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Special Feature: Gateway Medical Society celebrates new star: A history of supporting African American youth

By: Amelia A. Paré, MD, FACS

These past weeks have brought peaceful protests that have been riddled with riotous activity. As our country emerges from the haze of a pandemic, we awaken into a realization that our country is not what we expected it to be. Our best hope is for peace for the youth of the nation allowing them to be prosperous.

One group, the Gateway Medical Society (GMS), has been mentoring youth in Pittsburgh for over a decade in the Journey to Medicine Program. One participant, Odell Minniefield III, will be entering the University of Pittsburgh medical school this fall. The GMS originated because of racism; African American physicians were not allowed to join the Allegheny County Medical Society (ACMS) until the 1970s.

The GMS was organized in 1963. Some of the founding organizers are Earl B. Smith, MD, Oswald Nickens, MD, and Charles Bookert, MD. The goal of the GMS is to promote healthcare and general welfare of minority and socio-economically challenged populations in Southwestern Pennsylvania primarily through education. This education may be through mentorship programs, community programs, networking, CME, or scholarships. GMS is affiliated with the National Medical Association, which was founded in 1895, a time when African American doctors were not allowed to join the American Medical Society and were barred from most medical schools.

GMS addresses issues that affect minorities, for example: chronic illnesses, COVID susceptibility/death, poor nutrition and social bias.

“African Americans have the highest incidence of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), of AIDS, the highest death rate of heart disease, of diabetes, of almost any kind of cancer,” said William Simmons, MD, anesthesiologist at Shadyside and a previous president of Gateway and creator of a new mentoring program that will incorporate trades and other occupations by partnering with other groups across that state.

The GMS has been active in advancing youth education. In 2010, the Journey to Medicine Program was initiated, with 15 sixth-grade young men, including Odell Minniefield. The goal of the Journey to Medicine Program is to develop a strong confidence in pre-adolescent participants, to stress the early importance of achievement in mathematics and science, and to introduce all disciplines of medicine and allied health professions. The program also hopes to inspire and guide participants as they matriculate through secondary education and beyond. Ultimately, the goal is for some students to enter the field of medicine and allied health professions. All students are mentored by a combination of physician mentors, residents and medical students. Field trips and tutoring sessions are made available to students who may experience any academic difficulties.

“To get those 15, I interview more than 60 kids,” said Morris Turner Jr., Gateway’s Youth Mentorship Program coordinator, adding that they look for a 3.0 grade point average, but that strong math and science grades are more important. The initial candidates are recommended by school principals and science and math teachers. Each boy must have signed permission from a parent or guardian to participate.

“And we don’t want to lose them in college,” said Anita Edwards, MD. “As long as they stay with us, we’ll stay with them.”

“This is not a quick fix,” conceded Jan Madison, MD. She acknowledged that the interrelated factors that influence the decline of black men in medicine are multiple and complex, but that all research seemed to indicate that an early start predicted better outcomes. “We’re hoping to catch them at a young age and fill that pipeline,” she said.

Of the 300 million people in the United States in 2010, 12.7 percent were black, according to the Census Bureau. According to data physicians reported to the American Medical Association (AMA), 37,833 doctors were black, constituting 3.8 percent of the nation’s 985,375 physicians. The number peaked in the 1990s and now has declined. Black male doctors accounted for two percent of the overall total, according to the AMA.

“So, we are trying to directly address the problem of diminished presence,” Dr. Simmons said. The Journey to Medicine students meet at least twice a month for workshops ranging from emergency medicine to cardiology and to work in simulations with interactive mannequins and CPR training.

Most of the funding for the program has come from the Heinz Endowments, which provided a $75,000 grant for the first two years of the program; Heinz recently awarded another two-year grant for $150,000.

“The Heinz grants were given in collaboration with Heinz’s African-American Men and Boys Task Force”, said Doug Root, spokesman for the endowments. The Heinz Endowments has generously supported efforts to make southwestern Pennsylvania a premier place to live and work, with educational excellence, and diversity.

Other Journey to Medicine supporters include the University of Pittsburgh, Highmark BlueCross BlueShield and the Allegheny County Medical Society.

“Not only do we try to encourage and engage (the students), but we’re also trying to make sure they have all the tools and training they need to get into medical schools,” Dr. Edwards said. “You know, it’s not a quick fix, but we’re hoping over time we’ll be able to help our community grow by providing caregiving from African Americans, which will help with the disparity in health care, which is how we get to closing the gap.”

“Why do we need African American doctors?” asked Dr. Simmons. “Because they are more likely to serve minority and economically disadvantaged communities; they’re more invested in improving the lives of African American people. And if we keep losing boys the way we are, they’ll all be left behind.”

“But we want the program to be fun. We don’t want the kids to think of it as more school,” Turner said. Gateway also has partnered with Investing Now, a University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering college preparatory program for students from groups that are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math.

