Today is a big day for Stephen Barnes of Youngstown, Ohio. He, along with hundreds of his elite peers, will be participating in the white coat ceremony for first year students at Harvard’s prestigious medical school. Barnes, who hopes to be a thoracic surgeon, has worked long and hard for this day. However, he was not always sure this day would come. He started life under a cloud and has been struggling to make up ground ever since. Barnes was fed formula as an infant.
“I always wanted to be a doctor,” Barnes says, “but not having breastmilk felt like a black mark in my past. I really had to work hard in high school to make up for that. I felt like all my classmates had been nursed for 6 months or longer. How could I compete?’
But when Barnes started college, he realized that he was not alone in having to overcome educational obstacles. ‘My freshman roommate was a straight-A student. I was in awe of him. I assumed he’d had the right start in life. Then he told me his mom let him cry it out. He cried for 27 minutes one night! That was when I realized that I could do anything I wanted, formula or no formula.”
During college Barnes started a support group for other ambitious kids who had fallen victim to parenting mistakes in infancy. “There was this one girl, boy was she struggling,” Barnes recalls, “Her mom had taken away her binkie when she was , like 12 months old. Her mom swears it was for the best since the binkie was affecting the shape of her palate but this girl? Man, she had no confidence after that. It was like she was spending her whole life trying to reclaim a lost best friend. She eventually fell in love with this other kid who had been allowed to sleep in a swing until he outgrew it. It was like they were meant for each other.”
When asked if he might consider a speciality in pediatrics where he can be on the front lines of making sure no other babies endure ordeals like his Barnes is quiet.
“You know, I thought about it. I feel like I do have a lot to offer new moms as a child who succeeded despite some questionable choices my mom made. But on the other hand, maybe that adversity was critical to my success. Maybe being breastfed would have made me lazy. I might have felt like, hey, that article says breastmilk already made me smarter so why study? I’ve already got this. Instead, I had to work really hard and go to class and do all my reading and labs and stuff. Without formula, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Whatever speciality Stephen Barnes chooses, he knows one thing for sure: “When I have kids, I’m totally not going to sweat the small stuff. Lots of kids grow up great even if their parents had to use guess work and trial and error to figure out the best way take care of them. My mom loved me and that was the big thing.’
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