You can do it, black doctors tell youths Program for students attacks stereotypes that hold them back

November 20, 1995|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

"Poor kids from East Baltimore didn't become doctors. That's the way it was," Walker Robinson said, recalling his youth in the 1940s and '50s.

But that stereotype didn't stop Dr. Robinson 25 years ago, and he doesn't want stereotypes and society's stumbling blocks to trip up today's youngsters.

That's why the pediatric neurosurgeon and 15 other black physicians are participating in a new medical symposium for students from three Baltimore County schools.

The county has many programs in which professionals and business people serve as role models and mentors for students, but "Within Your Reach" is the only one that involves physicians exclusively and targets black youngsters.

"It's a program for all children, but especially for children of color, because it's children of color who don't have role models," said elementary teacher Celine Johnson, who put together the seminar.

"If I can do it, you can do it," Dr. Robinson told about 85 youngsters from Deer Park Elementary and Middle schools and Randallstown High recently, during the first of 16 sessions at the high school.

"You have to work hard, you have to study hard but you can do almost anything you want to do," said the University of Maryland Medical Center neurosurgeon, who was acclaimed recently for having discovered a neck muscle that may explain the pain of tension headaches.

That's basically the message Randallstown ninth-grader Ian Byrd, who's interested in becoming a pediatrician, came to hear. "I like working with children. I came basically to learn about being a doctor," he said.

"Did you ever get bored and impatient?" asked a younger member of the audience.

"Bored, no. Impatient, yes. I wanted to do things," Dr. Robinson said.

The idea of the seminar grew from personal experience for Ms. Johnson, a teacher at Deer Park Elementary.

A black woman, she conceded she was "taken aback" when a neurosurgeon she was referred to turned out to be "a young black man." He, in fact, turned out to be Dr. Reginald Davis, chief of neurosurgery at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

"No one should be taken aback by seeing a young black man" in that position, Ms. Johnson said. "I just did not like that I was surprised."

After that, the teacher began enlisting doctors to "expose our children to role models that they don't often see. Perhaps this will be a catalyst for them to seek a profession -- not only medicine, but others," she said.

"Initially, I was thinking about high school students," said Ms. Johnson, "but many doctors' interests were sparked in elementary school."

That was the case with Dr. Davis and Dr. Hope Griffin, a Catonsville obstetrician and gynecologist.

"When I was 6 or 7, I wanted to be a doctor, and I never thought it was unreasonable," said Dr. Griffin, who grew up in "very rural Jamaica," the sixth of nine children. She attributed that desire to a childhood trip she had to make to a doctor.

"The nearest doctor was a day's travel," she recalled. "It was such an ordeal for my parents to get me to the doctor. I don't remember much about the doctor -- the name or whether it was a man or woman. But it was after that experience that I wanted to be a doctor."

For Reginald Davis, the seed was planted early, too.

"I was totally internally motivated. I wanted to succeed. I was probably an unusual child," he said.

"I wanted medicine to help people. I wanted neurosurgery because it was the epitome of medicine. There are only a few people on the planet who can do what I do. It ranks right up there with fighter pilots," said Dr. Davis, who has been at GBMC for five years.

Through the hard work to qualify for scholarships and gain acceptance to college and medical school, both physicians did not waver in pursuing their goals, they said. But friends and colleagues were not as sure of them.

When Dr. Griffin entered medical school at University Hospital in 1977, she was eight months' pregnant.

"My classmates were all shocked. Maybe 20 percent of my class was female. The stares that I got were incredible," she recalled.

When she failed biochemistry that year because of the time she missed and told her professor she intended to make it up in summer school at Columbia University in New York City, he said, "That's a hard school.

"I came back with an 'A,' " she said.

When Dr. Davis set his sights on Johns Hopkins, because he considered it the best place to study neurosurgery, others tried to discourage him, saying maybe a less prestigious school would be more realistic.

And when Dr. Robinson chose neurosurgery, "There were no black brain surgeons in this part of the country -- not in Maryland, or Pennsylvania or New York or Virginia. I guess if I'd known nobody in this part of the country had done it, I might have been scared," he said.

One of the driving forces for all three physicians was education, they said, adding that all of their parents stressed its importance and made sacrifices for them.

"I liked school, so I stayed," Dr. Robinson said.

"My folks said if you go to school and study hard you can do anything you want."

Well, almost.

His first goal was "to be a guard for the [New York] Knicks. I had a good jump shot, but I stopped growing," he said.

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