Is the Road to Becoming A Physician Still Worth It?

adversity, medicine, Mentorship

In a simplistic answer, “Yes, it is. But it won’t be easy.” As my former track and field coach would tell me before an arduous workout, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” Many are drawn to medicine with an affable desire to help others, but this task has a significant weight associated with it. Sadly, the mental anguish may lead some physicians to tell hopeful doctors that they should turn away and pursue a different occupation forgetting the excitement and enthusiasm they once felt. 

Naturally, over the course of a time period there are certain parts of our lives that change. One day you fall asleep at 20 years old, and the next day you wake up 21, now considered legally responsible enough to drink, gamble or even adopt a child. In contrast, the road to becoming a doctor is a long series of intentional and mindful decisions. Few of these decisions are big, some are medium and unlike the television shows most are small and boring. If you’re reading this you may wish, as I think I did at times, that we could instantaneously wake up a physician. But, the beauty in becoming a physician is in transforming into the version of yourself that will best fulfill this life of service. This becoming requires sacrifices in the form of no; no to certain parties, trips, weddings, and relationships. Instead, one will say yes to long, unappreciated and unapologetic hours with concomitant late nights in windowless rooms surrounded by books instead of people and silence instead of noise. Sometimes, I said yes to the no decisions and years later had to work much harder to make up for those responses. Furthermore, there are also decisions one will need to make during moments where we are no longer in control. 

Writer Anne Lamott, once penned, “When God is going to do something wonderful, he always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, he starts with an impossibility.”

From a post-baccalaureate, non-traditional, student studying in a Starbucks coffee shop in Manassas, Virginia to addressing the audience as student body president at the Ohio State University College of Medicine graduation I had to navigate my failures to arrive at my successes. However, each piece of adversity I faced sculpted me into a more compassionate and understanding person and ultimately a better physician.

The first African American patient I treated, sixty-years in age, told me he had never seen a physician who looked like me—like us he meant.

If this dream will make you happy and give you the life you desire, then this field is for you. No one can answer this question for you, and no one should. The time will go by regardless. One day I walked into the auditorium for my first medical school course. The next, I was performing a nasal intubation in a patient with severe Down’s Syndrome readying the patient for the dentistry team to extract his diseased teeth. There is nothing like what I see or do on a daily basis. It is simply amazing, frightful, enlightening and humbling all in the same breath. As I said before, “Yes, it is worth it.” But, it’s up to you to decide that for yourself.

From Beacon to Shadow: The African-American Community is Waiting…

adversity, medicine, politics, Race, Uncategorized

“‘More blood! Stat!’” I read. The first line in “Gifted Hands.” As a 15-year-old African-American student aspiring to one-day practice medicine I could barely put down the book my mother gave me. The story of Ben Carson MD—many believed to be the guiding light if you were poor or African-American or academically challenged—was the beacon illuminating a journey from adversity to achievement. The first words in “Gifted Hands” by Ben Carson, MD sets the scene within an operating room in 1987 at the Johns Hopkins Institution in which a medical milestone occurred. Two 7-month-old conjoined twins requiring copious amounts of blood, twenty-two hours of procedure time, a seventy-member team led by him and gifted hands resulted in a successful separation of two Siamese twins—Patrick and Benjamin.

 For Dr. Carson—one of the most academically impactful members of the African-American community—the fall from grace has been anything but subtle. When questioned on May 21st, 2019 by Congresswoman Porter he was asked to define a basic housing term—an REO (Real Estate Owned)—a term used to describe a class of property owned by a lender after an unsuccessful sale at a foreclosure auction. Seemingly unknowing of the term he responded with “Oreo?” at first to which he needed clarification—a surprising response in his position as Secretary of the United States Department of Urban Housing and Development (HUD). Dr. Carson once pillared his accomplishments on the power of knowledge. Now—dismissivae of a fundamental term a person in his position should use commonly this is in stark contrast to the image the black community grew up honoring. One contemporary of the once-esteemed surgeon noted he knew firsthand what Dr. Carson went through and it was nothing short of incredible. But watching his devolution has been a pitiful sight to see.

This playbook has not changed and still illuminates the story of a poor black kid from Detroit overcoming multiple barriers—poverty, academic strife, and a system constructed against him—to become director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and perform the successful separation of 7-month-old Siamese Twins when others said it could not be done. Few African-Americans, in any field, have come from very little to achieve such success. In the last chapter—entitled “THINK BIG”—Dr. Carson writes how each letter illustrates an important piece to success. The ‘K’ stands for ‘Knowledge’ which he defines as “‘… the key to all your dreams, hopes and aspirations. If you are knowledgeable, particularly more knowledgeable than anybody else in a field, you become invaluable and write your own ticket.’” Where have these words now gone? Once so important he wrote them in a book to inspire generations to come.

A man who once changed lives with words and saved lives with actions has now perished to an online trend seemingly devoid of the basic knowledge required in his current position. The surgeon who changed history in 1987 in that operating room in Baltimore, Maryland will forever be remembered by the African-American community, but the man we see today appears to be a shadow of his former self—at best.

