Surgeon Who Mended A Wrong

February 24, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

An article in yesterday's Metro section about Dr. Levi Watkin incorrectly identified Dr. Eric Taylor as Dr. Eric Nelson.

The Sun regrets the error.

When he walked into the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1970, Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. felt right at home.

Too much so.

He had grown up in segregated Montgomery, Ala. The civil rights movement started there with the bus boycott.

He had grown up determined to make equal rights a part of his life. He was the first African-American student admitted to the Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

He knew he would be the only African-American intern at Hopkins, but he was not prepared for how alone he would feel.

"Hopkins was like Montgomery," he says. If there were any African-Americans at the hospital, they were "in the basement."

Today, a directory is printed to give names of African-Americans at Hopkins -- not just medical students, but staff physicians, faculty members and administrators at the world-famous institution.

"We were at the bottom then, and I know we are near the top today," he says.

For his role in that transformation and for other accomplishments, the Urban League of Baltimore will honor the 49-year-old cardiac surgeon tonight with its Equal Opportunity Award. Julian Bond, the former Georgia legislator and civil rights leader, will be the speaker at a dinner to be held at Martin's West.

Dr. Watkins' role as the outspoken conscience of Hopkins is well recognized.

"He's a brother who is unusually talented or competent in an area where very few human beings dare to tread," says Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, D-Baltimore.

The physician's friend, Morgan State University Professor Homer Favor, says, "He wasn't satisfied just to breathe the rarefied air without sharing it."

In that commitment, Dr. Watkins personified what the Urban League wants to recognize, according to Alice Pinderhughes, its executive director in Baltimore.

"He's not a blustering personality. He just very quietly and

effectively makes his point."

Blustering or not, he delivers the medicine without sugar coating.

"We know he's very vocal about the past, and he's not wrong," says Michelle Fizzano, a spokeswoman for the hospital.

Associate dean of the Hopkins School of Medicine since 1991 and a professor of cardiac surgery, Dr. Watkins helps to supervise 1,300 residents and postdoctoral fellows in 52 different programs.

With the focus on national health care reform and its emphasis on family practice, he is helping to add that discipline to an institution traditionally oriented toward medical research and specialization.

Dr. Watkins remains a practicing surgeon. In the early 1980s, he pioneered the surgical techniques used to implant the automatic defibrillator, a device that senses cardiac arrest or changes in rhythm and shocks the heart back to normal.

Before the less invasive techniques he perfected, implantation required something very like open heart surgery, according to Dr. Tom Guarnieri, a Baltimore heart specialist and former full-time Hopkins staff member. The new procedure made the operation less life-threatening, easier to recover from and more widely applicable.

Though Dr. Watkins hopes to be remembered for his pioneering work as a surgeon, his passion for equal rights is similarly intense.

His role models were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and Levi Watkins Sr., his father.

He was baptized by Mr. Abernathy and later was a member of Dr. King's congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. He drove people to church so they could boycott the buses.

He watched marchers pass his high school and, on occasion, ran out with some of his classmates to join them. (If Dr. King spotted them, he always sent them back to school.)

He stood with his father, president of Alabama State University in Montgomery, outside the whites-only football stadium in 1961 when the Ku Klux Klan tried to bar them. Police cleared the way, but a bomb threat canceled the game.

For Dr. Watkins, tonight's award will be bittersweet. His 83-year-old father is gravely ill in Montgomery and cannot be present.

Levi Watkins was high school valedictorian and studied biology at Tennessee State University. Advisers recognized his abilities and suggested medicine.

"My father supported me. My mother didn't want me to go to Vanderbilt. It was hard enough to become a doctor, she thought, but to have to put up with a lot of other crap on top of that was too much."

But her son was on a mission.

"One of my interests was to be a part of integration of the South, to be a part of change," Dr. Watkins said.

At Hopkins, he announced his intention to become actively involved in minority affairs during a party held for graduating residents. He was quickly made a member of the admissions committee.

Since then he has traveled the nation, encouraging young African-American students to recognize that Hopkins is an option for them.

Dr. Eric Nelson was one of his recruits. He found Dr. Watkins "extremely warm, a mentor."

"I had the feeling that if I came here, someone like him would be there for me," said the 33-year-old resident in internal medicine.

He met Dr. Watkins as an undergraduate at the University of Detroit.

Dr. Watkins could tell Eric Nelson something that was not true when he started his own career: "You don't have to be a pioneer any more. If you come to Hopkins, you know we want you. There's a system set up that will embrace you."

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