The moment that sparked my passion
B.E.S.T. reflects my life and career journey, which include both triumphs and disappointments. I’m an African American who grew up in a low-income home in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In my first summer after high school, my mom encouraged me to get a job at the local hospital. I worked there every summer for four years, and seeing medical professionals who were people of color helped me realize I could do it, too. I did have bumps along the way: I had to take the medical school entrance exam four times before getting the score I wanted, and a college adviser tried to dissuade me from becoming a doctor. That’s why, as a pediatrician and internist in inner-city Tampa, I realized the need to provide role models for kids who told me of their interest to become a doctor or nurse.
What I wish other people knew
Health disparities are a serious problem in the U.S. As COVID-19 made clear, when communities of color don’t have sufficient health care providers, people needlessly die. These groups suffer everything from higher infant mortality rates to more death from cancer and heart disease, and they are much less likely to be adequately treated for many diseases. Fixing this will require serious public policy and cross-sector collaborations to intentionally develop the next generation of health professionals, because — as I note in my upcoming book, Flatlining — the number of underrepresented students going into the field is still not keeping pace with the need.
Why my approach is unique
After a summer intensive session inside hospitals, where students shadow doctors and nurses, the students spend the academic year learning about health disparities. This helps them to develop a deep awareness and empathic understanding of the social determinants of health. After this, we put them into mentorships with one of our 500 physicians and other health care professionals. A separate program engages students in elementary school, because it’s never too early to nurture a child’s aspirations.
College and graduate school curricula in the sciences can be grueling, so we also have a specialized memory program to teach students how to study and learn efficiently. The mentorship, preparation and encouragement help keep our students on track, which is why nearly all have gone on to college, with 85 percent of them majoring in a STEM field.
Advice to others who want to make a difference
It may seem challenging to find the time when all of us have busy lives, but I’m a full-time practicing physician at the Veterans Administration. The hardest part in trying to make a difference is getting started. The problem always seems big and insurmountable, which is why you need to start by helping one person at a time. In our first year, we had only 10 students. We met in a space behind my office and took students in our personal cars to area hospitals for field experience. Now, more than a decade later, we work with more than a hundred students a year (reduced last year due to COVID).