Diane Thompson‘s mother was about to return to Jamaica after their living conditions in the United States became unfavourable, but a then 16-year-old Thompson told her mom that she would not leave until she has made a life for herself in that country.
That decision was the first in a series of choices that led Thompson to becoming the medical director of the Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) in New York, and an assistant professor of clinical physical medicine and rehabilitation at CUMC. She is triple board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation, brain injury medicine and lifestyle medicine, and is the author of two books.
Thompson shared with All Woman that she had to work hard, every step of her journey.
“My mom was pregnant with me at age 15 and was kicked out of the house. She also dropped out of school at that age because of the pregnancy,” she shared. “And while I knew that my father loved me, he didn’t have much to give to me financially, as he had seven of us with four different mothers.”
Thompson suffered from asthma as a child, and she had frequent attacks while attending St. Catherine Primary School. It was the treatment she received for her condition at Spanish Town Hospital that influenced her decision to become a doctor.
“I didn’t know what those doctors did but it felt like they had a superpower, because when I left the hospital I was always feeling better,” she remembered. “That’s where I first became interested in helping people in a similar manner in which I was helped. But since my mom was a high school drop-out, and no one in my family had ever gone to college, I secretly kept that goal.”
So when her mother got an opportunity to migrate to the United States, at the end of Thompson’s fourth year at St. Jago High School, she began to visualise how she could make her dreams a reality.
“We were supposed to stay with a relative, but when we arrived in New York, his wife said we couldn’t stay there so we had no place to live,” Thompson recounted. “My mom wanted to return home, because by then she was married and owned a hair salon in Jamaica, and felt that life was going to be too difficult in America, but I saw it as my opportunity to achieve some of my goals, so I told her if she left I wouldn’t be returning with her.”
The teen and her mother hauled their suitcases with all their possessions to an employment office, and they both took jobs as live-in helpers in order to have somewhere to sleep at nights.
“My mom went to a job in Long Island , and we told my employer (in Scarsdale) that I was 20, even though I was 16 and should have been in school,” Thompson explained. “She took advantage of the situation and I worked over 70 hours per week for $100 per week. I was tasked with cleaning her large home and taking care of her two boys — one of whom was only a few years younger than me. It was humbling, but I was fine because I knew that I wanted a better life and I knew it would only be temporary.”
After one year of housekeeping jobs, Thompson and her mother were able to save enough money to find a place of their own, and she was able to continue her high school education.
“I was a year behind, but I graduated on time by taking summer classes, and I graduated in the top one per cent of my class,” she said as she reflected on one of her first triumphs.
“But I realised America would be more challenging than I had initially expected, so I convinced myself that medicine wasn’t feasible and I became a nurse instead. I graduated with honours, went on to earn my masters as a nurse practitioner (advance practice nurse),” she recalled.
Thompson was the only one in her graduating class to earn the Sigma Theta Honor Society award — a prestigious award presented to exceptional nurses in different areas — and she worked as a nursing professor. But she was not satisfied.
“Despite my success as a nurse, my yearning for pursuing medicine didn’t leave, so in my 30s I resigned from my job and decided to enter a post-baccalaureate programme to earn the pre-medical requirements,” she told All Woman.
But Thompson failed her first exam and almost gave up on her childhood dream when her instructor suggested that she return to nursing.
“He told me I didn’t have what it took to be a doctor and I wouldn’t pass the programme, and even if I passed the programme, I wouldn’t get into medical school, and even if someone let me in their school, I wouldn’t survive,” she recounted.
Thompson was embarrassed and wallowed in self-pity for a while.
“But I shook it off after my then boyfriend (now husband) reminded me that someone’s opinion of me is none of my business,” she said.
“I returned to class and got As in every class after. After my eighth acceptance to medical school, I cancelled the other interviews as I had gotten accepted to my first choice of medical school (University of Maryland School of Medicine), as well as my first choice of residency training (Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at New York Presbyterian-Columbia/Cornell),” a proud Thompson said.
After completing her studies, Thompson was offered a job at the hospital where she was trained, and was promoted to medical director after only four months on the job.
Now that she has achieved her dream, Thompson enjoys sharing her knowledge on lifestyle medicine — the area of medicine that focuses on finding ways to prevent, treat and reverse lifestyle-related chronic diseases.
“The evidence now shows that 80 per cent of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, some heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers, are preventable, and that we dig our graves with our forks by eating unhealthy foods, living a sedentary lifestyle, and surrounding ourselves with chronic stress,” she said pointedly.
“Lifestyle medicine uses evidence-based strategies as medicine, that is, food and exercise, and [are] prescribed in the way you would prescribe pills to help prevent, treat and even reverse many chronic diseases. Lifestyle medicine puts the power back in the patient’s hands and I am able to give them the tools to keep themselves healthy,” the doctor explained.
Thompson’s second book, Lifestyle Medicine Rx: 101 Ways to Transform Your Health and Life, delves into this topic, and is an Amazon number one best-seller in four categories.
Staying true to her Jamaica roots, the doctor has integrated herbs from her homeland into lifestyle medicine.
“Under my company Lifestyle Medicine Rx LLC, I am also currently working with a formulator and cosmetic chemist to create a line of skin and body care product using moringa sourced from Jamaica, as one of the main ingredients,” she said of the product which is expected to be launched next year.
This product will undoubtedly hold a top spot in Thompson’s online store, The Lifestyle Medicine Rx Shop, which provides a variety of health and wellness products.
She also wants to share her wealth of knowledge in lifestyle medicine with her home country and the Caribbean region.
“Last year I was in Trinidad teaching health professionals how to prescribe lifestyle medicine to their patients. My next goal is to provide that training in Jamaica. I also have future plans of starting a scholarship at my alma mater St Jago High School in St Catherine,” she said.
With so many things going on, it is no surprise that Thompson, who is married and has an adult stepson, had to reconsider how she balances her career goals and her personal life.
“Two years ago I moved to a four days per week schedule. I felt that I needed more time for myself and, yes, it means I make less money, but my happiness is paramount,” she rationalised.
Looking to the future, Thompson hopes to adopt an older child from foster care or an orphanage, so that she can provide someone who would have otherwise struggled like she had, with better opportunities. She is currently working on a third book.
“One of my BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is to own a lifestyle medicine retreat centre, where people can come for a weekend or for several weeks to immerse themselves in education on health and wellness, so they can leave healthier and happier and take the knowledge back to their families and communities,” she shared.
Thompson is heavily influenced by the work of Maya Angelou, who she considers to be her mentor, though she has never met her. Angelou has provided her with one of her favourite quotes, which is: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, compassion, some humour, and style.”
This interview was originally published here.