties during residency, each believes that the other made the right choice. "I don't think my mom knew she was going into family medicine, but I 100% knew she was," Jasmine says.

After more than 20 years in healthcare, Cynthia's voracious appetite for knowledge persists. It was part of what led her to family medicine. "It's so diversified. It gives you so many skills," she says. She believes the field will help her continue addressing healthcare inequity and ensuring that all patients have quality care.

In the gap between finishing medical school and starting residency, Cynthia has been working as a nurse practitioner in rural Alabama. She spoke of patients who have to choose between their medications and paying their electric bill. "The same disparity I saw in Ghana is the same disparity I [see] here," Cynthia says.

And she knows how those patients feel. "I remember those moments, when I cried, because I was like, 'Lord, I don't have the money to even take [Jasmine] to the doctor,' " Cynthia says. Experiencing such hardships firsthand, she says, "makes you think differently."

Mother and daughter are ready to hit the books as part of their residencies – Cynthia (left) in family medicine, Jasmine in general surgery.

For Jasmine, identifying a specialty required trial and error. "I remember shadowing a plastic surgeon and a trauma surgeon and I was like, 'Oh, this is awesome.' I was really gung-ho with surgery after my first year." Surgery, she says, is the perfect blend of art and science.

Before she explored the humanities in college, she loved painting and other creative outlets. She sees a parallel to the work she'll be doing now. "In plastic surgery, you have the opportunity to reconstruct parts of the body," she says. She'll never forget the first time she scrubbed in. "Seeing the organs, seeing inside the body, was beautiful."

Given their different specialties, the Kudjis may not overlap much during residency. Still, they know how to collaborate, having done a rotation together in Lafayette. Cynthia recalls discussing how they would communicate in front of others. "I said [to Jasmine], 'What are you going to call me in front of other people?' And she said, 'Mommy?' And I said, 'Right answer.' "

The road ahead will be bumpy, as both doctors navigate new duties and patient care during a pandemic. But Cynthia says they're ready. "Jasmine and I, we knew what we were getting into when we decided to be physicians."

Their focus isn't on the stresses ahead but the dreams they are fulfilling. "I love inspirational stories," Cynthia says of her habit for watching uplifting Netflix documentaries. "I love happy endings."

The pair are working on writing their own.

Eleanor Cummins is a freelance journalist whose work runs the gamut of science. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, Vox, and Gizmodo.

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Editor's Note: This article has been updated to more accurately specify the location of the Kudjis' shared clinical rotation and where Jasmine attended medical school.


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