Diversity in medical schools has barely budged in the last four decades. That’s not a problem at Meharry Medical College, which already has a mission to train minority doctors. But the historically black institution is now taking on the issue in a broader way.
Meharry has started sending its med students to volunteer in low-income, high-minority schools near its campus in North Nashville. They’re planting the seed with elementary and middle schoolers.
Medicine wasn’t on the radar of John Treherne, who is now a second year dental student.
“Honestly, I wanted to pursue sports probably more than anything, like everybody else here,” Treherne says on a recent visit to Haynes Middle School, whose students are almost all minorities and mostly from low-income families.
Treherne says he was fortunate enough to know some dentists and once he got hurt and had to give up basketball in college, he started shadowing.
“A lot of these kids, they don’t know [or] they might not see people of color in medicine,” he says.
“Take it away, I’m just going to be your assistant,” Hildreth tells seventh grader Keyshawn Walker who has wiggled into rubber gloves to dissect a frog.
Walker was awarded some one-on-one time with Hildreth as part of an essay context. He wrote that he was inspired by the story of a boy growing up in rural Arkansas, watching his father die of cancer.
“We were poor and black, and that was one of the reasons my dad didn’t get the medical attention,” Hildreth tells Walker, adding that he’d never seen a black doctor at the time.
An 11-year-old Hildreth, also reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., focused his grief and rage on his education and wound up at Harvard then Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He trained as a physician at Johns Hopkins and became the first African American to earn a full professorship in the school of medicine.
Keyshawn says he sees himself in Hildreth’s story.
“We both have experienced somebody passing away because of health challenges,” he says. “And we both…came from the same stereotypical backgrounds.”
The path into medicine is loaded with seemingly impassable obstacles, starting with the six-figure student loans usually required.
But studies show that the benefits of having more black doctors could be profound. Black patients have been suspicious of health care based on systemic racism, making them less likely to get preventive care.
However, Hildreth is not burdening middle schoolers with all that history.
“My advice has always been to focus on the here and now, to be the best student you can be, because that will make the next step possible,” he says, recalling advice he received as a young man.
He wraps up the frog disection, quizzing Walker to identify the heart, lungs and liver. As a bonus, Hildreth asks about the name of what attaches the organs to the adomen. “Mesentary,” Walker responds, with some assistance.
“See, I told you this guy’s a natural,” Hildreth says. “He’s going to be a surgeon.”