“In a typical class at the University of Pittsburgh, we usually have 16 or 20 African American students entering medical school, in a class of 150,” he said. “This year, four of them are male.”

“A lot of programs out there are for ‘at-risk’ young men, and those programs are needed,” Dr. Madison said. “But these kids need to be rewarded, too. They’re doing well, and people recognize that.” All the boys’ grade point averages have improved, with some even averaging 4.0, or straight As.

Dr. Simmons said the Journey to Medicine program attempts to address some of the many reasons why so few African American men become physicians.

“We need to tell these boys, ‘It’s OK to be smart, it’s OK to do well in school,’” said Dr. Simmons, who pointed to stereotypes and a lack of exposure and role models as significant factors.

“Some of these boys haven’t seen many African Americans who are professionals or physicians,” he said. “They can’t imagine going to medical school, it’s not part of their experience.”

Dr. Edwards stressed the importance of quality education as another factor at work.

“A lot is just academics. Our young men are not prepared. A lot of avenues are closed to them, because of economics, because of attending public schools that may not be serving them,” she said.

But she indicated that cultural factors may play a role, too.

“I don’t think African American boys get the financial and emotional support from families that females do,” she said. “And I think a lot of parents still don’t grasp the importance of education.”

The problems were difficult, she said, but as physicians, the members of Gateway had little choice about getting involved.

“You either sit on the sidelines and say, ‘I’ll do nothing,’ or you try to change it,” Dr. Edwards said. “Diversity is the solution to race issues by recognizing that racial discrimination and embrace the racial differences because educated communities are self-sustaining.”

In 1850, Pittsburgh native Martin Delany was born a free man in West Virginia, was educated in Pennsylvania and enrolled in Harvard Medical school. White protests forced him to leave, and he finished his education as an apprentice under Dr. Edward Gazzam, a prominent Pittsburgh physician. Dr. Delany joined the Union Army during the Civil War and was commissioned the first black combat major – the highest-ranked African American at that time.

Nearly three decades later, Dr. George Turfley was the first registered physician in Allegheny County after training in Ohio in 1879. He was the only African American doctor in Pittsburgh for more than a decade.

Dr. Albert Gilbert Gant was the first African American graduate of the University of Pittsburgh Medical School in 1901 and practiced in Pittsburgh for 50 years.

In 1943, Dr. Charles Joseph Burke graduated second in his class but could not find a residency in Pittsburgh. He completed a residency in St. Louis and served in the Armed Forces before returning to Pittsburgh to practice.

In 1967, Dr. Peter Safar developed partnerships on the Hill district to bring together ambulance services and train African American residents to provide services known as Freedom Ambulance Services. This program became a model for emergency services throughout the nation.

This fall, Journey to Medicine graduate Odell Minniefield III, born in Hazelwood, graduate of Taylor Alderdice and Tuskegee University will enter the University of Pittsburgh Medical school to become an anesthesiologist. His grandfather was his first role model: hardworking and centered on family. His father and mother worked to allow him to study but also participate in sports and travel to a rural Historically Black college where he interacted with the community around Tuskegee University that was different than his experience in Pittsburgh.

Minniefield developed strong friendships that supported each other in the rigorous academics but also enjoyed each other’s success.

“I grew up to be more responsible and appreciate my parents when I was away. It was a risk, but I learned, and people gave me more responsibility,” he said.

He enjoyed meeting students from all over the country and bringing those experiences back to Pittsburgh. The University of Pittsburgh tuition is nearly $80,000 per year. Minniefield has received $15,000 in scholarships but he is determined to become a physician despite the cost. He recognizes his father’s hard work ethic and understands that he will have to work for everything. There have been helpful programs along the way such as Experience Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh summer programs.

His advice to younger men is “to enjoy every step along the way, enjoy all of your experiences, no matter how tough they are: join clubs, play sports, help others, but don’t forget to keep your grades up. Challenge yourself. Make yourself the best, and lastly, seek out help. You will never know everything and someday, you will help others.”

As we reflect on these past months, and the wisdom of Minniefield, graduate of the Journey to Medicine program, I hope that we will all be better physicians and better community members.

“We are all in this together,” Minniefield said. “I can’t wait to start (medical school).”

All of the members of the state and county medical society salute the men and women who care for patients every day, but also those physicians who broke barriers and made things better for the generations that followed. Finally, we thank those participants of the Journey to Medicine for giving us all hope that we can live in peace and that we have to support each other.

Every story has a beginning, middle and an end. Many of us during quarantine have had more time to ponder what is important. I am amazed at all of the outstanding answers in the world in our newspapers, internet and friends (often the youngest ones are the wisest). Looking forward, we would be naïve to think that this will all be easy, and I agree with Mr. Rogers “to look for the helpers,” but as physicians, nothing creates more hope than listening to the story of a young doctor.
 

Dr. Paré is a plastic surgeon and associate editor of the ACMS Bulletin. She can be reached at apare@acms.org.