At last, Jazmyn Shaw is on home ground
Published on Monday, March 2, 2020
By: Gary Pettus, email@example.com
As a little girl named Jasmine Lawson, she went into foster care whenever her mother went on a binge, handed down from family to family like an outgrown coat.
The adults in charge tried to place Jazmyn and her half-sister Latasha with Latasha’s father – who was slightly less invisible than Jazmyn’s dad; it didn’t work out.
So, whenever their mother would drop them off at day care and abandon them there, a social worker took them to a hospital emergency room, waiting to be placed in a home they could call their own for a while.
Today, some 20 years later, you can still find Jasmine – now Jazmyn Shaw – in the emergency room, but this time as a nurse waiting on patients instead of waiting for a mom. This time as the mom of a daughter herself, with both a son and a medical degree on the way.
“It seems crazy that I’m only about a year away from graduation,” said Shaw a third-year student in the School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
“It’s really unbelievable. After everything I’ve been through, I’m doing this now.”
‘ALL I HAD’
“Now” is the part of her story she prefers to dwell on, the one where the particulars don’t, in dreary succession, overlap. As for “everything I’ve been through,” those chapters are just echoes of each other, bad moments on a loop.
“I can’t really tell you what the saddest day of my life has been,” Shaw said, when asked. “I’ve had so many that were just the same sad day.”
But an account of that same sad day is what resonates with those who have heard it and who are struck by how it differs so much from the day she lives now.
“After I met her and learned more and more about her,” said Katherine Cranston, her friend and fellow M3, “I said, ‘Oh, my God; you should write a book.’”
The beginning of that book might start in Phoenix, Arizona, where Jasmine Lawson was born, the child of an unknown father and a mom who was barely there.
“She was a drug addict,” said Shaw, one of three sisters, including Latasha, who is just 11 months older than her, and Shamarr. “When I was younger, I was very close to Latasha,” Shaw said. “For a while, she was all I had.
“She made sure I ate, and made sure my hair was done – but what that looked like, I don’t know. I was 6 years old.”
One of the scariest moments of her young life happened when was just 4 or 5. It may have been the first time she was taken to the emergency room, or maybe just first time she remembers it. She also remembers an act of kindness that diminished her fear and dejection, not only then, but also in the years to come.
“One day, there was a physician in the ER who sat me on her lap and told me I was safe and that everything would be OK,” Shaw said. “She gave me a teddy bear to hold.” If there was a single moment that determined what she would become, that may have been the one.
Of course, she didn’t know then where she would end up by age 6, much less by 26. Sleeping in beds that weren’t really hers, she had dreams of becoming a doctor, even as a girl; but dreams that were “clouded by certain circumstances,” she said, and all but drained of hope.
“There was always the more realistic expectation of having to survive.”
One day when she was 7 and in the first grade, the school’s intercom crackled with her name. “I was told to go to the office at the end of the day,” she said. Waiting for her were a social worker, her mother and woman who would take Jasmine home with her.
For the next five years or so, Jasmine remained with that woman’s family in foster care. At age 12, “Jasmine” became “Jazmyn.” She also became that family’s daughter; the adoption was finalized.
“I’m very thankful for them,” Shaw said. “They took really good care of me.” The family’s name is Braxton – the second of three names Jazmyn Shaw, at one time or the other, has attached to her first.
With so many identities, so many homes, where is her sense of place; where does she fit in?
“I’m not from Mississippi originally,” Shaw said, “but in my heart, Mississippi is the first place that felt like home. The place where I found stability.”
It’s the place where she found Aaron Shaw: “It was hard to trust people before,” she said. “But with him, I’ve always felt very secure, very safe. He’s one of the kindest humans I know, someone I can be with and not constantly be in survival mode.
“I’d say we both broke a lot of generational curses, and we both are setting examples for our kids,” said Shaw, who’s expecting a son in April.
“My family and the life Aaron and I have created is what I’m proudest of. I feel fulfilled. Aaron also came from poverty. People who look at both of us and where we came from might say, ‘You’re not supposed to be where you are now.’”
One place she wouldn’t be now, most likely, is with Aaron, or in Mississippi; but she is because her adoptive father is from Brookhaven. That’s where she headed one day in 2007 to attend a graduation for one of his children from a previous marriage. And that’s where her life was suddenly changed by an encounter with Aaron Shaw.
Three years later, she moved to Mississippi, where she would marry and make a life in Clinton. “Moving here was pretty much on a whim,” Shaw said. “Aaron and I had been in a long-distance relationship until then.
“Thinking Arizona had nothing else to offer, I packed my bag and got on a plane. It’s all been uphill since then – in a good way.”
She transferred her cashier’s job at a Best Buy in Phoenix to a store in Jackson. She saw customers come in wearing scrubs, dressed for a dream that was hers. It was a dream she decided to revive. “I asked those customers to recommend a good local school for pre-med or medical sciences,” she said.
In August 2010, the year she moved to Mississippi and married Aaron, she became a pre-med major at Mississippi College. In February of the following year, she found out she was going to become a mom.
“I panicked,” she said.
She remembered what she and her sister had been through – the mom and the money that were never there. She weighed the amount of time and money it would take to become a doctor – “time” and “money” are practically synonyms for medical school – against her wish to earn a good living for her family much sooner.
“I decided to go into nursing,” she said. “Medical school meant a lot of debt. I had a daughter on the way. If I went into nursing, I would be able to finish and immediately make a living; I’d be better able to take care of her, and that was very important to me.”
“The idea of being a physician wasn’t realistic; I set it aside.” In the spring of 2014, she graduated from Mississippi College with her Bachelor of Science in Nursing; by the fall, she was training as a nurse practitioner.
