The Black Men in Medicine Forum

by Tyrone Johnson, MS1

“There’s something especially powerful about having a group of Black men—Black physicians—alone in a room, together.”
Monica Vela, MD’93

On Friday, November 18th, The Pritzker School of Medicine hosted its first-ever Black Men in Medicine forum, bringing faculty from various Chicago medical institutions together with Pritzker residents and medical students in an open panel discussion. Our seven panelists were Leonard Baidoo, MD, John Franklin, MD, MSc, MA, and Steven Watson, MD, from Northwestern University; Edwin McDonald, MD, James Mitchell, MD, Keith Naylor, MD, MS, and Bryan Smith, MD, from the University of Chicago Medicine, and Kim Allan Williams, MD, MACC, from Rush University Medical Center. Together, they represented decades of collective experience in the fields of cardiology, gastroenterology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and ophthalmology.

Students mingling during the event

Indeed, there was a ubiquitous strength in that lecture room, emanating through a sense of candidness and camaraderie that I had not felt in a very long time. The synergy was tremendous. These men were real; drawing on their spartan experiences as black physicians, their guidance to us as medical students and residents was transparent, wholly unfiltered, and absolutely necessary.

Dr. Naylor moderated the two-hour panel, and the topics of discussion between the Black trainees and faculty included:

  • How to address racism experienced from colleagues, patients, and faculty
  • How to deal with the feeling of being underestimated as a trainee because you are Black
  • How to develop additional specialized expertise in areas such as policy and business, when the road to an MD alone already presents tremendous barriers
  • What “diversity” means to medical institutions and whether or not their climate is genuine 
  • How to justify choosing a subspecialty when you feel a strong obligation to serve the community you came from
  • How to best choose a specialty, period (Answer: do what you love!)
  • How to get more Black students into medicine, when fewer are applying now than in 1970′s (Answer: support youth as early in the educational pipeline as possible)
  • How, as trainees, to convince admissions and residency directors to accept more Black applicants into their programs

Attendees and panelists join for a group photo

Every issue brought up was valid, every response heartening. I realized this night just how much baggage a Black physician can bear with him throughout his training. Every man carries stones; this night had the feel of a rare respite, where one could set down his load and lie, at least for a time, unburdened. At the end, when I picked up my bag again, it felt lighter than it had before. 

Dr. McDonald’s response to that final abovementioned discussion topic is especially memorable, for in it I found not only support, but also a tremendous positive motivation: “You must be excellent. Be the case for why more people like you should be accepted into your program.”  

In my undergraduate education, I was always driven by the motivation to prove to myself that I could be successful. Fast-forward five years and a white coat from a wonderful institution later, and I look to the future with confidence that I can do well, but such confidence can risk complacency. In recent weeks I have been searching for an intrinsic motivation that lies both beyond myself, and, as an MS1, closer than the distant realm of patient care. This forum was deeply impactful because it reminded me of what I fight for, of why my success as a trainee is especially meaningful. A spark has kindled again.

Attendees filled the KCBD auditorium