Three Men, 1 Goal

“Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.” 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

All the success I’ve had in the past, present, and future, could not and cannot be done without the love and support of my family and friends. The special ones who have guided me are true mentors. Here’s how I met one of them.

I could barely make out the back of his shirt that read, “Princeton Track & Field,” but I didn’t need to read it to know this gentleman was a runner—his telltale build and strut as he left the track were clear as day. Unsure if I’d see him again, I slowly jogged behind him until I was within hearing range. “Hey, did you run track for Princeton? I’m an 800 guy here at Emory!” He responded, “I did. Now, I’m a med student here.”

I’ve learned many different things in my life, but one thing I hold to be true is there is no such thing as coincidence. Immediately, I asked if we could meet up as I told him he was exactly where I wanted to be in a few years. How rare is this? To have a future you stand in front of you willing to meet, and as I would find out in years to come, equally willing to help. But what if I hadn’t chased after Alexis (Dr. Tingan) in that moment? What if I had hesitated? One slight moment of doubt could have closed the path to a guide and friend, one never to be crossed again. My strong desire and willingness to become a physician may have led me there alone, but as the parable goes, ‘a man once believed he’d survive flood waters because he prayed to God to save him. After turning down a boat, a canoe and a helicopter he sadly died and when he arrived at the gates of heaven, God told him that he sent those people to save him.’ God puts people in our life with a purpose. Lex was one of those for me. Our shared interest in running and passion for medicine established a natural relationship, and he has been able to help me choose the appropriate undergraduate class schedules, select medical schools that would be a good fit for me and to navigate the medical school application process. Having run the same events in college, we shared in our perils, our accomplishments, and our goals.

For success meeting a mentor: establish a relationship first, know your weaknesses and your strengths, be cognizant of the schedule of your potential mentor and be clear in outlining one’s needs.  Fast forward…

The lessons I learned from Alexis were put in practice for someone else. Preparing for a lengthy heart physiology and anatomy study session at the library, I couldn’t help noticing a young African-American undergraduate student intensely studying at the adjacent table. It was about 9:30 PM on a Saturday night and it was obvious he had been at that table for quite some time. Peeking over his shoulder as I walked to the bathroom, I saw him writing down notes from an organic chemistry book. Before I returned to my seat, I excitedly approached this young gentleman and through our conversation, learned that he aspired to attend medical school. Without hesitation, I offered to mentor him through the long and arduous process from the pre-medical courses to the application and interview process. He hesitantly gave me his email and a few days after, I emailed him to which he eventually replied. I am not sure if he was shocked by a stranger approaching him or by the idea of having a stranger offer to mentor him. As we grew closer, he admitted to me that he had never had a mentor. I don’t know if he was afraid to ask before, lacked the self-confidence or simply had never had someone offer their assistance? But I knew if he had made it this far “alone” then, within, lay had an incredible self-drive. Growing up in Houston where he attended public school and then matriculating to The Ohio State University where he earned merit-based scholarships, he progressed without anyone in the form of a mentor. How many others feel this way? Black? White? Male? Female? Mentorship is hard to obtain, but easy to bestow upon someone if it’s in your heart. As the application cycle approached for Phil, he showed me his list. There were good medical schools on the list, most of which were in his home state of Texas, but after seeing his stellar GPA and multiple leadership/volunteer experiences, I looked him in the eye and told him, “You’ve got to apply to Harvard School of Medicine! Whether or not you go there, there aren’t many of us who have ever been granted an interview at such a prestigious institution.” I also added other schools to his list opening his horizon, reminding him to believe in himself and to believe in his potential. Phil has just finished his first year at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine—a renowned and highly regarded medical school.

Phil emphasized, during a recent conversation: “Jason, without you, I never would have applied here…” I could only reply “Phil, together we go farther. Remember that!”

 

Sent From My iPhone

“We have reviewed your application once again for admission to our school of medicine and we regret to inform you that you have not been granted an interview at this time.” I scrolled down & it was signed by the Director of Admissions—a name with M.B.A behind it. And then I scrolled down further and read the signature…

“Sent from my iPhone.”

