UMHS 2020 graduate Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester and her daughter Dr. Jasmine Kudji are two gutsy women indeed. Back in spring 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester matched into the family medicine residency program at LSU Health Systems in New Orleans. Her daughter Dr. Jasmine Kudji also matched into LSU Health Systems in general surgery. When we interviewed them for the UMHS Endeavour, the story of a mother-and-daughter doctor duo matching into the same hospital system went viral worldwide. They were on “NBC Nightly News,” “The Today Show with Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush,” profiled in People magazine, and more.
Two years later, Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester is still working in the Family Medicine Residency Program at LSU Health in New Orleans, but Dr. Jasmine Kudji is now a pediatrics resident at Tulane Ochsner and Tulane Lakeside in Louisiana at the Tulane University School of Medicine. The Kudjis were approached by the producers of “Gutsy,” an Apple TV + series hosted by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. “Gutsy” is an eight-episode series featuring such renowned women as comedians Wanda Sykes and Amy Schumer, famous mother and daughter actors Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson, comedy writer Amber Ruffin, TV star Mariska Hargitay, activist Dr. Jane Goodall, and unsung heroes like Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester and Dr. Jasmine Kudji—all women who, as Apple TV puts it, “make us laugh and inspire us to be [gutsier].” The UMHS Endeavour recently spoke to the Kudjis about “Gutsy” and also what they have been up to since starting their residencies.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji & her mother, UMHS grad Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester at the premiere of Apple TV's 'Gutsy' in New York City in September 2022. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester.
UMHS: Please introduce yourselves and let people know about your amazing story of matching at the same hospital into the LSU Health Systems. I know Cynthia, you're in family medicine; Jasmine, you're in general surgery, but you're both in the same hospital system. What has the experience been like for the two of you since 2020? You were on “The Today Show,” “NBC Nightly News,” profiled in People Magazine—you both were just everywhere. What have you been up to since then and what was that whole experience like?
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: Oh, well, our story pretty much began with when I went back to Ghana and when I went there, it was just an amazing experience, a life-changing experience. I knew when I came back that I wanted to do medicine, but of course, Jasmine was coming along the way by the time, I think, when I was 21, 22 years-old. When I was at UMHS, I found out that Jasmine got accepted into LSU and we were insanely just like, "Oh, my God. This is crazy." We ended up going through medical school together and then we ended up matching at LSU together. Then Jasmine actually ended up changing from surgery into pediatrics.
UMHS: Oh, wow.
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: Yeah. That's one of the big changes since residency. It's been crazy, I guess would be the word to say.
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: Very busy, huh, Jas?
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: Yeah, for sure. It's been a whirlwind. I think anyone would probably describe residency that way. It's a lot going on at one time, for me in particular. Like my mom said I switched from general surgery to pediatrics. I had originally wanted to do pediatric surgery, which is about a nine to 10-year journey and surgery, the lifestyle's a little different from what I see myself doing in the future or wanting in the future. I realized that I like the kids more than I like the surgery, so yes, I made that switch and it's honestly been one of the best things ever. Pediatrics is so fulfilling and it's so happy and I just love it so much.
UMHS: Which hospital are you working at now, Jasmine?
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: I'm now at Tulane. So, I'm no longer under the LSU System for the first time in my whole life. I've been LSU Tiger since undergrad, but I'm now part of the Green Wave.
UMHS: Another great place to be, Tulane.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: For sure. For sure. I really do enjoy it.
UMHS: Cynthia, you're still at the same hospital?
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: Yes. I'm still doing LSU Family Medicine. It is very busy. As a family medicine resident, you're doing everything. We're delivering babies. You are in surgery for one month and then after that, that's about as much surgery as we get, about one month rotation. Then after that you're in the ER, you're in the clinic, so you get a lot of experience as a family medicine resident.
UMHS: Great. That's awesome. Can you just tell us a little bit how you both got to be included in “Gutsy” on Apple TV +? That's really exciting and we'd love to know more about that.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: That just came out of the blue. They reached out to us on social media. And at first, we didn't know what it was, because of course, it was very secretive. But once we talked to them, we realized what the show was, who the show was for, we were just like, "Oh, wow. This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity." We just were so excited to be a part of it.
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. I tell you one thing that was so interesting is when we actually did the shoot, they had the Secret Service there.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: Yeah. Yeah. We were like, "This is wild. You are a real Secret Service person."
The Kudji family with former President Bill Clinton & Hillary Clinton. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester.
UMHS: Right. This show is hosted by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, and I know there's a lot of celebrities and also a lot of just inspiring women in general, so that must be really exciting. How did it make you feel to both be included in a show “Gutsy” and what are some of the qualities that you both think makes a woman a gutsy woman?
