Camaraderie, encouragement at core of student-led Black Men in Medicine
When undergraduate Jordan Matamoro-Mejias listened to Irv Kelley speak about his experiences as a first-year Virginia Commonwealth University medical school student at a Black Men In Medicine student organization Zoom presentation earlier this semester, the junior psychology major from Woodbridge, Virginia, saw himself in the older student’s shoes.
“Seeing [Irv] as me and as my fellow brothers and Black men in medicine, we could actually see him as, ‘Hey, that could be me one day. That will be me one day,’” Matamoro-Mejias said.
Matamoro-Mejias does not have any family members in the medical field, so affirmations and support he has established through Black Men in Medicine have played a key role in his professional path. Most importantly, the student organization has created strong camaraderie with like-minded friends and support from mentors who look like him.
“I am interested in pursuing medicine because I’ve had numerous family members that have died from preventable causes,” said Matamoro-Mejias, who serves as treasurer of Black Men in Medicine. “Growing up playing sports and getting injured, I had to get surgery and the anesthesiologist was the first person to comfort me before I let a stranger cut my body open. This interaction influenced me to want to become an anesthesiologist, and I would like to have this impact on my patients.”
Identifying a need
Black Men in Medicine was established at VCU to help break down the many barriers to Black male undergraduates pursuing careers in the profession. Former VCU pre-med adviser Henry Lewis started the group in 2016 to make a concerted effort to reach out to, and support, a population underrepresented in the field. A 2015 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges reported that in 2014 Black men accounted for a total of 1,337 applicants and 515 enrolled students at medical schools. That proportionally low number, which had dipped from 1970, made Lewis examine what was in place at VCU to encourage Black males to enter medicine through more targeted advising.
The Association of American Medical Colleges’ latest report from 2019 shows that diversity among medical school applicants, students and graduates has continued to grow. However, gains in diversity are not shared by all groups: application, entry and graduation rates for Black or African American students still lag behind.
Matamoro-Mejias hopes to add to the actual total count of 830 Black males under 34 years old practicing medicine in the U.S. right now, compared to 12,125 white men under 34 practicing.
In 2015, Black students weren’t coming to Lewis for pre-med advising, although he identified at least 100 at the time. His concerted efforts, though, encouraged many of those students to visit with him for clear information on the requirements for the rigorous and admittedly intimidating pre-med track. Lewis, who until recently served as the director of recruitment and training for the VCU College of Health Professions, said this year he saw the successful effect of his efforts, now that Black Men in Medicine is an official student-led organization. Students he had reached out to years ago are now in medical school and speaking on panels that inspire students such as Matamoro-Mejias. Black Men in Medicine members support each other as study partners and go as a group on medical school tours.
“We wanted them to work together to become doctors,” Lewis said. “Serving on the executive board gives this group the leadership experience, the teamwork experience. It shows that they're truly invested in their future in medicine.”
Inspired by science and the motivation to help
“I think one of the biggest obstacles [for Black men to enter medicine] is really the exposure part of it,” said Mohammed Al-meflehi, co-president of Black Men in Medicine and a chemistry major in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
“A lot of people come from backgrounds where they probably don't know a Black physician or nobody in their family has been to college,” Al-meflehi said. “[There are] barriers that prevent them from that kind of exposure. One of the things that we try to do is provide that exposure to [the approximately 40 members].”
Al-meflehi sees medicine as a way to meld his love of science with his desire to help people overcome illness.
“I'm interested in pursuing medicine because I want to be a role model for kids who don't have role models and they've never seen a Black doctor before,” said Nanda Nana, secretary of Black Men in Medicine and a junior biology major. “I know you think that's strange in 2020, but I've been to a school in which kids think being a doctor is a white job and they've never seen a Black doctor. My other motivation to pursue medicine is that I hope to serve in those communities that lack Black physicians so I can impact their lives in a positive way as those communities tend to lack doctors and access to health care as a whole.”
Members and the executive board support each other as they navigate their career path to medical school and beyond.
