“The TT effect”: How a loving, blended family propelled one MLKCH doctor to a life of service

Photo of 4 women smiling in a home

Nov. 23, 2023 – This modest apartment in Lawndale, California is full of Thanksgiving. It’s not just the side table groaning with smoked turkey, mac and cheese, potato salad and banana pudding. It’s the feeling in the room. It’s the evident joy among the nearly two dozen people laughing and eating and playing Uno and Connect 4. They know better than most just how much they have to be thankful for.

One of them is Dr. Hsiao-Wei Monica Banks, a physician in MLK Community Healthcare’s Internal Medicine Residency Program. Hsiao-Wei, of mixed Chinese, Japanese and African American descent, is here to celebrate Thanksgiving with her African American foster mother, Alicia “TT” Nichols, her aunt Shera Barrera, her grandmother Robbie “Nana” Seals, and a gaggle of uncles, cousins and other members of this extraordinarily large—in size and in love—blended family.

This Thanksgiving celebration is, in many ways, why Hsiao-Wei works at MLKCH. This story is emblematic of the personal motivations and passions that bring so many dedicated physicians, nurses and others to serve in South LA, one of the most medically vulnerable communities in California

And in true Thanksgiving fashion, it starts with food. In Hsiao-Wei’s case, a cheeseburger.

‘They were in shock’

The year was 2004. Twelve-year-old Hsiao-Wei sat with her 11-year-old brother, Hiroshi, in the offices of a foster child placement agency in the USC area of South Los Angeles. Beside them were two ugly, blue duffle bags full of the standard items Child Protective Services provides youth in the system—toiletries, clothes, books and a personal memento or two.

A white Toyota Sienna minivan pulled up to the curb and Alicia Nichols stepped out.  Alicia, herself the daughter of a woman raised in foster care, was here to make a difference—not just in Hsiao-Wei and Hiroshi’s lives, but ultimately in the lives of 22 foster kids over 27 years.

Right off the bat, Alicia knew what to say.

“Call me TT,” Alicia said. “What do you want for dinner?”

“TT” is the affectionate nickname Alicia uses with all her foster children. “It could mean mom, auntie—whatever they wanted,” Alicia says. “My job is to be whatever the child needs.”

Hsiao-Wei and Hiroshi were still grieving the loss of their beloved mother, Ming Ming Ma, who died from liver cancer just weeks before. Although often ill and poor “she always made sure we had what we needed and that we were very, very, very loved,” Monica recalls.

Now the children were adrift, in the system, facing the enormity of a new home, neighborhood, family and culture.

They were in shock,” Alicia recalls. “They were wondering even who I was.”

Right off the bat, Alicia gave the kids a choice—about a name and about a meal (the kids picked cheeseburgers).

“They allowed me to have choices and then watched me from a safe distance to make sure I was good,” Hsiao-Wei recalls. ““They really wanted to make sure that we felt comfortable and that we were a part of this big ol’ family, however we decided we wanted to fit. Their attitude was: ‘Show up as you are and we’ll work with it.”

Hsiao-Wei calls it, simply, “the TT effect.”

It was how the children of a Chinese immigrant single mom came to live in with a big, sprawling African American and Latino family in South LA, in a house near the intersection of 47th Street and Denker in Vermont Square. And how one of them grew up to be a doctor with a heart for paying forward the grace she had personally experienced.

“This is exactly where I’m supposed to be,” Hsiao-Wei says of MLKCH and South LA. “Doing my residency here couldn’t make more sense.”

Playing House

“From day one,” Alicia laughingly recalls. “Hsiao-Wei knew where she was going.”

The destination was medicine.

“I wanted to be a doctor since my mom passed away,” Hsiao-Wei says. “It was a way to keep her always alive with me.”

Alicia and her family supported Hsiao-Wei’s fascination by buying her the boxed set of the television show “House,” about a brilliant physician.

“Hsiao-Wei would watch it religiously at home,” Alicia recalls. “She took notes and would look up the words she didn’t understand.”

Alicia, Shera and Nana encouraged Hsiao-Wei’s academic interests and independent streak. 

When Hsiao-Wei told them she wanted to go to a high school across town—necessitating a 4 a.m. wake up call and a two-hour bus ride each day—the family said yes. When the stubbornly independent teen said she wanted to ride the bus all by herself the family also said yes—and then followed the bus in their car to make sure she arrived safely.

Team effort

Robbie Seals, Alicia and Shera’s mother, was in foster care from 18 months to adulthood and lived through harrowing experiences. From the start she knew she wanted to model something different: a family that supported each other unconditionally. 

It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to parenting that keep grandmother, auntie and foster mom in constant touch to reinforce the important—and sometimes interfering nature—of family. 

“We’re nosy,” laughs Robbie. “We all sleep with our phone in case we need to reach each other fast.”

Taking care of others is in this family’s DNA, according to Hsiao-Wei. Even today, with all 22 of her foster children grown up, Alicia still brings her “Build a Bear” truck to LA County parks events to delight underserved children. All three women are passionate on the topic of education, having served on the PTA of schools and innovated their own methods to nurture responsible and capable young adults. Shera runs a life skills class for teens called “Emancipate Me.” Her oldest son, Tyler Johnson, 26 who now works at an engineering company in Claremont, ruefully admits he was the curricula’s first guinea pig, having endured lessons on etiquette, floor mopping and how to purchase a car.

The investment paid off. When Hsiao-Wei donned her first-ever white physician’s coat at a ceremony at MLKCH last June, all three women were in the audience, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs.

“I am ecstatic,” Alicia says. “She did it. She just kept going; she didn’t give up. She’s a very persistent young lady and I’m very proud of her.”

Education, service, learning, community—“they passed that down to all of us,” Hsiao-Wei says. These attributes were layered on top of a first-hand knowledge of suffering but also a strong foundation of love—from the biological mother who died tragically young to the foster family that stepped in and offered unconditional support. It’s why a medical residency at MLKCH “really felt full circle.”

Hardship “is what I knew growing up. I understand being the underdog. I think that’s why I’m so passionate about coming back to communities like South LA that are often overlooked. Places that I’ve belonged to, been a part of and know.” 

Dr. Banks, Ming Ming, Alicia, Shera, Nana—for all that you have done and continue to do, we are all thankful that you are part of our MLKCH family.

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