Program introduces minority high school students to medicine

As a trauma surgeon at Grady Memorial Hospital, Omar Danner got tired of watching the steady train of black boys and girls streaming in with gunshot and stab wounds.

On a recent Monday, he had barely patched up a kid’s gunshot wound, before he had to go tend to someone whose throat was slashed.

“We go in to operate on these kids to save or try to save them. We are operating and patching them up and sending them back to the streets,” Danner said. “I wanted to do something to show at least some of these kids that there was another avenue.”

With that, Danner, who is also an associate professor of surgery and director of trauma at the Morehouse School of Medicine, created “The Reach One Each One Program: Youth Mentoring and Medical Exposure Program for High School Students.”

The 10-week program introduces underrepresented high school students with even a slight interest in medicine, mostly minorities, to various medical specialties by working with medical faculty, residents and students from Morehouse and Emory University at Grady.

Earlier this month 28 students graduated from the program.

“This is based on the premise that there is a disparity of minority healthcare workers, so increasing the number of diverse providers has to be an active initiative,” Danner said. “And I wanted to show them that this is real and to expose them to providers that they can relate to in a number of ways.”

Which is why the first time Mays High School senior Michael Hendrix went into an operating room it was to observe a hernia operation.

“I stay in the rough area and I have seen a lot of the stuff. I have seen people get shot, stabbed. It happens in my neighborhood,” said Hendrix, 18. “So taking me out of this environment and taking me to the hospital to see how the other side works was deep.”

According to a recent report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, “despite an overall increase in the number of black male college graduates, over the past three decades, the number of black male applicants to medical school has dropped to 1,337 in 2014 from 1,410 in 1978.”

That is a problem that Danner is seeing even in his program. There were only four boys in his most recent class.

“Recruiting males into the program is one of the big things we need to address,” Danner said. “You are seeing in medicine the paucity of African American males in the medical school classes.”

Morehouse School of Medicine President and Dean Valerie Montgomery Rice said it is an issue that has to be addressed nationwide and right here in Atlanta.

We have to focus on funding and growing programs that get more young black men interested in science, technology, Rice said.

“On the back end, we in academic medicine must think differently about the admissions and enrollment process, using both quantitative and qualitative measures to gauge one’s ability to succeed and add critical value to health care teams,” she said.

Danner said he didn’t really have access to doctors growing up in Birmingham. But he did have an older brother — who now works at the CDC — interested in going to medical school.

“My natural father died when I was three months old, so in the early days, it was a struggle,” Danner said. “But my brother and I were gifted in math and science, and we were raised up in faith and in the church. So I know, and I tell the students, that hard work, effort and doing the right thing are the keys.”

About 90 students have participated in Danner’s program since its start five years ago. It is too early to tell how many of them will end up in medical school, but about 65 percent are enrolled in pre-med programs in college.

“You can’t put into words the amount of exposure the students get,” said Trinesia Strozier, a health care science teacher at Cedar Grove High School. “I have seen students grow. I have seen how they have gone to college and became more assertive in reaching out to make sure they take advantage of everything that is out there for them.”

At the end of each year’s program, the students are gathered in a Grady auditorium and, in a nod to medical school graduations, are presented with a white coat.

“That was amazing,” Hendrix said. “Having the idea of wanting to be a doctor and putting on the white coat, after wearing the scrubs was great. It was like graduating twice in one year. And it told me it was time to start seriously thinking about life. Getting that white coat made me feel proud.”