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Lecturer shares impact Watkins made on his life

Oct. 7, 2020, 2:54 PM


by Kathy Whitney

The 19th annual Levi Watkins Jr., MD Lecture was held Oct. 6, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Watkins’ graduation from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Watkins, who was the first African American student to attend and graduate from VUSM, died in 2015.

Levi Watkins Jr., MD

“Although Levi left us almost five years ago, friends, colleagues, mentees and others remain resolute to honor his memory and commitment to civil rights, social justice and to foster and develop the next generation of minority physicians…committed to the noble and important mission of academic medicine… administrators, physician scientists, scientists and practitioners,” said Chief Diversity Officer André Churchwell, MD, in welcoming the viewers to the virtual lecture.

Selwyn Vickers, MD, senior vice president for Medicine and dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, spoke on “Heroes of the Past: Lives of Sacrifice Committed to Fighting Racial Injustice: A Message For Us Today.”

Selwyn Vickers, MD

“Dr. Vickers is a noted educator, mentor, writer, physician scientist and clinician,” Churchwell said by way of introduction.

Like Watkins, Vickers began his career in surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, first as a medical student and then as a resident. Watkins’ influence on Vickers left an indelible mark.

“It is my pleasure to give a lecture in honor of Levi, who I count as a mentor and dear friend. When I went to Johns Hopkins from Huntsville, Alabama, I didn’t know many people in Baltimore, but as I wanted to go into medicine, one name became resoundingly, constantly clear: Levi Watkins,” Vickers recalled. “Levi from a distance provided encouragement to do well and he made it clear that to get to where you wanted to be, you had to be the best that you could.”

Vickers spoke on the culture challenges of Watkins’ early life and his time at Hopkins, his courage to challenge the status quo, and the commitment that academic medical centers must make to change our world.

The cornerstone of Watkins’ personal formation was his parents, Levi Watkins Sr., a legendary educator, and Lillian Watkins, the ‘rock of the family.’ They moved their family to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1948 and Levi graduated as valedictorian of his high school class. He attended Tennessee State University, graduating at the top of his class.

The civil rights movement was the “backdrop of the cauldron of Watkins’ personal formation,” Vickers said.

Watkins challenged the status quo by choosing to attend VUSM, where he was the only African American student during his four years there. He and his classmate, John Tarpley, MD, went to Johns Hopkins for their surgery residencies, a program that prided itself on “12 (residents) in, three to five out.”

“It was unlike what we know today. We would find it to be quite brutal and unacceptable,” Vickers said of Watkins’ years in training. “Levi learned several things: the value of team and how to run teams. He learned the assessment of those around him and the value of those around him. Levi knew everyone who worked in his world. He learned to lead those who didn’t know where he was going.”

Upon completion of his residency, Watkins was chosen for the one faculty position available at Hopkins. He became a renowned cardiac surgeon and made his mark when he performed the first implantation of an automatic defibrillator.

When Vickers’ was deciding on medical school, his family met with Watkins, whom Vickers said “set a standard of achievement.” As Vickers considered options for residency, Watkins encouraged him to stay at Hopkins, and he did. From there, he went to UAB but never lost contact with Watkins.

Academic medical centers have a role to play in addressing health disparities, made more clear through the lens of COVID-19, which disproportionately affects minorities. Vickers concluded his talk by encouraging others to make a difference the Watkins’ way: practice dispelling the Institutional Imposter Syndrome; practice the principle of intentionality — move from being color blind to color bold; practice the principle of proximity and getting to know someone who is different in every way; learn to embrace the concept that excellence can’t be obtained if everyone looks and thinks the same; volunteer to teach someone to read; learn everyone’s name, from the housekeeper to the CEO.

At the beginning of the lecture, a number of awards were announced recognizing those who have significantly contributed to the School of Medicine’s diversity and inclusion mission. Kyla Terhune, MD, associate dean for Graduate Medical Education, received the faculty award. Third-year ENT resident Brandon Esianor, MD, and third-year general surgery resident Nelly-Ange Kontchou, MD, MBA, received the House Staff award. Second-year medical student Jaqueline Antoun received the student award, and Geena Ildefonso received the graduate student award.

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