Dr. Monique Tolston knows her patients’ stories.
At Family First Health Care on the Northwest Radial, Tolston knows which of her patients have been in prison, which are recovering from substance abuse and which are members of the four-generation family she serves. She knows when patients can’t afford gas for their cars.
Her patients know her story, too.
She grew up in a one-story rental home in north Omaha with chipping white paint and weeds for grass, the youngest of five living with her mother. She and her siblings washed their clothes at the laundromat and then walked home with a twice-as-heavy wet pile to hang on the clothesline. They knew to walk across the street from the crack houses, and to be home before the streetlights came on.
In the area of Omaha with the highest concentration of poverty and unemployment, Tolston dreamed of becoming a doctor.
She took a long route to get to where she is now — 20 years of nursing and medical school followed by 10 years of working in other clinics — yet Tolston didn’t travel far. Her practice, Family First, which opened in December, is just two blocks away from her alma mater, Benson High School.
“How many people can say ‘I know my doctor’ — I mean, really know her — and can say ‘She’s one of us’?” Tolston said. This clinic “gives me a chance to serve this community and not treat patients like a number.”
Specifically, Tolston has the chance to target north Omaha’s historically high rate of infant mortality. She said she combats that by getting patients in early and often for prenatal care and by educating them about healthy practices.
It’s a multifaceted problem, she said, sometimes involving lack of knowledge or transportation or other resources. “It’s about giving them care and convincing them why they need it.”
Tolston accepts patients with Medicaid pending in order to prevent late entry into care. She also provides incentives patients can earn, such as child car seats or strollers, if the parents attend all of their appointments. If they are in need of transportation to their doctor visits, Tolston finds a way to get them there.
From age 3, Tolston told people she wanted to be a “baby doctor” when she grew up. She didn’t know the terms “pediatrician” or “OB-GYN” at the time.
Tolston loved her high school calculus and physics classes, reading Stephen King novels and playing the violin. Her mother, who Tolston said was too proud to accept child support or welfare, taught her to work hard and not make excuses.
Tolston’s undergraduate degree originally was pre-med at Texas Southern University, but she fell in love and had her first child at 20, postponing her plans of going to med school. Instead, she got her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Clarkson College in Omaha, graduating at age 25 while pregnant with her third son.
When her youngest son was 2, she and her husband divorced. The single mom of three worked nights as a nurse at Richard Young, a hospital for psychiatric patients that closed in 2003.
In 2000, at age 30, Tolston decided to finally pursue her dream of going to med school. That year she took 21 credit hours of prerequisite classes, took her sons to football, basketball and baseball practices in the evenings and worked nights as a secretary at Clarkson in the transplant unit.
At the end of the year she applied to med school and received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“There were so many people who thought ‘There’s no way. Med school is grueling. She has three kids at home. She’s still trying to work part time as a nurse,’ ” Tolston said recently.
Those people were the first Tolston invited to the ceremony when she graduated in 2005.
Tolston was one of six African-American women in her UNMC graduating class of 109. Throughout her medical career, she said, she’s often been mistaken as housekeeping staff at hospitals because of her skin color.
Tolston did her residency at Lincoln Family Practice Medicine while pregnant with her fourth child. Her daughter was born six weeks early and weighed 4 pounds. After her cesarean section, Tolston took off only five weeks before returning to her residency so she could finish on time.
After finishing, she had offers from several clinics and hospitals, but she decided to work at Charles Drew Health Center at 29th and Parker Streets to be in the north Omaha community she was most passionate about serving.
“I felt like they deserved someone, preferably one of their own that could relate to them, that could care for them, really care,” Tolston said. “I felt like I could really connect with those patients. When they would come in I would tell them ‘I know what it’s like to have a shut-off notice on your lights and your gas. I haven’t always been a doctor.’ ”
Even after Tolston started making a doctor’s salary, she and her family remained in their house at 45th and Pratt Streets. Their house was burglarized multiple times, and she said she had to be wary that her boys didn’t get involved with gangs.
Tolston left Charles Drew last August and, by Dec. 7, she had opened Family First. When patients come into the office, many hug Tolston, bring her plates of homemade cookies and show her family photos.
She has a stack of photos in her office showing the faces of nearly 500 families whose babies she has delivered. She said she averages about 80 births a year and has delivered a baby on every holiday.
Cathy Burns is a patient who followed Tolston to Family First. Burns was pregnant with her second child when Tolston became her OB-GYN.
“I loved her from the day I met her,” Burns said. “I drive from Millard to the clinic because I couldn’t see myself seeing any other doctor.”
Burns is a single parent of three. One of her daughters has Angelman syndrome, a developmental disorder, and pica, the compulsive eating of nonfood items. Burns said her daughter’s school wasn’t understanding the condition, so Tolston contacted school officials to explain.
“This woman takes her time with you and makes sure she addresses all your concerns,” Burns said. “She has seen me at my lowest and highest, given my situation. She understands what I go through as a single parent.”
Cathy Barela is a friend of Tolston’s who worked with her at Richard Young. She said she remembers when Tolston told her she was studying to become a doctor.
“I remember other people were laughing and saying ‘She thinks she’s going to be a doctor,’ ” Barela said. “And I said ‘I know she is.’ ”
She said every goal that Tolston has set for herself, she has obtained by working hard and caring for others.
“She teaches patients how to be good patients, and how to be responsible for their own health,” Barela said. “She tries to accommodate their whole life, from financial to emotional to exactly what has brought them there, and help them navigate through it. That’s why so many patients love her.”
Tolston said her story is about not giving up.
When she sees children at the clinic, the first questions she asks them are “What are you learning in school?” and “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She said she wants to inspire them to continue their education and follow their dreams — as she did.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1304, firstname.lastname@example.org