“In my experience, if I told anyone I wanted to pursue medicine they were like, ‘Great. You go forward.’ But I don't think there were too many opportunities or classes [pushing me in that direction],” said Isaiah King, co-president of Black Men in Medicine and a senior biology major. “I would say it was all just honestly a little bit of luck and just common curiosity that allowed me to do some shadowing, do some volunteering, do some networking in high school in medicine, and then building that on my own to college.”
King thinks Black Men in Medicine serves to bridge a gap and provide support in college for students who think they want to be a physician until they actually enter medical school.
King sees medicine as a way to work in a field with constant mental stimulation and a continuous opportunity to learn and progress.
“I could put my knowledge of science [into practice] to help people when they’re at their most vulnerable,” King said. “I could make people’s lives better. My curiosity about science could lead to a career that saves lives, and I want to be a part of that profession.”
William Burke, a pre-professional health and STEM career adviser in VCU Career Services, serves as an adviser to Black Men in Medicine, helping the group form relationships with VCU physicians, physician assistants, surgeons and researchers. Black Men in Medicine has brought in Black men and women in these career fields for virtual and, in prior semesters, in-person presentations and networking.
“Black Men in Medicine has allowed me to form connections with Uniformed Services University [of the Health Sciences], where I was offered a research internship, UNC Chapel Hill, where I toured and met a few medical students, [as well as] University of Virginia, Eastern Virginia Medical School, and of course VCU,” Matamoro-Mejias said. “I also shadow a VCU physician [anesthesiologist Cedric Campbell, M.D.] who mentors me as well.”
Shadowing a doctor who looks like him is especially important to Matamoro-Mejias because he is well aware there are numerous challenges to entering the field, from subtle discouragement to overt discrimination from patients and colleagues.
“Me personally, I've been told, ‘Oh yeah, you're smart, but not doctor smart,’” Nana said.
Al-meflehi’s mother, who is a doctor, has walked into a patient’s room and been mistaken for a nurse.
“There's nothing wrong to be a nurse, but she worked hard to become a physician and people will try to discredit that just because your traditional image of a doctor is maybe an older white male,” Al-meflehi said. “We’re someone who doesn't fit that mold. It can be a shock to a lot of patients, especially in areas where it's not really that diverse because that's all they're used to seeing.”
From their mentors, the students have heard about patients declining care, insulting Black doctors with racial slurs, and supervisors and colleagues belittling Black doctors.
“I've heard plenty of physicians who go into their patients’ rooms, and their patients are asking them if they're the janitor,” Matamoro-Mejias said.
Voices from the field
During a recent Friday night, about a dozen Black Men in Medicine members listened to a physician panel with Eric Freeman, M.D., a Richmond pediatrician; Ryan Mire, M.D., a Nashville internist; and Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D., a critical care pulmonologist and division chair at VCU Health, talk about their career paths and choices, their experiences facing discrimination on the job and their approaches to work-life balance. Advice and affirmations flowed.
Matamoro-Mejias was particularly interested in hearing about racism and discrimination the doctors have experienced.
Al-meflehi was interested in hearing how the doctors decided their next steps after residency, determining whether to work in a hospital, go into research or open their own practice.
King was listening to what the doctors had learned over the course of their careers, where the doctors felt the undergraduates and rising physicians could help, and the trajectory the professionals would like to see the younger generation work toward.
King and the other Black Men in Medicine executive board members are keenly aware of the health and wealth disparities affecting Black people that have become glaringly clear during COVID-19. He points to studies mentors have brought to his attention about Black neighborhoods with lower incomes, poorer health, more crowded housing, less access to healthy food and higher COVID-19 rates.
“In terms of a psychological standpoint, as a Black physician, I would understand what another Black male is going through better than someone who isn't Black,” said Matamoro-Mejias, referring to harassment and discrimination. “That trauma of just being Black in America is detrimental in and of itself. And it has to be treated as well.
“[It’s] not just the physical aspect of medicine. You need a physician who could understand you on a personal level.”