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Black Men In White Coats

From left: Drs. Maxime Madhere, Pierre Johnson and Joseph Simien

by Chandra Thomas Whitfield

HBCU Alums Hope Memoir and Tour Will Redefine the Image of African-American Male Doctors and Encourage a New Generation to Pursue medicine

As struggling premed students at Xavier University in New Orleans in 1998, Pierre Johnson and Maxime Madhere  expected to spend long hours in the campus library; they never imagined that while there they would befriend a classmate and form bonds that would reshape the course of their lives.

Their fateful connection unfolded one day during a marathon study session at the popular student hub at the historically Black university known for helping produce top-notch Black doctors. The new study partners struck up a conversation with Joseph Semien, a New Orleans native. During that conversation, they learned that they all had experienced similar challenges growing up as young African-American men: Semien had sold drugs on the streets of New Orleans, Madhere had faced gun violence as a teen in Washington, D.C., and Johnson endured the instability of being exposed to drug-addicted relatives in Chicago. They also learned that as former star students, they were all struggling academically for the first time in their lives and grappling with self-doubt and depression as a result.

“We were all struggling with self-confidence,” recalls Madhere, 37. “We were from three different walks of life, but we quickly saw that we had a lot of similarities as Black males coming up in the crack era. It was divine intervention that we met.”

Instead of succumbing to bravado and choosing to view each other as adversaries in the highly competitive environment, they opted to become allies. Eventually, they would make a promise—a pact, actually—to hold each other accountable personally and academically, and to work tirelessly to help each other succeed.

“We started having a discussion about the struggles we were having and how we were trying to fight it out on our own,” recalls Johnson, now 38. “As the conversation went on, we began to see the drive in each other. Then we realized that we needed [each other] to help navigate the tough times that we were going through. Instantly, we started meeting in the library and began to push each other.”

Then something special happened, says Semien: “We formed a brotherhood that became a family.”

It would be a long, twisting and tumultuous road, but each man stayed the course and made it to medical school. Now they share the honor and privilege of having “M.D.” behind their names, and 20 years later, their friendship remains intact.

Semien is an obstetrician/gynecologist at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital in Louisana; Madhere is a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist and partner at Anesthesiology Group Associates in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Johnson works as an obstetrician/gynecologist for Chicago Metro OB/GYN in Harvey, Illinois.

The trio chronicled their struggles navigating the travails of college, medical school and beyond in a memoir: Pulse of Perseverance: Three Black Doctors on Their Journey to Success. Since the book’s release in early 2018, the men have crisscrossed the country to speak at schools, churches and civic and medical groups, detailing how they leaned on each other to overcome the seemingly unsurmountable odds they say many Black youth face today.

“We’re about challenging–and ultimately changing–the narrative about Black men that is projected in the media—that we’re only good at sports and entertainment,” says Madhere. “The problem is that the value of education often gets diminished in that image. We want to tap that underdeveloped talent and potential in our Black youth.”

Along with highlighting their personal journeys, the doctors say they’re also using the book and speaking tour to raise awareness about the need for more people of African descent in medicine, especially African-American men. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), only about 4 percent of U.S. doctors are Black, and Black males represent about 2 percent of medical school graduates. One startling AAMC report also found that in 2014, fewer Black men were enrolled in medical school than when the number mushroomed in 1978. The statistics are especially concerning because studies find that Black patients, especially men, tend to receive higher quality, lifesaving care from doctors of the same race.

Semien, 40, says there’s also a critical need for more clinicians of color, physicians who conduct medical research that aids in the development of treatment and pharmaceutical drugs, particularly for conditions that disproportionately affect Black people. “The bottom line is that nobody can take care of Blacks like we as Black physicians can; we understand the culture and can take a more holistic approach to meet their needs,” he says. “That’s why we need more people who look like us going into medicine.”

The doctors have visited such cities as Atlanta and Chicago in recent months to spread this message. At one of several speaking engagements in the Atlanta area last summer, they spoke with the W.I.R.E.D youth ministry at Berean Christian Church.

James Fisher, a high school senior who heard the doctors speak in Atlanta, says, “They said things like, ‘Anything is possible’ and ‘Anyone can be us.’ I’ve heard these things before, but they personally moved me when they shared struggles. In people’s success stories, they usually have no struggles that they like to share. [The doctors] opened up about them and ended up telling us how to overcome them . . . a lot of people forget their roots; for these men, it is the total opposite.”

And it wasn’t only the youth who were inspired.

Philip Nash, pastor of Pastoral Care at Berean, was also energized. “It was refreshing to hear those [from the Black community] come in and basically pull a ‘Marcus Garvey’—each one reach one—kind of thing,” he says. It encouraged him to keep achieving and get back to finishing his own graduate studies in pastoral counseling and leadership, he says.

Though informal in their strategy, the doctors-turned-authors’ diversity efforts are similar to other initiatives that have emerged in recent years, such as White Coats for Black Lives and the social media campaign #blackmeninmedicine. The AAMC’s reports also inspired Dale Okorodudu to launch his Black Men In White Coats campaign in 2013, while he was a resident at Duke University Medical Center. His initiative includes a mentorship program for premed students and video profiles of young Black doctors that are posted on medical school websites and social media. Okorodudu, now a Dallas-based pulmonary and critical care physician, says he applauds the Pulse authors for projecting a positive image of Black men.

“All we hear about is Black males playing sports or being entertainers, and that is such a small number of people. Why aren’t they showing the 95 percent of us out there just being dads, taking care of our families and doing the many exceptional things that we do every day?” asks Okorodudu, a father of three children who also wrote the parent guide, How to Raise a Doctor: Wisdom From Parents Who Did It.

Although drawing attention to the dearth of doctor diversity is a centerpiece of their message, the three insist that their formula for success can be applied to any profession. “Our overall mission was not just to talk about the medical field; our goal is to inspire and empower young Black children and to provide a blueprint for success,” Madhere explains.

With their own money and what they earn from speaking engagements, they’re funding a mentorship program and a monthly scholarship award to help medical school students. They hope to expand their message to new platforms, such as a TV show.

“We now understand that all of the obstacles and struggles that we overcame were placed in our lives for a higher purpose,” says Johnson. “We believe God placed us in this position to show others what to do and how to do it.”

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