Visible Man: An Illumination of My Black Father

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The subtle yet remarkable line from Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man published in 1952 continues to be a declarative voice in today’s society: Black men do not play a role in raising their children. There are so many, including my grandfather and my own father, who have proven this stigma to be incorrect.

Despite being considered invisible, black fathers have remained beautiful statues to emulate for their children. It was the year 1972 and a young black man, trunk packed and ticket in hand, boarded a bus headed towards Philadelphia with his parents’ directives echoing in his head’— “Work hard and good luck, son.” For the first time in his eighteen years of life Thomas Campbell was leaving home in pursuit of a college degree—the first of his siblings.

The opportunities many black fathers have generated are now profoundly evident in the accomplishments of their children. One of eight children, Thomas Campbell was born in 1953 in the Northeast corridor of Washington D.C. A year after his birth in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Fifty-three years later, I was graduating as one of a few African-American students from a private high school in Washington D.C.—a vicarious atonement of what may have been for my father had his parents been able to afford the tuition when he was accepted to a similar school. “I wanted you and your sister to have more than I could have ever dreamed of as a kid. When I grew up my family never had a car and never went on family vacations,” he remarked.

There are a multitude of young black men changing the world owing the qualities that have made them successful—dedication, commitment, and perseverance—to their black fathers.

“Jason, remember you can be whatever you want when you grow up.” As he tightened my tie on that Easter morning looking his ten-year-old son in the eye. “If you put your mind to it, then it’s yours.” Nineteen years later as I climbed the six shallow stairs in the auditorium at my medical school graduation ceremony my father’s words reverberated. A story nothing short of recurrent and delivered dreams: receiving a private school education followed by three more degrees—the last one permanently attaching the initials MD to my last name. What even I struggle to fathom is what my father must have felt when I walked across that stage and was declared a ‘Doctor.’

The magnificence of my achievement truly belongs to my father. Despite having grown up in a home where his own father could neither read nor write he journeyed to earn his law degree. Subsequently, he cemented a path for me and my sister to earn five degrees between the two of us. My father’s example serves as a declaration for my sister and I that boundaries do not exist.

Grown J and dad

Like a multitude of black fathers, Thomas Campbell exemplifies a vision of the world where the finish line is not dictated by the starting line.

Once invisible men—now visible. They are black fathers.

A Beloved Team & A Beloved Mentor

The last time the Cleveland Browns won, I texted Dr. Kevin Olson.

During the 2016 season, I arrived very early one morning, to a small clinic on the West Side of Columbus. As I knocked on the side door, I was greeted by a middle-aged red-headed woman named Tina. This was Dr. Olson’s right-hand woman–sweet as pie but tough as nails–knowing exactly how to give Dr. Olson a dose of his own medicine. She tried to prepare me for what would happen next, but none existed. The back door to the clinic flew open, entering a man yelling what I heard as offensive football play-calls, and the more I got to knew him, it became the most accurate assumption. After he sat his black briefcase down in his office, I went to greet him. “Good morning, sir. My name is Jason Campbell.”

“Jason Campbell, the quarterback?” he posited.

“Something like that, sir” I smiled.

I felt automatically accepted. Jason Campbell, my namesake, had played for the NFL Cleveland Browns at one point in his multi-team career. From that day forth, I was the former QB from his beloved football Browns—young Jason Campbell—as he referred to me. Each day Dr. Olson would share a piece of Browns’ history, which included rattling off the entire list of players who once carried the reigns for the Browns.

Sipe. Kosar. Ryan. Graham. Couch. Nelsen. Phipps. Plum. Anderson. Testaverde. McDonald. McCoy. Weeden. Frye. Hoyer. Kizer. O’Connell. Holcomb. Quinn. Ninowski. Dilfer. McCown. Garcia. All men who have hurled the pigskin for the Browns for at least 10 games and Dr. Olson knew each one, their college institution, and their NFL winning percentage (occasionally off by .1).

Every day in clinic was filled with yelling, laughter, frustration and insight. Once, after we had addressed a patient’s rotator cuff tear with multiple physical exam maneuvers, the patient went on to list four or five more problems he wanted Dr. Olson to assess. “You just tore up, from the floor up, aren’t ya?” Dr. Olson said, aloud. With no delay, the patient responded, “Yes sir. I am!” Dr. Olson’s patients had come to love his lighthearted demeanor interwoven with the knowledge of a medical savant.

