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Perfectly Matched

Mother-Daughter MDs Start Residencies Together at LSU Health New Orleans

Drs. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester and Jasmine Kudji

July 1, 2020 is a big day in the life of newly minted doctors. It is the day when they start their residency programs, the graduate medical education training that is their final preparation before they can practice their medical specialties on their own. It is a milestone that an unusual mother and daughter are reaching together. They both graduated from medical school in May, albeit from different universities. That in itself sets them apart. But what further distinguishes the pair is that they both matched residency programs at the same institution -- LSU Health New Orleans. And at the start of the new year, they will rotate at the same hospital —at the same time. Their inspirational story has gone viral, so they are also arguably the most well-known medical residents this year.

Meet Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester, an LSU Health New Orleans Family Medicine resident, and Dr. Jasmine Kudji, a member of the LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine Class of 2020 and an LSU Health New Orleans Surgery resident.

Dr. Kudji Sylvester’s path to medicine was anything but conventional. An immigrant from Ghana whose family came to New Orleans when she was two years old, Kudji Sylvester decided she wanted to be a doctor after a family trip to Ghana. “A stranger asked my mother and I to help her with her child that was sick. The child did not do well, and seeing this disparity made me want to be a physician.”

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She was well on her way when she became pregnant during her senior year in college. As a single mom, she put her dream on hold to raise her child. Her pastor suggested nursing might be a way to still be involved with medicine.

“I worked as Certified Nursing Assistant and a maid while I went to school to be an RN (registered nurse),” Kudji Sylvester says.

Her first job out of school was at Charity Hospital. Kudji Sylvester spent nearly a year there. She was finishing up another degree to become a nurse practitioner and still working as a nurse to support herself and her daughter when New Orleans flooded after the floodwalls failed in 2005. “I was working as a charge nurse at Memorial Hospital during Katrina.”
Jasmine and Cnhthia Kudji at graduation
All in all, Kudji Sylvester spent almost 20 years in the nursing profession as an RN and a nurse practitioner. She put her daughter through Newman High School and when she got to college, Kudji Sylvester decided it was time to pick up her dream again. And her daughter couldn’t be prouder.

“It took her 26 years to achieve her dream of becoming a physician, but she never quit despite many set-backs,” notes Dr. Kudji. “She is an amazing woman who has made me everything that I am today.”

And for Dr. Jasmine Kudji, there was never any question about what that would be.

“I’ve wanted to be a physician my entire life. Because my mom was a nurse the majority of my life, I was exposed to the medical field at a very young age. I would go see patients with my mom during the summer when she was a Nurse Practitioner, and when I was in high school, I shadowed many different types of physicians. My love of medicine came naturally as it was a constant in my life. I think the moment that I knew I wanted to be a surgeon was when I watched my first surgery. I was fascinated by the beauty of the organs and the pink, cotton-candy fascia. I loved the fast pace and immense knowledge of the surgeons, and I was so surprised that the day had flown by without me even realizing it. I knew that day that this is what I wanted to do.”

Jasmine Kudji LSU graduation
Dr. Kudji earned her undergraduate degree from LSU in three years. “Soon after my 21st birthday, I found out that I was accepted to LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans.”

Though mom and daughter were separated by nearly 2,000 miles, they were each other’s support.

“Being in medical school at the same time as my mom was incredible,” recalls Kudji. “Many people who have not experienced medical school don’t understand the struggles that we face on a day-to-day basis. They don’t understand why we have to skip social events to study. They don’t understand burnout, and because of this, it can be very tough to find support from people outside of medicine. I felt very lucky that my mom, who had been my rock my entire life, was now also my peer, and she fully understood everything I was going through. I don’t think I would have made it through medical school without her there.”

In medical school, Kudji was in LSU Health New Orleans’ Rural Scholars track, which is based at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine’s branch campus in Lafayette. With her love of rural medicine, her mom chose to check it out for herself.

During their fourth year, senior medical students visit residency programs to decide their rank order list of programs where they would like to go for their residency training. The visits give residency programs the opportunity to get to know students to decide to whom they would like to offer spots. The lists go into a computer that finds “matches,” which are revealed at 11:00 a.m. on Match Day.

