M. Natalie Achong, M.D., grew up in the working-class New York City boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, where her neighbors were predominantly other African-American families.
While she was by no means raised in the lap of luxury, the 46-year-old mother of two likes to focus on the blessings and privileges that she has enjoyed in her life: caring, attentive parents and a close-knit community that instilled in her a sense of ethnic pride and civic responsibility.
From a young age, Achong and her two younger siblings were expected to succeed, regardless of circumstances.
Their father, an immigrant from Trinidad, was a major role model. He never missed a day of work and told his children that his job was to go to work every day and that their job was to do their best in school.
After graduating from secondary school, she was accepted to several Ivy League universities but instead enrolled in a prestigious, accelerated B.S./M.D. program at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at the City University of New York (CUNY), which enabled her to become a doctor by age 22 — when most of her peers were just finishing college.
During her medical training, Achong solidified her commitment to social justice and public service. Although she had never before lived away from home, the then-20-year-old medical student initiated a protest that took her to the Deep South to work with teen mothers at a health clinic in the Mississippi Delta.
This experience convinced her that she could make a difference in the lives of young women by specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. She also declined offers to join lucrative private medical practices that might have afforded her a luxurious lifestyle.
Today, Achong serves in hospitals that treat a broad spectrum of needy patients.
In addition to working full time as an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale School of Medicine and as an attending physician at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, she spends much of her spare time on nonclinical duties: volunteering at a health clinic, joining church-sponsored activities, publishing original research in peer-reviewed medical journals, and volunteering with overseas medical missions that have taken her to the Dominican Republic and Ghana, where she’s helped set up free clinics for local residents.
She also supports the arts, youth services and international affairs through involvement in an organization called The Links, composed of African-American professional women.
“I feel that there’s a higher calling in working and imparting the best, excellent and valued medicine to those who maybe can’t afford the ‘good doctors,’” she says.
“It’s not just about making money, as a physician. It’s also about doing my best to support my family and also give back to the community.”
Achong’s many obligations require a great deal of energy, time management and, above all, personal commitment.
She rises daily at 5 a.m. for prayer and meditation before diving into her activities.
One of her greatest joys is her family. While raising two children, which means everything from getting them to school on time to helping them with their homework, Achong participates in their extracurricular activities, as well.
“The work [I do] at home is as pressing, important and demanding physically as anything I do in the hospital,” she says. “Doctors lead lives that are complicated and pressured. And as a mother raising kids, it really is a juggling act.”
Achong admits that finding time for self-care is a constant dilemma for many doctors.
“Doctors may not always have the time they would like to devote to keeping themselves fit, in balance and eating well. It’s really challenging to do that when you’re being pulled in so many directions,” she says.
She humorously adds a self-deprecating reference to the television medical dramas that feature physically stunning physicians who look flawless at any hour, day or night: “Most doctors don’t look like that.”
Beyond volunteering, Achong regularly lectures care providers about topics ranging from cultural awareness to how to better meet the needs of underserved communities.
“There is still a lot that needs to be said … on issues of ethnicity because it does make a difference. I certainly see that in terms of health care when it comes to women’s health,” she says.
This belief is at the core of her devotion to women’s health, both locally and globally.
“More often than not, women are the ones who decide health care issues in a given family. They’re the ones who take the kids to the doctor, they’re the ones who take care of the sick children, they make the appointment, they’re the ones that drive all that,” says Achong.
“Even for my colleagues who are mothers and physicians, even with all their so-called titles and education, they’re still the ones that tend to the sick and the home, more often than not.”
Those whose lives have been touched by Achong are fortunate that she feels a responsibility to care for her family, community and wider world as a truly global healer.
This profile accompanies the essay Think you know all about Americans by watching TV? Not so fast. It is abridged from the original, which appears in Pop Culture versus Real America, published in 2010 by the Bureau of International Information Programs.
The essay’s author, Megan A. Wong, is a foreign affairs officer at the U.S. Department of State.