While working at St. Dominic Hospital, though, her dream got another chance; it was re-resuscitated in the place you would expect: the ER.
“Dr. Karl Hatten was there one day.” Shaw said, “He told me I had a lot of potential, and I should consider going to medical school.”
Apparently, he saw in her what others have confirmed at UMMC. “Medical students have similar qualities; we all work hard,” Shaw’s friend Cranston said, “but I think she stands out because she works harder than everyone else.
“She has an insane amount of drive and energy, but she is this normal, humble, down-to-earth person who is able to balance everything going on in her life. Her passion for medicine is palpable and, in a way, it helps you remember why you are passionate about medicine too.”
As for Shaw, it helped that her husband was “very supportive.” She pulled out of the nurse practitioner program at UMMC in December 2014, and by the following January, began the pre-med studies she had long deferred – while still working weekends as a nurse.
And everything else, it seemed, began working for her. She took the Medical College Admission Test in 2016, scoring well enough to be admitted, on her first try, to the only medical school she applied to: this one. “I didn’t want to move,” she said.
Deciding to find the time for school was one thing. Finding the means was another. She and Aaron had long talks that seemed to come up short.
“But one day I came home from a physics class and checked the mailbox,” Shaw said. “I saw a letter from UMMC and figured it was more admissions paperwork.”
It was not. It was a letter congratulating her for being awarded a Fred McDonnell, M.D. Scholarship. “I thought, ‘oh, cool, a scholarship,’” she said. Then it got cooler. “I kept reading and saw the words ‘full cost of attendance’” she said, “and ‘renewable.’
“I couldn’t believe it. I walked into the house and burst into tears. I asked my husband to read it so he could tell me I had read what I thought I had read. For the next couple of days we kept reading that letter, just to make sure.”
The McDonnell Scholarship is one of several awards totaling millions of dollars and made possible by the Mississippi philanthropist and entrepreneur, Jim Barksdale, and his family. Shaw become one of dozens of scholars whose medical education has been totally paid for.
“I am so thankful for it,” she said. “It has allowed me to go to school for free. Once I graduate, I will be able to give back to the community much more quickly than I would if I was $250,000 in debt.”
In the classroom, in her student research work, in her medical rotations with UMMC physicians, she has made the most of that gift. “She is very professional and communicates extremely well with fellow students, faculty and, most importantly, with patients,” said Dr. Bryan Barksdale, UMMC professor of cardiology and one of the physicians for whom the Barksdale scholarships are named.
“We enjoyed her on the [cardiology] service very much.”
Dr. Sarah Sterling, who has mentored Shaw for her project in the Medical Student Research Program, has known her since Shaw joined the ER as a nurse and proved to be a “great role model for younger females interested in medicine.
“She is an all-star in so many ways, but still someone who is kind and someone you would want to hang out with,” said Sterling, associate professor of emergency medicine. “It’s rare to find that combination.
“She has been dynamite in her research project, as she is in other aspects of her life. She is just relentless. She is going to do as much as she can, and do it well.”
What she does goes well beyond the classroom. Shaw represents medical students across the country as chair of the Medical Student Council for the Emergency Medicine Residents’ Association and has served on the EMRA’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.
On campus, she is a past leader of Black Representation in Medicine – its goal is to encourage more African American women and men to enroll in medical school. “This is also a big part of who I am,” she said.
“For those students who have backgrounds like mine, I hope I never forget that I have been where they are now.
“The big thing for me now is letting my own kids know that, no matter what your rock bottom is, just remember it’s temporary. Even if temporary is really long, better days are coming.”
In January, during a luncheon honoring the Barksdale Scholars, Shaw described her better days, along with some of her worst. In the audience was Dr. Jerry Clark, chief student affairs officer and associate dean for student affairs in the School of Medicine.
“Working in medical education for years, I’ve heard a lot of speeches, but I got very emotional listening to Jazz Shaw,” Clark said. “I’m so proud to call her our student. I’m so proud of Mississippi for embracing her.
“I know we’re 50th in a lot of things, but I have to believe Mississippi is No. 1 when it comes to heart. I can’t think of a better place for a new physician to train and practice. Thanks for picking us, Jazz.”
There are also many reasons she picked her specialty: emergency medicine, as her role with EMRA suggests. “I like not knowing what’s coming next,” she said. “The adrenaline rush.
“I also love the camaraderie in the Emergency Department, how we work together daily to save people’s lives. We see people in their worst moments. I feel like I’ve had a lot of bad moments in my life, too, but also had a shoulder to cry on; I enjoy being able to be that person for others.
“As an ER physician, you have the opportunity to be there for people at really low points in their life.” Just as a physician had been there for her on a day when her mother didn’t show up.
The last time she saw the woman who gave birth to Jasmine Lawson, Jazmyn Shaw was 20. She’s 28 now. She had traveled to Arizona, hoping to show off her new baby: her mother’s granddaughter. This time, her mom showed up.
“She has decided to be sober,” Shaw said. “I would say she’s done a great job in turning her life around, 180 degrees.”
Aubri, her daughter, is now 8 – an age when Shaw was living an itinerant life of temporary homes with temporary parents. “If anything, I think that has made me appreciative of every single moment with Aubri,” she said.
“I spend moments with my daughter I didn’t get to spend with my mom when I was younger. It makes them that much more special.”
So special that she does her best to arrange school and her part-time work in the ER so she can be at Aubri’s softball games.
“One of the hardest things this year for me happened when I missed one of her softball tournaments. But the awesome thing is that Aubri is really proud that her mom is going to be a doctor.”
A doctor, she said, who refused “to accept that the way her life started is the way it had to end.”