“When I did my away rotation in Lafayette, this program reminded me of Charity Hospital,” says Kudji Sylvester. “Everyone wanted to teach! Everyone wanted to make me better! I had learned so much within my six weeks!! It was everything I had wanted in a residency program.”

Both soon-to-be doctors Kudji anxiously awaited Match Day last March, different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no ceremonies. The news came by email.
“I was at home when I found out I matched,” recalls Kudji. “I woke up very early that morning because I was extremely anxious to receive the Match email. The email was supposed to come at 11am, but my mom received her email a few minutes earlier. So, she called me at around 10:58 to tell me she matched. We both screamed and cried and then two minutes later I found out that I matched, and we celebrated yet again.”
Jasmine Kudji Match post
During the time between completion of her medical education requirements and the start of residency, Kudji Sylvester went back to her roots. She worked as a Nurse Practitioner in the rural areas of Rogersville, Alabama. “I have been on the front lines treating COVID patients.”
Jasmine Kudji's painting on display
Kudji was able to pick up a paint brush again, which reinforced her choice of a specialty. A talented artist, surgery combines many of Kudji’ s interests.

“Surgery embodies everything that I enjoy as an artist, an athlete, and a lifetime learner. I love the fast pace,” she explains. “I love the fact that I can so directly improve someone’s quality of life using my two hands. I love the physicality and mental rigor of the field. As an artist, I love the idea of reconstructing the body and manipulating tissues to recreate and improve its natural form and function. I love that surgery gives me a space to seek perfection, symmetry, and balance. I love the variety that exists within the field of general surgery and the fact that by the end of my residency I would have learned to operate on every inch of the human body.”

They are excited for what comes next.

“I am most looking forward to my first day as a resident.,” says Kudji. “I am anxious to learn more and to identify and fix my deficiencies. I have waited my entire life for July 1st, 2020, and I can’t wait to walk into the hospital that day and face all of the obstacles that are sure to come.”

Kudji Sylvester is most looking forward to “learning how to medically manage and treat patients from the perspective of a physician. I really want to be a master of my craft.”

They both plan to practice in Louisiana after residency.

Says Kudji, "I also have a strong desire to teach. I would love to one day become a faculty member at LSU as well as help encourage other young African American women to pursue careers in surgery.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji in her long white coat

“Diversity in medicine is extremely important not only for students who are pursuing careers in medicine, but also for our patients," she continues. "Only 2% of physicians in the United States are African American women and even fewer are surgeons. As a result, as a patient as well as a student it is very difficult to find a face within a hospital that looks like yours. As a student, this makes it difficult to find mentors and sometimes it also makes it difficult to feel as though you belong. As a patient, this lack of diversity can create serious issues that affect quality of care as well as decreased levels of understanding and trust within the patient-physician relationship.”

Kudji Sylvester agrees. To her, being a physician is “an opportunity to make an impact in someone else’s life and be an agent of change and improvement of the health care disparities.”

Her words of advice for young people – “Not to give up their dreams. No matter what life brings, never give up!”

Her example has stirred people all over the world.
“It has been such an honor to have impacted and inspired so many people from all over the world from Ghana, to Ukraine to Spain to Aruba!!” Kudji Sylvester exclaims. “We have been reached out to by several celebrities, and the AAFP, AMA, several nationally syndicated programs. It has been very humbling.”

“We could have never dreamt that people would be so inspired by our story, and that people from all around the world would reach out to use to celebrate with us and congratulate us,” adds Kudji. “It’s been such an incredible experience being featured on so many media outlets -- BBC, Today Show, Fox News, NBC News, Access Hollywood, NPR, and even Morning shows in Africa. We’ve also been congratulated by the Ghanaian Embassy, and we received personal congratulations from the Ghanaian Ambassador.”

Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester AAFP story
Kudji Sylvester’s thanks are heartfelt. “We are eternally grateful to all for the outpouring, and truly it has taken a village for us to come this far.”

We can’t wait to see what this dynamic duo will achieve next!

Dr. Cynthia Kudji Syvlester and Dr. Jasmine Kudji