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MVA summit seeks to bring more black men into health professions

Oct. 11, 2018, 9:31 AM

by Matt Schorr

Encouragement, resilience and passion were the key messages at the recent Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance (MVA) summit for black men interested in health professions titled “Navigating the Pre-Health Path.”

“We need you,” James E.K. Hildreth, PhD, MD, Meharry Medical College (MMC) President and CEO, told the more than 100 attendees gathered at Meharry. “The country needs you, because of the passion you bring to the problems you face.”

André Churchwell, MD, Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Chief Diversity Officer, noted, “No one can stop your willpower.”

Approximately 131 young men registered for the summit, 28 of whom were high school students. The majority came from Nashville, but several traveled from Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Illinois and Michigan.

The event was the brainchild of Hildreth and Churchwell, who discussed the need for a “call to arms” on the plight of black men in medicine, health and science.

“There has been growing concern on the number of African-American males who enter medical school, from 626 in 1971 to 515 in 2014,” Churchwell explained. “In 2017, less than 40 percent of black male applicants entered medical school.”

Both men agreed the situation was dire, and that black males needed to hear the message that not only could they be successful, they must be successful.

The summit focused on increasing the number of black men entering graduate school for health professions. Hildreth, Churchwell and other organizers hope to change the current low numbers.

Matthew Walker, PhD, associate professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences at Vanderbilt, moderated the opening talks and shared with participants that, as of 2018, there was a distinctly lower distribution of black male doctors across America.

“There is an urgent need for medical students like you,” he said.

Hildreth’s father died in 1968 when Hildreth was 11. He suffered from cancer and didn’t have access to care. That, Hildreth said, is where his journey to the medical profession began.

“That’s when I decided I should become a doctor,” he said. “Four months later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and that further fueled my decision.”

Churchwell, meanwhile, lost his aunt to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). “She wasn’t taken care of in the hospital, and she passed away in my grandmother’s home,” he recalled. “Watching that spurred me on to think about the medical field.”

Walker recalled his grandfather, who was known as a “ghost surgeon” among his peers. Although his grandfather was Chief of Surgery at Meharry, at VUMC, “He came in after patients were anesthetized, performed the surgery and then left before they woke up,” Walker said, “so they wouldn’t know a black surgeon had operated on them.”

Hildreth remembered many people discouraging him from pursuing his dream. “At that time, a black man worked primarily in blue collar fields,” he said, “but I had my mother pushing me.”

Churchwell described being in school when America’s education system de-segregated. “Some teachers didn’t believe in me,” he said, “but my parents did.”

Hildreth stressed the need for positive counterbalances to stand against the negative messages, and Churchwell urged attendees to find mentors who could teach them how to find the tools for success.

Gerald Onuoha, MD, Internal Medicine resident at MMC and Project Dream CEO, moderated a panel discussion with health profession students from both Meharry and Vanderbilt, and they highlighted the need for passion and drive to succeed.

“There is no limit to what you can do,” Onuoha said. “Nothing can stop you from doing what you want to do.”

The panelists — MMC medical student Gerald Jones, MMC dental student Michael Lyn, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) student Nathaniel Yohannes and Vanderbilt University School of Nursing (VUSN) student Tomas Grant — agreed that words of encouragement throughout their education were vital.

Echoing the words of Hildreth and Churchwell, they restated the need for black males in all health professions. “We have to encourage people that being a scientist is cool,” Onuoha noted.

Representatives from both institutions’ admissions and financial aid offices provided insight into the process of paying for education.

The costs can be intimidating, they acknowledged, but not impossible and should be considered an investment in one’s future.

When applying for medical school, they explained, the key was for applicants to find ways to differentiate themselves. Passion, enthusiasm and drive were all important ways to accomplish this.

In attendance were “ambassadors” — black, male faculty, residents and students from both institutions — on hand to answer questions and network.

Numerous additional representatives from MMC and VUMC also attended, and readily shared their own experiences and encouragement.

Prospective health professions students who attended the event also shared their own views and provided feedback on a pathway forward and next steps.

“Seeing that there are those like me, who expressed their failure and struggles and still made it to the medical profession, was inspring,” one attendee commented when asked what he liked best about the event. “I have never seen that before.”

Another said “being able to be motivated by so many successful black leaders in medicine” was his favorite aspect.

Scott English, MD, MMC Adjunct Faculty and VUMC assistant professor of Medicine, closed out the event by saying, “If you ever feel you’re in a room where you don’t belong, every single person in health care has felt that way at some point.”

He urged everyone to find mentors to guide them on their respective journeys, as such people are crucial for success.

“To all the future leaders in this room, please let your gift shine,” he said. “Let it shine.”

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