A tear streamed down my right cheek. I felt like a volcano that had erupted—full of frustration, anger & sadness. I was devastated. The words, “Life is hard for those who dream” kept scrolling through my head. I was in the downstairs bedroom of my parent’s home. At that moment, it was very likely that my mother was upstairs above me, just a few feet away. I don’t know for a fact, but I felt like there was a mirror image of myself upstairs at the dining room table in the form of my mother. Of all people in the world, she was the one I did not want to disappoint desiring so badly to carry on the legacy she has scuplted.  The first African-American woman in the country to receive a Ph.D. in Epidemiology. Despite her many accolades, at that point in time I think the only care in the world she had was for her son to be accepted into medical school. When I had graduated from Emory and was enthusiastically off-track, if you will, she spoke with one of her colleagues; a medical school advisor she knew well asking that he bestow upon me guidance and direction. And was it too simple to think the University that she works so hard for so many hours of the day, leading their mission of improving health disparities would at least offer an interview to her son? By title, She is the Associate Dean! If having one’s parents as alumni can help secure legacy status, what was going on here? Was that not customary? I rolled back onto my bed in the fetal position. What’s next? What could be next? This is the institution where I envisioned my white coat ceremony, match day ceremony and graduation occurring. But all I can remember is the thoughtlessly blasé “Sent from my iPhone.”

I was like many other pre-medical students at the time. I felt that since I had gone to a stellar, well-known undergraduate institution, the same would occur for my medical school education. But one thing I had to recognize was that your undergraduate institution doesn’t automatically lead to the medical school you enter—nothing is guaranteed. I have learned many things as I approach thirty years old, but nothing as sincere as the notion that entitlement is precarious, perhaps even dangerous. We fall into these easy expectations and if they do not come to fruition, we fall apart & don’t know how to pick ourselves up again. The moment you feel like you deserve something is the moment it slips through your grasp. In that very moment when you look up wishing & praying a leaf falls that was meant for you to catch, it may or may not but let me tell you about my leaves. I interviewed at Ohio State on January 22nd. Heading to the airport, I looked back at the large OSU Wexner Signage feeling as though I was actually leaving my home rather than my interview. A few weeks later, I signed into my newly-created Ohio State portal only to find a “wait-listed” next to my name. Many months later as I was tutoring a high school student, my phone began buzzing on the desk. I quickly uncovered it and saw a number with a 614-area code. There it was, the call I had been waiting so impatiently for. The director of admissions at Ohio State College of Medicine asked me, “Jason, are you still interested in Ohio State?” “Yes,” I exhaled. I felt like I had been holding my breath for 5 months and finally I could breathe again.

I drove home one breath at a time.

If You Wake Up & All You Can Think About Is Writing, Then You Are a Writer

Tomorrow is July 1st, 2018.

I sat in White Hall on the campus of Emory University, waiting to meet with the pre-med advisors. When I walked into his office, I nervously introduced myself. The nerves were a resultant of having to discuss with a perfect stranger my early academic challenges and short-comings. A knot tightened in my stomach. I was there to withdraw from my second semester of general chemistry after receiving a grade of C- in the first semester course. Matriculating through undergrad as a student-athlete, I maintained a 3.8 grade point average in my main area of study of anthropology, yet still my sciences suffered. Looking back, I try to reason through why this was. Was it because I did not have sufficient time to study the material enough? Was it because I wasn’t meant to attend medical school? Was it because my brain was not set-up to handle the intricacies of the basic sciences? I have to believe that some of my friends at Emory who came to Atlanta “pre-med” but then switched to “pre-law,” “pre-business,” or some other area to fulfill their parents’ desires, answered YES to one of those aforementioned questions. Through my undergraduate education, I struggled to obtain even a B letter grade in a basic science course but when I went to bed, when I woke up, when I showered… being a student doctor was all I thought about.

