October 25, 2002

Watkins urges diversity in medical education

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Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., George C. Hill, Ph.D., and Dr. Steven A. Gabbe listen as Dr. Harry R. Jacobson welcomes the crowd at the lecture last week in Light Hall. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Watkins urges diversity in medical education

When Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. walked through the doors of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine 36 years ago, he broke new ground by becoming the school’s first African-American student.

When he graduated four years later, he was still the only one.

Watkins, now professor of Cardiac Surgery and Dean of Postdoctoral Programs at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, returned to Vanderbilt last Friday to present the annual Levi Watkins Jr. Lecture on Diversity in Medical Education and to formally recognize a professorship in his name, held by George C. Hill, Ph.D., Levi Watkins Jr. Professor and Associate Dean for Diversity.

“Affirmative action got me into Vanderbilt Medical School. Watkins action got me out,” Watkins said.

“Levi Watkins is a pioneer whose integrity, brilliance and determination blazed a trail here,” wrote Drs. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs, and Steven G. Gabbe, dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in a program for last week’s lecture. “It remains for us to turn one man’s footsteps into a highway of opportunity for the cohort of brilliant minds that will follow…without regard to their race, their ethnicity or their background.”

Watkins told those gathered that he was “honored and humbled” by the professorship and the lecture.

“When I walked through those doors (in 1966), I never would have imagined, ever, what we are doing here today, the establishment of a professorship in my name,” Watkins told a packed and rapt auditorium last week in Light Hall. “I was taken aback when I got the call about the lecture and the professorship. Frankly, I thought Dean Gabbe was calling to try to hustle me for more money,” he said, laughing.

Hill introduced Watkins and told the audience that it took a great deal of courage for Watkins to enroll at Vanderbilt.

“It’s very difficult to achieve things when you’re all alone,” Hill said. “It’s a statement to his strength and that of his family that he was able to survive.”

Watkins named his family and several Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt faculty as co-owners of his accomplishments. He particularly singled out Dr. John E. Chapman, associate vice chancellor for Medical Alumni Affairs, who is the medical school’s longest serving dean.

“John, I hope when you look at me you see your work and your mission,” he said. “I understand the genesis of my roots as I am given this professorship.”

Watkins also mentioned Dr. John L. Tarpley, professor of Surgery and another member of the Class of 1970, as one of the co-owners of the Vanderbilt recognition.

“My first day here, you opened your arms and your heart to me,” Watkins said. “He and his wife opened their home to me, and went one step further by opening up their church to me. He made me think he was crazy, but way back then I saw the roots of his decency and his spirituality.”

Watkins was a Vanderbilt medical student in 1968 when Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated. “It was the saddest day of my life that day, when not everybody was unhappy,” he said.

Watkins said that although Vanderbilt has come a long way in its attempts at diversity, there is still much to be done. “I have had a professorship at Vanderbilt named after me, but I still can’t become a member at the Elkridge Club in Baltimore,” he said. “We have not healed completely.”

“Vanderbilt diversity should be more than just a group of words. Diversity is more than a desirable and honorable concept. True diversity can be therapy to our spirit. Diversity can be lifesaving to people of color. But to achieve it we must discover in ourselves a brave and startling truth,” Watkins said, referring to a poem by Maya Angelou.

Watkins cited some statistics about African Americans and health care. An African American treated in an emergency room today, for example, is 10 percent less likely to be evaluated for heart disease. African Americans are 30 percent less likely to undergo a cardiac catheterization, 40 percent less likely to undergo angioplasty and 54 percent less likely to undergo coronary bypass surgery. African Americans who are suffering from renal failure are 10 percent less likely to be evaluated, 20 percent less likely to receive a kidney transplant, and 25 percent more likely to die.

“All in all, there are 120,000 unnecessary deaths each year,” Watkins said. “All of these articles are from the New England Journal of Medicine, by the way. Jet magazine is not my source.”

Watkins also referenced recent Institute of Medicine recommendations about the health care of minorities. The IOM’s recommendations include increasing the number of minority health care providers, the amount and type of education that is given to minority patients, and continuing research to identify problems.

Hugh Fentress, a second-year graduate student, was one of three students who shared brief thoughts about the importance of diversity at Vanderbilt after Watkins completed his lecture.

“Thank you for paving the way for African-American and minority students,” Fentress told Watkins. “We have one of the top schools in the country, and to stay at the top, we’re going to have to create more diversity.”

Two faculty members also received Levi Watkins Awards, given to members of the VUSM faculty who have made outstanding contributions to the institution in fostering opportunities for underrepresented minorities in Vanderbilt’s educational and/or research programs.

This year’s recipients of the Watkins Award were Elaine Sanders-Bush, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology, and G. Roger Chalkley, D.Phil, senior associate dean for Biomedical Research, Education and Training.