For me, these little moments have become threads of memories, which are woven into a picture that show the legacy of a great man. A man who embodied the true character of a doctor. Family physician trained, Dr. Olson received a master faculty appointment by Ohio University for his exceptional contributions to clinical training in this sphere. But there was more to Dr. Olson than any award could describe. He made his patients feel whole even when they were the most ill, just like only a die-hard, ever hopeful Browns’ fan could. I walked into countless patient rooms where the entire family had been treated by Dr. Olson—grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter. This all-encompassing trust was shared by more than a few in the community.

If I wasn’t sure of it before the memorial service, I was absolutely certain of it after. Lines and lines of people flooded the funeral home: from the bustling main hall, the filled lobby, and through the parking lot. Multiple photographs of Dr. Olson and his wonderful family, friends, and colleagues were on display. The most lasting one…the one of him in his Cleveland Browns sweatshirt.

A beloved physician proudly representing his beloved team.

A few weeks ago, as I watched Baker Mayfield perform in his splendid brash manner, as he had done for the Sooners of Oklahoma, I knew a cheerful Dr. Olson was reliving the 1986 days of Bernie Kosar, with an incomparable grin on his face. Finally, his team looked like the team he grew up loving.

For me, Thursday September 20th, 2018 was more than a football victory & more than a team overcoming the weight of the world; it was manifested joy by a beloved and unforgettable man.

After his passing, it is near impossible to fathom a Browns’ win without imagining Dr. Olson’s excitement. I always had difficulty understanding his love for the Cleveland Browns with what I saw to be their errors, burdens and faults. But, now I realize those were the exact human qualities that made him love his team and his patients. As a physician, his passion for his patients—through their sickness, addictions, and infections—gave him purpose so, they too, would heal again.

 

sanc·tu·ar·y

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” 

That quote hangs on my wall in my childhood bedroom.

I first started running with my mother as “punishment.” I don’t know if I thought, at the time, it was a form of punishment but looking back I think that is the most accurate classification. I truly only have one distinct memory of running with her although I know it happened multiple times (I guess like other heinous acts, I have blocked those other times out). I was attending one of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) conferences with my mother in which, like most research scientists and physicians, she used these annual 4-day conferences as a family vacation. We were in Orlando, FL and my mother and I left the hotel setting out to glide under the hot blue sky. If you’ve ever been to Florida, you know how long and incessant those black roads are lining the roadways in this never-ending fashion with the sun of the sunshine state glaring down. A few minutes into the run I was tired, frustrated and annoyed by the pace she had set troubling my short-legs and untrained lungs. I remember a school bus driving by and I thought, “They’re going to think I’m slow behind her.” As a result of my despair, she quickly became irritated with me as I was disturbing her peace. She always used to articulate how running was her escape from the perils of life—it was her sanctuary. I didn’t understand that then.

Not until one night when I walked out the doors of the Emory Athletic facility—The WoodPEC—onto the track. A cool spring Atlanta evening greeted me after a long day of medical training. Before I even stepped onto the track to begin warming up for my workout, I went into the bleachers and just sat there. My eyes circled around the red track, from curve to straight to curve to straight away. I can’t remember what I thought about but I know I was calmed. From that moment on I always viewed the track as a safe haven, a place where, even if everything was wrong in my world, the track was always right.

A few minutes from my present home, there’s a track here in Portland at the Under Armor Satellite Headquarters. I always drive by it on my way home from the hospital. It is not the most direct route, but it soothes me after a long intern day. The track represents so many memories—joy, sadness, humor, accomplishment, and defeat. Whether it was my mother pinning my racing bib on my 14 year old self at my first official race as my on-looking teammates teased me from afar, or watching the University of Michigan relay team run 16:04 with a 3:52 anchor leg for the 4xMile or running third leg on the 4x400m relay team that led us to a comeback conference win for our Emory’s Men team or being named captain of the Emory University team or being a part of the coaching staff for the first Ohio State Men’s Track and Field Big Ten Championship since 1993. The memories flow as I do when I am on the track.