A great author once wrote, “If you wake up and all you can think about is writing then you are a writer.” This statement haunted me, as I would ask myself if I could make this true: “If you wake up and all you can think about is taking care of patients and healing those who are suffering, then you are a physician.” I recognize there are a few more prerequisites before you’re allowed to don a short white coat and even more requirements before you get a long white coat with the concomitant M.D. behind your name. After I graduated from Emory I completed a year of AmeriCorps focusing my energy and academic efforts on someone else for once in my life. Working with those students reminded me of my desire to help those in need. For some, we were their last lifeline of support for graduating from high school. Not all too dissimilar from some patients whose surgeon, anesthesiologist or internist is the last lifeline for simply living. After my time in City Year—Washington DC I returned to my own academic journey and started a Post-Baccalaureate/Master’s Degree program at Georgetown University & George Mason University which equated to a second chance, another opportunity to achieve my dream. The program was a success but I still worried that my undesirable science grades from Emory might be the one hurdle I could not overcome. In addition, after taking the MCAT—medical school admission exam—two times with poor performances, I continued to question my future & even worse myself. But I hit that button that would determine my future—SUBMIT. Click.

Medical school application was complete with some incredibly strong areas and some much weaker points. The result? Four medical school interviews & four acceptances. I chose to venture to Columbus, Ohio where an arduous journey would ensue at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Quickly humbled by the mammoth amount of knowledge we were expected to know in the first two years, during my second year, I was overcome with anxiety as my first board exam approached. It was the first time I had ever started experiencing test-taking anxiety; it was awful. Bouts of tears and irrational thought. Focusing on the material was near impossible until I made an appointment to go see someone to discuss this new person I had become. With the proper medications, my peace had returned & my focus was augmenting. Still, I was able to pass the exam. But, I would be amiss to say that all my exams were passes. But, you deal with the cards you’re dealt & I did shying away from any excuses. I still had the strongest desire to help those who could not help themselves every morning, day & evening. “Dr. Jason Lionel Campbell,” our associate dean of the College of Medicine announced on May 3rd, 2018. I hope one person reads this & decides to keep going because he or she is more than their exam scores. Because I know I am more than mine. And it’s worth it! Which part? All of it.

Two Women Shaped My Desire To Help Others: One Birthed Me And One Taught Me

There are two women in my life that have shaped my desire to help others. The first birthed me, and the second taught me. Driven by passion and an unending desire to resolve the unparalleled health disparities facing the community from which she came; in 1983 my mother became the first African-American female epidemiologist in the country. She dedicated her life to serving the underrepresented population of this country addressing the high rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer and cancer death in both national and local underserved communities. This same passion and ambition placed me on a track destined for service to others. As a young adult I was aware that I came from a community of access and opportunity, but I also realized that I wanted to forge connections with communities that were mirror opposites. In high school, my senior project explored a school in the poor & disadvantaged corridor where my parents grew up. Later on, I also seized the opportunity to travel to Africa and see up-close the consequences of limited access to education and healthcare. After graduating from Emory University, I dedicated a year to AmeriCorps as a mentor, tutor and teaching assistant in a DC public high school.

I have known for a very long time that I wanted to be a clinical practitioner, yet I was unsure of which specialty. As I began the second rotation of my clinical years, my first surgical rotation was transplant surgery. I saw a petite woman, with curly hair speaking to the nursing staff as I walked onto the floor. I quickly introduced myself to which she responded, “Nice to meet you. I’m Latifa Sage-Silski, the transplant fellow.” Working with her throughout the week I observed the delicate yet determined manner in which she and the attending physicians operated on the patients. Reflecting on what I observed, I realized that I had watched more than an “operation.” I went home after a long day, noticing that Dr. Sage-Silski stayed. I came back the next morning and she was still there. After a week on the service, I got to scrub into my first liver transplantation. After the procedure, my classmate and I inquired why the patient was heading to the ICU instead of back to the floor in the same fashion the renal transplant patients had for their post-operative recovery. With a smirk on her face Dr. Sage-Silski said, “You and Katie don’t get it. Without this procedure… this patient would have died.” That was a special moment.  I visited this patient in the coming days and witnessed the postoperative transformation! A lady who was near death and accepting of her fatality had newfound vigor, laughter & charisma.  Similarly, for the renal transplant patients, they had become accustomed to a life of dialysis, but with their new kidney they, too, received a new life.

