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I was 14 years old when I decided to become a doctor. It was a hot summer day, and I had just begun my first job as a bag boy at a local supermarket. My loving mother was unable to afford her much-needed medications or doctor visits and as a result her health declined. It was heart-wrenching for me to watch this unfold as I did my best to work and focus on school. Without insurance, I observed as my mother was turned away from medical treatment. Thankfully, she was eventually able to rely on the kindness of free health clinics for care. Seeing these physicians give their time to help my mom drove my passion and desire to one day be in a position to care for those who are underprivileged and in need.
While not financially well-off, my siblings and I were fortunate to be raised by parents who consistently instilled in us a belief that we could do anything in life as long as we worked hard for it. I believed those words, from childhood until now. In fact, if I close my eyes I can still hear their inspiring words echoing in my head. Medical school is challenging. We hear this all the time. It's not the informational content that makes it difficult, but rather the volume of knowledge that must be mastered in so brief a period of time. However, as an African-American male in medicine, as with other underrepresented minorities, I was faced with additional unique circumstances as I progressed through training.
In addition to the acquisition of medical knowledge, my first two years of medical school included finding my place in the class and developing connections. My classmates were great, and we proudly exclaim that we are a small family. However, at times, a feeling of loneliness was present within me. I knew that I had achieved much by matriculating into medical school but as I looked around my class it was evident that only a few faces looked like mine. I also had very few close friends who looked like me and were pursuing degrees in medicine. In some ways, I began to feel like I was at a party and everyone around me was having a good time, but I was simply going through the motions. My fellow classmates continued to make me feel a part of the family but something inside of me at times felt distant. If such feelings arose in me, while attending one of the top ten diverse medical schools in the country, then it is plausible that underrepresented minorities at other medical institutions may have similar feelings as well.
My third year of medical school was monumental. This was my chance to finally emerge from the classroom and participate in “real” medicine. Within the hierarchy of medical training, a third-year student has the ability of learning clinical pearls effectively without directly having the lives of the patients fully dependent upon their hands. I thrived in this environment, and I loved the endless learning opportunities. Yet, as I rotated through private practices, hospitals and clinical sites, I noticed very quickly that African-American doctors were rare. According to 2014 AAMC physician workforce data, approximately 4% of doctors nationwide were African-American, and patients note their absence. I remember an African-American patient that I had the pleasure of treating. They explained to me that they had never had a black doctor before and jokingly stated they wanted to take a picture with me to show their family. Due to the low number of African-American physicians at the practices and hospitals where I worked, I had less visible access to the type of mentors I needed when special questions arose. Who could I speak to about racial jokes patients made? How could I learn how to deal with these situations? With whom could I share these experiences? Who could give me advice on how best to deal with them? Although the percentage of minority faculty at my school is above the national average, when circumstances arise, mentors who look like me are not always readily available in close proximity for early support. This heightened the feeling of loneliness I felt during my first two years of medical school, but at the same time it fed the fire inside of me to be a mentor to younger minorities who will come after me.
In addition to mentors at my school, I began to reach out to African-American physicians I met on social media, mentors who continue to provide support for me to this day. I became friends with other minority medical students at my home campus and at different institutions. I networked to create meaningful and lifelong connections. More importantly though, the fire inside of me to achieve and succeed was refueled and burns stronger than ever. I now see my future as being a part of a generation of minority physicians who can inspire underprivileged youth to dream, excel, and realize their aspirations in life.
Looking back, I'm truly grateful for and proud of my medical school experience. I have had a tremendous opportunity to make lifelong friends. I have a class who is like a second family to me. I have learned the clinical acumen of medicine, and I am confident in my abilities and skills. However, the most important thing that happened to me was finding a purpose to continue through the challenging world of medicine. I went into medicine to help persons of lower socioeconomic status, much like my mother at one point in her life. I stayed focused through school with the support of family, friends, faculty, and mentors. But what has truly made my experiences worthwhile is that I am now in a position to inspire minority youth to be whatever they would like to be despite the many challenges they may encounter. I am a face of familiarity to the African-American medical student stepping into the clinical with the same nervous feelings that I had at a similar moment.
Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership
Class of 2018
Back to the February 2018 issue of ACP IMpact