Black Men Gather to Promote Careers in Medicine.

Photo by Gabrielle Clark

By Gabrielle Clark

Not even a November snowstorm and a frosty glaze on Broad Street could deter the 33 present and aspiring physicians from attending An Evening with Black Males in Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine last week.

The event was intended to provide outreach, networking and mentorship, and attendees reveled in the rare opportunity to be in a room with so many black men interested in medicine.

“I am used to being the only black male (doctor),” Dr. Leonard Mason, III, Assistant Professor of Surgery at Temple University Hospital and LKSOM alumnus, told the group. “I am sure each of you has been in situations where you were the only one in your field or will be the first physician in your family.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges highlighted the shortage of black men in the medical profession in Altering the Course, Black Males in Medicine. According to the 2015 report, 1,410 black men applied to medical school in 1978, and 542 were accepted. Those numbers have since only stagnated and fallen; 1,337 black men applied in 2014 and 515 were accepted. More than 19,000 students graduate from medical school annually, yet just over 1,000 combined are black men and women.

The Lewis Katz School of Medicine faces a challenge recruiting black males. There are 200 students in this fall’s incoming class, but only one black male. Twenty-one were accepted, but 20 took offers elsewhere. There are 17 black women in the class of 2022.

At last week’s event, 12 black male physicians — all either graduates of Temple or in practice here — shared their wisdom with 21 aspiring physicians at the undergraduate and post-baccalaureate levels whose questions ranged from how to select a specialty to how to handle racial prejudice in the workplace.

Doctors and students discuss the life and challenges of black men in medicine. Photo by Gabrielle Clark

“You are all here because you are good students, ambitious,” said Dr. Kevin Guynn, a Temple anesthesiologist. “The material will be the easy part. Now you need to learn how to present yourselves, how to deal with stress, and how to commit to what you want to do so you are not deterred because people will try to do so.”

Dr. Kashif Smith, an Emergency Medicine resident and West Oak Lane native, was asked if his dreadlocks raised questions about his professionalism. “I am a black man first, a doctor second,” he replied. “I am here to care for my patients and they are comfortable receiving care from someone who looks like them.” Smith concurred that black men’s concerns about their ability to be perceived as professionals are very real, and that he chose to grow his hair out after he became credentialed.

Germyce Harris, the Multicultural Student Recruitment Coordinator for the medical school, was the mastermind of the event. Inspiration came months earlier when her father was a patient at Temple Hospital. She was excited to learn that his surgeon, Dr. Mason, was a black man, but so discouraged that none of the students and residents accompanying him looked like him. She took her vision back to The Office of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (OHEDI) where she works and planned.

According to Altering the Course, Black Males in Medicine, many factors contribute to the declining black male presence in medicine — inferior conditions in public schools, poverty, inequitable access to academic resources, educators who lack cultural awareness, and racial bias.

John Jackson, a sophomore Kinesiology major at Temple University, noted that the education he received in high school did not prepare him as well as he had hoped, “I was able to maneuver and pass science classes,” he said, “but I did not absorb the material. I had to play catch-up when I got to Temple. But I know if I stay focused, I can do this.”

Logan Cary, an undergraduate from Baltimore, Maryland, said, “I know the feeling, I had to teach myself everything.” Cary often felt distracted from his studies by other students and had a rough time studying in high school. “It was a zoo.”

Having a strong support system is often the difference between success and a dream deferred. Dr. Vincent Cowell, Professor of Clinical Anesthesiology at LKSOM, said he was motivated by the overwhelming encouragement he received from his colleagues and superiors.

Dr. Cowell, a South Philly native, told the young men he took a less traditional route to medicine. By the time he graduated from high school, Cowell had two children to support. While working full-time as a nurse, he enrolled in medical school full-time through a program that aimed to transform medical professionals into physicians.

“I had such supportive attendings,” he said. “One [doctor] tutored me in calculus between patients. Having so many people put their faith in me constantly renewed me… I did not want to let them down.”

When asked how he was able to work, study and support his family, he smiled humbly, “Time management.” He also shared that one of the greatest days of his life was when he showed his mother his medical school diploma.

The pre-med students cradled their fresh copies of Black Man in a White Coat, a book written by a Duke University physician, like small jewels in their palms. Some requested that the physicians sign their books. One young man exclaimed that organizers of this event had brought Christmas to them early, eliciting waves of laughter.

Dr. Guynn urged the young men in attendance to hold fast to their dreams, as tight as some clutched their new books.

“This community needs you,” he said. “The health disparities facing us are off the charts. You know the statistics and you know how our people are being treated. Your ability to relate to people in our community is invaluable.”

Photo by Gabrielle Clark

Gabrielle Clark, a Temple University journalism graduate and freelance writer, works as a GME Program Administrator in the General Surgery Residency at Temple University Hospital.