One of the greatest races of my career came at a Junior AAU meet in Florida. The night before, I had run a 1500m time, slower than some of our 11-12-year-old girls, that resulted in me finishing second to last. I didn’t know how to “hurt yet,” or maybe I didn’t want to experience the pain and agony that is necessary to race the middle-distance events well. The next morning, I woke up ready to respond. As I began my warm-up today felt a little different. I spoke with Mikias Gelagle, one of my teammates at the time, who went on to be one of the best high school runners out of the state of Maryland in the 2004-2006 era. He gave me a game plan of which mostly I do not remember but I remember him distinctly telling me if I started out way in the back that’s where I was going to end up. He urged me to “go out near the front and to believe in the training I had under my belt.” This was a 3000-meter race I was lining up for, and most of my teammates were still back in their hotel rooms. As the gun sounded, I shot to the 5thor 6thposition and found my cadence. Lap after lap I was in it and as the race began to thin out I found myself running alongside a runner from another DC track club—The Pioneers. In his all-purple uniform, his crowd, situated opposite my contingency, would cheer him on as we ran past, giving him the motivation to pull a step ahead of me. As we rounded the track, I would do the same as my DC Redwings’ coaches implored me to “do what I knew I could.” Three laps later, this dance routine continued, but the only difference was that most of my teammates had now arrived from the hotel. Probably to their astonishment I was in the race, and to my delight they began cheering for me as we closed in with two laps left. Our cadences had become one at this point, synchronous like the Olympic swimmers, but I knew only one of us could cross the finish line first. As we approached 200 meters to go I started quickening my stride and using my arms to drive my tired legs forward. Down the straightaway we came, and I barely crossed the white line before him. I think I finished fifth in the race. The glory was all internal, but externally, the congratulations from my teammates and coaches, was the prize I needed. I finally felt like I belonged—one of the sacred feelings in life. It’s the emotions, the coaches’ turned fathers and the teammates turned brothers and sisters that make me proud to call myself a runner.

“Once a runner, always a runner.” For me, that motto transcends time. Whether you’re an Olympian or a has-been/never-was, if you’ve spent time lying on the ground in exhaustion, eyes closed, swallowing your saliva because there was no water in sight, then you’re a runner.

“Every Scar On My Face Is Worth It”

In London, an unexpected head injury led me into the hands of a plastic surgeon.  When I was rushed to the hospital via ambulance to receive the services of the National Healthcare System—the very institution that I had come to England to study—I felt nervous and frightened.  Countless questions swirled through my head as I attempted to assess the trauma I endured.  All of my questions were ultimately answered by the confident and charismatic plastic surgeon who ultimately mended my lacerated head.  The way in which he explained each step before executing it gave me much needed comfort that night.  His passion for his job and his expertise were evident, but even more so was his ability to treat me as an individual. I have no recollection of this doctor’s name nor could I spot him in a crowd; however, my perception of this man epitomizes a good doctor—someone who is passionate, a healer, and gives positive reactions to unfortunate actions.  I will not only be forever grateful to this physician, but I will forever remember what he did for me in hopes that I can do the same for someone else.

“Code99.” I heard on the overhead speakers in the hospital. Politely and quickly, I excused myself from the patient I was interviewing. Rushing to the front of the Emergency Department, I met my attending physician who had just grabbed the orange airway bag. Together we began rushing to the elevator as a set of nurses followed briskly behind with the stretcher and backboard. He clicked the basement button, and moments later the elevator doors opened. As I stepped out I saw a man on his knees, a puddle of blood adjacent to his limp body.

“Jason, Jason, are you ok?” I flashbacked to that night in London where I had received my very own head injury, when it was my shock, my limp body on the floor with blood adjacent to me.

“Does anyone have a pair of gloves,” I yelled down the hall as more people began gathering around to see what all the commotion was about. “Yes, Doctor… here,” a gentleman handed me a box of latex gloves. I put the gloves on and removed my stethoscope as I asked one of the nurses to hold it for me. Coming up behind the gentleman, I introduced myself and told him I was there to help him. I pulled him up and onto me as I laid us both onto the stretcher. Once he was safely on, I slid myself out moving to the head of the stretcher where I supported his neck as we rushed up to the ED triage area. After we stabilized him, we sent him to the CT scanner to ensure there was no internal bleeding in his head. As he came back from the CT scanner, he was now more lucid but still unsure of what had occurred. I explained to him that we observed the video footage in the hospital and it was highly possible he had suffered a seizure. I moved the loose gauze that was covering his head wound and ½ of his left eye. A 5 cm wound 2 inches above his left eyebrow looked back at me.