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: It was absolutely such an honor to be included amongst such great women. They have such a myriad of individuals who have done so many amazing things that we're truly just honored. Working with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, one of the things that they wanted to do was put us in an arena that we had never done, and so they chose to work with bees. I was like ...
UMHS: Oh, that's funny!
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: But definitely a great experience. I think one of the things that being a gutsy woman, one of the greatest characteristics, is just having a lot of resilience.
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: Being at UMHS, you have tough courses, you got to get through them. You got to be resilient enough to get through them. Even if you fail, try again and keep trying and keep doing it. It's the same thing when you get to residency and to be honest, it's the same thing in life. Our roads are not going to be the same and it's okay. You don't have to get there, one, two, three. You can get there one and then seven and back to one and then up to 10 or whatever, as long as you get there and as long as you stay focused.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: Yeah. I would say the same thing. I think another quality that makes a woman gutsy is just trying something that's new—trying something that you don't think you can do, and just proving it to yourself and proving it to others that it's possible for you and not only for you, but for others to obtain as well. I think that's what the show really shows the most is there are so many women out here doing so many incredible things that you wouldn't even imagine. When we went to the premiere for the show, we actually met a woman who, she's climbed all of the largest mountains in the world.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: If you were to look at her, just look at her, she's a regular woman. She's 5'5", maybe. She's not super buff or anything, but she is absolutely incredible. It just goes to show that if you set your mind to do anything, you can really achieve it.
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester:
UMHS: What surprised you about working with both Hillary and Chelsea Clinton?
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: They're just very nice people. You think that with everything that they've been through and that they might have an air, but to be honest, they're very easy to talk to. I remember at the end of it, my daughter was like, "Mom, you just had a conversation with Hillary Clinton." She was like, "You can talk to anybody."
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: Yeah. I think that's the most incredible thing about them is that they are normal human beings. They are so personable and so kind. They genuinely wanted to get to know us, which to us was like, "You want to get to know us? Like, you want to know us?" It was just unbelievable. We couldn't even process it. I think another thing that just goes to show how down-to-earth they truly are, when we went to the premiere ,we watched the episode and after, Bill Clinton was there, and of course, we're starstruck. We're like, 'Oh, gosh. Wow." We wanted to go say hello, but we were like, "Can we go say hello? There's Secret Service surrounding him. What should we do?" Finally, we were like, "You know what? Let's just go up, try to say hi." I think I approached Hillary and I said hello, and she immediately recognized us and my mom was like, "Can we say hello to Bill?" She was like, "Oh, of course," and just immediately just brought him over. Even he was like, "Oh, so nice to meet y'all." Everyone was just so kind. There was no air, there was nothing strange about it and it was so nice to see and to feel.
UMHS: That's great. I know I saw some pictures of the premiere party and looked like you had some nice red-carpet moments, some fabulous outfits. I'm sure that must have been really amazing to see the premiere in New York and you guys so deserve it. Your story of being a mother and daughter matching into the same hospital system went viral all over the world. We touched a little bit about this earlier, but you mentioned, Jasmine, what life has been for you that time starting residency. You got all this global media coverage and then you both had to go and start residency and that must have been really intense in the beginning I can imagine for both of you. What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: Definitely. Well, LSU, when I first began, I think they were trying to welcome us. They saw our names and pictures plastered all over the Internet. You couldn't turn on a computer without seeing our faces.
UMHS: Of course.
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: But at the same time, it was very difficult because you're starting off [as an] intern; here you are plastered all over everywhere. It's like, "Okay, the pressure is on."
UMHS: Oh, yeah.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: For sure. I think a lot of intern year, you just want to get in, put your head down and do your best. I do remember that moment of I was in surgery at the time and I think I started on trauma and we would meet at 4:30 in the morning to review the cases or review the surgeries for the day. I just remember them turning the computer screen on and my mom and I's face popped up and I was like, "Oh, gosh. Everyone is going to know that that's me. This is so embarrassing. Oh, my God." But the thing that I honestly found was the coolest about going into residency with this media frenzy was that patients noticed us, and especially our African-American patients, especially women, they would say, "Oh, you're a part of the mother-daughter duo. I'm so proud of you." On those days where you've worked 20 hours or you've made multiple mistakes and you're just feeling terrible, it feels so good to have someone say, "I'm proud of you. Keep going." It really feels like we have the whole world’s support behind us and it does make this journey so much better.
UMHS: That’s so awesome. That goes into my next question. You guys are both are inspiration to young girls and women dreaming of one day becoming a doctor, especially women of color. What's one piece of advice that you would both give to young women of color who want to become a doctor and are thinking about it, but are maybe a little uncertain about whether it's possible for them? What advice would you give them?