This is a perpetual discussion intertwining history, race, culture, politics and medicine. Some of my colleagues may not agree but I desire a return from the former Ben Carson MD.

I declare to you Dr. Carson it is never too late to give a young woman of color, who once wrote to you because her mother like yours was a maid, hope and promise that she too can make something out of very little. I declare to you Dr. Carson that there is a young black male facing academic hardship who needs you now. I declare to you Dr. Carson that the African-American community is waiting…

 

What I Learned From A Two-Time Olympian

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What I learned from a two-time Olympian…

“Mom, the Olympic trials are on!” I yelled upstairs. When you combine my mother, sister, and I, almost 30 years of running track fandom avidly stared at the screen. “Bang,” the gun sounded on the tv, and there appeared Khadevis “KD” Robinson, 4-time U.S. Olympic Champion, out to set the early pace. Prior to the start of the race, the commentator announced his 8-month-old son, Zion, was in the crowd watching. That pressure didn’t seem to faze him, as he took the pace out hard with his unique upright stride and robotically pristine form. 50.33, the clock read, as the crescendo of the bell rang signaling the commencement of the second and final lap. KD made a strong move to increase his lead as his fellow Nike teammate, Lopez Lomong, began coming up on his shoulder. 200 meters to go before the finish, KD’s powerful stride crushed the track underneath him. Strong finisher—Nick Symmonds—in the back of the pack had now found some room to maneuver. 100 meters to go—a straight away to decide who would be representing the United States in Beijing, the pack began closing the gap on KD. First, Nick Symmonds flew by, and then six-foot-five, Andrew Wheating, a University of Oregon product, galloped pass Khadevis. As the line approached, it was between KD and Christian Smith, another Oregon Duck, for the final USA Olympic team spot. At the line, Christian Smith hurled himself over as he crashed to the ground.

Symmonds.

Wheating.

Smith.

Those were the ones going onto Beijing. It was an Oregon sweep—1.2.3.

Years later, I read out the name “Coach Khadevis Robinson” on the door. A smile began to form from my lips. My standing in front of that door was thanks to one person. Coach Karen Dennis, one of only 5 female Directors of a Power-5 Track & Field conference program, became a mentor and mother figure from the moment we were first introduced four years ago. She knew more than anyone my love for track, coaching, and mentoring, and so, she gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. She spoke with Coach Robinson and he agreed to bring me on as a volunteer assistant coach in my last semester of medical school. I had dreamed about this over and over—the opportunity to coach at The Ohio State, to run alongside the young Buckeye athletes, to tell them I believed in them right before their darkest moment and hardest set. However, the dream never dared to include working with one of my track and field idols. I remember our first encounter like it was yesterday. Two enthusiastic men embracing as we began sharing our experiences about the sport we treasure. I asked him multiple questions about his training philosophy which he returned with answers followed by questions revolving around what type of doctor I wanted to be. After that meeting, I knew he respected me as a man, a former student-athlete, and a medical student but I wasn’t sure he fully trusted me as his new assistant coach. Early on, during a workout, when one of our athletes seemed to slow her pace down prior to the expected finishing point he thought I had told her to stop. I mentioned to him that I had not, and we moved on. As I reflect, I realize he was taking quite a risk bringing me on-board because if we had not had a harmonious relationship the student-athletes, the team & the coaching staff would have suffered from a potentially negative environment.

Whatever my past achievements were before, he taught me that success is non-transferrable. I don’t mean you can’t be successful in multiple fields because you can. But just because you are successful in one field, it doesn’t automatically transfer over to another. You have to earn respect in any fresh sphere with which you enter, with each promise fulfilled, one step at a time. Despite having garnered All-American Collegiate accolades, being named captain of my university team and being an assistant coach at my high school alma mater, I had to prove I could be successful at this level—to him, to the athletes and just as importantly, to myself. My greatest asset to the team and my student-athletes was my energy and enthusiasm as evidenced by my 6:00 AM boisterous yells booming across the infield covering all four sides of the track. If the student-athletes weren’t awake when they arrived to practice they certainly were by 6:10AM. But, in conjunction with my blaring voice I had a softer, gentler voice I used to encourage athletes dealing with adversity, reassuring them that their goals were just on the other side of their adversity. As the season continued, Coach Khadevis & I continued to grow closer. It wasn’t only the time on the track that transformed our relationship. It was the casual conversations during meals, the track & field team trips together and the jokes we created that made all the difference. Whether it was from our back & forth taunts about whose fraternity was better, to Coach KD’s incomparable dance moves to Coach Karen having to yell at us both to not run alongside our athletes during competitions due to our mutual excitement, a unique bond formed.

Two Big Ten Championships, many laughs, and two seasons later I sat in his office a few weeks prior to leaving for Oregon to start my medical residency. Talking casually, Khadevis brought up that Olympic race from 2008 which was the very race I watched 10 years ago with my mother. “I had to come back,” he said. “There was no way I could let my son see me fail. No way was my last race going to be anything less than me making another Olympic team. So, I let my setback set the stage for my comeback…

And I made the Olympic team in 2012.”

KD & I

Sent From My iPhone

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“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.