My mother and Dr. Sage-Silski have shaped my desire to serve and teach those who come behind me, but most importantly they illuminated how a life in service is a life worth living.

How Do We Create Trust?

When I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Andrea Roane on WUSA Channel 9 news she questioned me about medical providers who “look like” their patients and how that equates to trust?

As I reflect on the interview I think it’s important to delve into this idea. It may start with African-American patients desiring for their physicians to look like them but that’s just the beginning.

If we are to build a true culture of trust then it’s important for me and other Black medical providers to use this innate trust to buildup the trust of our fellow colleagues and the system as a whole. Historically, if we revisit the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis, from 1932-1972, this was a research tragedy that has led blacks to mistrust white medical providers. During the study the African-American Men In Alabama were observed with untreated syphilis to observe the progression of the disease. Rather than being treated many died and succumbed to the horrific illness.

Almost 50 years later this infamous trial is still the foundation for some of the mistrust that exists in our community. But I want us to bond together to move past this trial because we need minorities involved in the current and future clinical trials to ensure we are a part of the solution & the answer!

“No one individual is greater than the team!” – Coach John Curtin, Emory University Track and Field

Despite the many tangible accolades I was able to garner while competing on the varsity track & field team at Emory University, the most important award I ever obtained came in a different form. Junior year, after a poor performance in an 800 m race at Clemson University—upset and angry—I made an irrational decision to remove myself from the 4×400 m relay team. I distinctly remember a freshman, who had up until that point idolized me on and off the track, approaching me when it was time to start warming up and I drove him away with my words. At the time Coach Curtin never mentioned anything—acting like my decision was seemingly acceptable—until the next day when I found out the harsh reality. Disappointed and upset, Coach Curtin, questioning my integrity and respect for others, disclosed to me I had let him down, the team and myself. For a man who many times seemed like the second father I never had his words wounded me the most. Adding insult to injury, as the saying goes, he suspended me from inter-collegiate competition for the remainder of the indoor season, stripping away my hopes at competing in two very prestigious national track meets in New York and Boston that season. This suspension in combination with his rhetoric was the eye-opening experience I needed, because at times we all stray off path and become blinded.

In my journey to medicine and maturation this was a pivotal point, in which I had committed actions unrepresentative of my character and commitment to the team. Coach Curtin instilled a valuable lesson in me that day centered on the notion that no one is greater than the team. Similarly, a well-liked and experienced physician, is seen as the leader but he or she creates an environment in which every member of the team is valued. I was the only current All-American on the team at the point, having garnered numerous conference titles and records, but still that meant nothing to him on this day after the decision I had made. He communicated to me that real excellence and leadership places equal weight between your ability to improve someone else as much as yourself.

The very next day I began a cycle of showing up early to every practice, re-evaluating my strengths and weaknesses to restore my reputation as a teammate and a student-athlete. This journey culminated in me being announced co-captain of the Emory University track and field team, after helping mold a novice group, comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomore, middle-distance runners into exemplary university athletes. In the way a relay team is only as strong as the combination of its four members, a surgical team is successful only when everyone works in tandem from the surgeon to the nurse to the scrub technician to the pathologist analyzing the frozen specimen to determine how the surgeon should proceed.

Through this experience, I  gained tremendous insight about commitment, consequence, strength, reflection, and growth. My coach could have become irate and displayed his anger and frustration in front of everyone that day, but he chose to wait. He exhibited patience and spoke to me the next day privately. His anger and frustration had not decreased but he certainly demonstrated emotional intelligence as he made it a ‘private’ matter that he handled appropriately. As a physician emotional intelligence is crucial; from the moment one becomes a physician, even a medical student, every action that one takes matters.