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: I think for me, one of the main things is that always realizing that the road is going to be tough. Right? Whatever color you are, it's going to be tough, and be able to accept failures. You have to turn that inside out, because failures are going to happen, but there are opportunities to get better. It's an opportunity to learn. You will not realize it at the time, but later you're going to really appreciate it. So even if you don't get into the residency of your choice, or you don't make straight A’s, take what you have and pat yourself on the back and keep going because somebody's going to recognize your efforts.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: I completely agree with that. I think something that also goes with that is this idea of being transparent. We all go into medical school and a lot of us are type A, we're used to succeeding, we're used to making the grades and being the best and all that stuff. Then when you get to medical school, everyone is like that, so all of a sudden, you're no longer number one. Out of 200 people, you may be number 200.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: Sometimes you have to look over to your peers and say, "Hey, I don't understand what's happening. I don't understand this subject. I need help," and sometimes that's so hard to do, but transparency is, I think, key. It allows you to connect with the people around you, it allows you to connect with your patients. It allows you to be free. It prevents you from bearing the weight of succeeding or failing on your own.
UMHS: Absolutely. Jasmine, I remember you telling me when we initially did the interview two years ago that you and your mother would both study together via FaceTime and Skype, even though you were in Louisiana and she was in St. Kitts. What was it like being able to support each other together this way even virtually? It must have been great knowing that you had had each other's backs.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: Oh, yeah. Definitely. We still do it to this day. It's mostly out of necessity because at the end of the day, like I said, you need support. For me to have that support be my mom, that's just unparalleled. It's been the best thing ever. I think at that time when she was in the islands and I was here, I was still very young. I think I went to med school at 21, and so I needed that support to just get through life.
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: To be honest, we still are very, very supportive of one another and it's the same thing when you're in medical school. A lot of times if you don't support one another, you're not going to make it through. Medical school sometimes I think is very competitive. Yeah, sure. But you want to be nice to each other. You want to support one another. You can be a gunner, but be a nice gunner. You know what I'm saying, because it's all about support, because you're not just competing with the people in your class for a residency spot, you're actually competing against everybody in the country. So, use the people that are around you to support you and get you through it.
UMHS: Right. And Cynthia, you started UMHS as a nontraditional student, and wanted to ask you what advice you have for both current and prospective traditional, nontraditional students rather for being successful in med school, especially for women of any age, just like you that might have kids, because I know we have a lot of women that are nontraditional students? Sometimes they have little kids that they bring to the island. What's some advice you would give them?
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: That, you know what? Your children are going to get sick and it's okay. Things are going to happen and it's okay. You're going to get through it. A lot of times just being a nontraditional student, you’ve got to utilize the resources that UMHS has available. One of them is your attendings. One of the things that kind of stands out about UMHS is that their attendings are so accessible. I remember meeting with an attending on a Sunday, on a Sunday morning because that was the only time in my schedule, but they met with me. So, you’ve got to utilize your attendings, you’ve got to utilize your dean. One of the things that struck me about UMHS is that how they were able to change the schedule to fit my needs if I needed it.
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: You've got to utilize those resources and know that yes, we bear the responsibility of being a mom, but you can absolutely do this and UMHS helps make it possible.
UMHS: That segues right into my next question, Cynthia. Can you think of one or two things about your UMHS medical education that really helped you become the doctor that you are today?
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: I would definitely say the support of the staff. They were just absolutely amazing. I loved the way they taught because they broke it down for you. They made things simple to understand and then we also had study groups where could go and you can be tutored by your peers. So, they just give you the support that you need.
UMHS: Jasmine and Cynthia, you both have been an awesome interview. Is there anything else that you want to add about the show “Gutsy” or about med school or anything that we haven't covered?
Dr. Jasmine Kudji: Ihope y'all all check out the show. We are on episode eight, I believe, but all the episodes, I've watched most of them already and they've been all been great.
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: Yeah. Absolutely.
UMHS: Great. So, people can binge watch you, it's several episodes, correct?
Dr. Jasmine Kudji:
It is several episodes, yes.
UMHS: Great. That's on Apple TV + ?
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester: Apple TV.
UMHS: I want to thank you so much for your time and you've been a great interview and I hope you continue to inspire many people, which I'm sure you will. Thanks so much for your time today.
Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester:
Thank you. Thank you for having us.
Dr. Jasmine Kudji:
(Top photo): Dr. Jasmine Kudji & Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester at the premiere for Apple TV's "Gutsy" in New York City. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester.
Scott is Director of Digital Content & Alumni Communications Liaison at UMHS and editor of the UMHS Endeavour blog. When he's not writing about UMHS students, faculty, events, public health, alumni and UMHS research, he writes and edits Broadway theater reviews for a website he publishes in New York City, StageZine.com.