Ryan Robinson recalls the exact moment that made him want to explore a career in medicine.
It was a Saturday morning last October when his mother dragged him out of bed to attend Cleveland’s first Black Men in White Coats (BMWC) youth summit. The two-day conference, hosted by University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, was developed to encourage kids like Robinson, a young Black male, to consider a career in healthcare.
The 12-year-old Shaker middle school student didn’t want to go. But his mother insisted they get there early. They walked into the reception area and sat down at one of the tables before the event started. While they waited, a man walked up to Robinson and his mother and began a conversation.
“I had no idea who he was, and he was asking me questions about school, my family and telling me about himself,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t until the next day when I found out that he was the keynote speaker of the event.”
Robinson was shocked to learn he had met Dr. Edward M. Barksdale Jr., Surgeon-in-Chief of UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. His address that day focused on the importance of bringing Black doctors into the field and on his own journey to becoming a physician. At the end of his speech, Barksdale had a special surprise for the audience. He called Robinson up to the stage to hand him four gifts: a white lab coat, a Sharpie, a stethoscope and a gold medal from the Society of Black Academic Surgeons.
Barksdale explained to more than 250 parents, guardians and students in the room that day that he was moved by his brief conversation with Robinson, who reminded him of himself when he was younger. He hoped the gifts would help Robinson travel his path, even if that is not a career in medicine.
“I thought it would be better to give it to you when you start,” Barksdale said. “One day I’m going to be looking up at you and I may have had some [health] issues and I’m going to say: ‘You my man, you my doctor’”.
The interaction had a powerful impact on Robinson.
“One thing I remember him saying [in his speech] is ‘smooth seas don’t make strong sailors’ and that stuck with me,” Robinson said. “I think hearing that was like a gateway to telling me there’s something else out there for me or maybe I can go into the [healthcare] field.”
Now, Robinson is beginning the UH Health Scholars program, an initiative designed to recruit students from marginalized communities across the city to explore careers in medicine. He reconnected with Barksdale and met 60 other students from across Cuyahoga County. The students will get paid to take lessons in anatomy and physiology, visit college and medical schools, learn about the social and political factors that influence health, and connect with healthcare professionals.
Orientation for the program began Monday, with a Juneteenth celebration and white coat ceremony. For Barksdale, it is an opportunity to give students a sense of pride, offer a symbol of justice and promote health equity and mentorship.
“My important role was to meet young people like [Robinson] and to try to connect them and inspire them,” Barksdale said. “I met [Robinson] at the latter stages of my career. I’m hoping one day [he] will be my doctor or my surgeon.”
The UH Health Scholars program, now entering its eighth year, is part of the hospital system’s pact with Health Anchor Network (HAN), an organization that helps hospitals create best practices to improve community health and wellness by addressing racial inequities.
In May, University Hospitals, along with Cleveland Clinic and MetroHealth, signed a commitment with HAN to diversify the local healthcare workforce and create opportunities for those from marginal backgrounds to pursue the industry. The “Impact Workforce Commitment” is one effort to improve the career pipeline for diverse talent to enter the medical industry.
Robinson said he is looking forward to learning more about the hospital and to shadowing physicians this summer.
Barksdale, who was delighted to see Robinson and his family again this week, left him with some advice: It’s not about the opportunity, but the importance of building character with every opportunity.
“In every exposure that you have, make sure that you pull from it the things that are going to make your character strong,” Barksdale said. “It’s about who you are and what you bring to it.”