“Hey, I’m one of the plastic surgeons here. I hear you had a little accident. Don’t worry, I’m going to fix you right up.” One of my classmates held my hand while my mother was on the speaker phone with another one. The plastic surgeon began numbing the skin to circumvent the wound he was about to suture on my left eyebrow.

“Hello sir, I am Jason again—one of the new resident physicians here. You’ve got a decent size gash above your left eye, but don’t worry. I am going to fix you right up,” I told him as the nurse began cleaning the wound. I extracted the bupivacaine with one needle, then switched the needle on the syringe to one I could use to inject the numbing medication emulating the plastic surgeon from nine years ago. Then I grabbed the nylon suture, the needle driver and began. One suture at a time, I worked diligently and judiciously as my attending peered over my shoulder with a look of approval on his face. Five sutures later I was proud of my work. Well, I was truly proud of the many attendings, residents, and senior medical students who took time out of their hectic schedules to teach me, show me, and create for me the ability to succeed that day.

When I was done, the patient stretched out a smile on his face—he told me I had done a good job today and thanked me. His wife thanked me. And I thanked him for his service to our country and for allowing me to take care of him.

I peered back over my personal statement from medical school when I got home. I read, “I will not only be forever grateful to this physician, but I will forever remember what he did for me in hopes that I can do the same for someone else.” Today was that day. I did what he did for me.. for someone else.

Interviews Make You Anxious? Don’t Worry, It Takes Two To Tango!

You’ve saved dolphins on the moon, speak 7 languages and have been destined to be a physician since you were in-utero. You’ve applied and now is the time for the interview. I’m no stellar standardized test taker and I certainly haven’t saved dolphins on the moon like some of my colleagues but I can interview well. That’s my cup of tea, if you will. Interviewing can be frightening. Like any great competitor who’s been successful many times before, butterflies still creep into my stomach moments before I step into an interview. I think that’s the 1st lesson to be a successful interviewer— treat every interview like it’s the most important one of your career. Act as if without this interview you’d never be successful even if this is your 19th interview and you have 7 more.

  1. Treat every interview like it’s your first
  2. Be humble in your discourse
  3. Find a connection & run with it!
  4. Talk Less, Smile More
  5. Have Fun!

Anyone who’s met with me about interviewing knows I have made the analogy that interviewing is like doing the tango. It’s a dance with you and your interviewer. Your interviewer is leading so you have to gracefully allow them to lead. Answer their questions in a short and succinct manner because long answers will hinder the flow and inevitably lead to you tripping over their feet. If you’ve never danced with a partner, know that no one likes to have their foot stepped on and repeated occurrences will certainly result in an annoyed dancer/interviewer. And like a wonderful tango, if the interview goes well, it leaves both persons thinking about it long after the interview has finished.

As you’re speaking about your achievements, it’s important to acknowledge all that you’ve accomplished but recognize the person in front of you has accomplished much more! Your feats are impressive but let the interviewer be more impressed by someone who is still hungry to accomplish more despite already having done more than most.

When I was interviewing at Ohio State University College of Medicine, the fourth-year med student interviewing me asked me about my time in City Year and AmeriCorps. As I was beginning to answer, she chimed in that her husband worked for AmeriCorps, so a fire sparked in my head. I answered her question but also added in another few lines illuminating my thoughts about this opportunity.  I watched her tirelessly jot down my comments. Stay honest. But if someone throws you an alley-oop, ‘Be Like Mike,’ and slam it!

I’m going to borrow a line from Hamilton—The Musical. If you haven’t seen it you’re missing out! It’s much more than a play; it’s an eye-opening three-hour artistic masterpiece. In Hamilton, one of the main characters frequently says, “Talk Less. Smile More.” Musical characterization aside, in any interview, if you’re talking more and smiling less, you’re losing. Winning in an interview is as much about your appearance and body language as it is your responses. Understanding who’s leading the conversation is a sure sign that you understand how to act and interact in different social realms.

And have fun. My high school Cross Country/Track coach, Anthony Belber, always said this each time before I raced and I never quite understood how I could have fun when there was so much pressure on the line… until I got older. An interview is an opportunity to show someone that your accomplishments have a human being behind them. It is a chance for you to prove that you are who they think you are. Nothing more, nothing less.