For Dexter C. Graves, good fortune started with a broken arm.
Then, at age 12, Graves told his orthopedic surgeon, who was black like him, that he, too, wanted to become a doctor. So began a multiyear mentoring relationship where Graves first shadowed the doctor once a week at his Louisiana practice and then as a high school student worked as a junior medical assistant for him.
While his friends were off being lifeguards or working other summer jobs, Graves was in the operating room, watching Darryl Peterson complete complicated surgeries.
“It really put that drive in me,” Graves said.
Knowing how important that relationship was to him — and still is — Graves wanted his black classmates at Drexel University’s College of Medicine to have the same opportunity to be mentored by a doctor who looked like them.
That’s no easy feat, considering the nation’s enduring shortage of black doctors. Less than 6 percent of medical school graduates nationally — 1,069 out of 19,254 — identified as black or African American in 2017, says the Association of American Medical Colleges.
That’s why Graves and classmate Bisola Egbe started the Drexel Black Doctors Network. The two students looked for and reached out to black doctors at hospitals throughout the city, asking if they would be interested in serving as mentors. About 40 agreed.
While other schools and organizations offer mentoring programs nationally, they couldn’t find anything comprehensive locally for medical students.
“I just saw there was a real need for it,” Graves, 28, said. “A lot of my black student peers didn’t have the kind of mentor I had growing up. It’s important that we are able to connect with people who look like us … in the roles that we aspire to be in.”
For Graves, the connection was critical.
If it hadn’t been for his mentor, Peterson, who now works in Texas, Graves said, he might never have gotten into medical school. Graves struggled with the MCAT, the test required for admission.
“I did well academically, but I was never a great standardized test-taker,” he said.
So for two years, he put his dream on hold and did diabetes research at a local university. Then over dinner one night, Peterson, who graduated from Drexel’s College of Medicine, told him the school had a program to help students from underrepresented groups prepare for and get into medical school. Included in the one-year program culminating in a master’s degree are three medical-school level courses, test prep for the MCAT, and instruction on time and stress management.
Peterson dashed off a letter of recommendation.
Graves got in.
“That was the best moment of my life,” Graves said, “because I knew somebody had finally given me an opportunity. And I knew I was going to take advantage of it.”
Graves finished the program with a 3.8 GPA and improved his score on the MCAT.
Born in Mississippi, Graves grew up in Louisiana, nurturing a love of basketball, which is how he broke his arm. He attended one of Baton Rouge’s top magnet high schools and graduated from Xavier University with a bachelor’s in chemistry, following in the footsteps of his mother, who has a doctorate in chemistry and works as an analytical chemist.
Through medical school, Peterson continued to advise Graves on organizations to join, internships to pursue, and research to try.
“The thing about Dexter is, he is always looking to the next step,” Peterson said.
Ted Corbin, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Drexel, said he was impressed with Graves and Egbe when they approached him about the network. He saw the need for it.
“In Philadelphia, there are five medical schools, and still there is a challenge to know of male physicians of color,” he said.
Nationally, fewer black males applied to and enrolled at medical school in 2014 than in 1978, according to a report from the medical college association. The number of black women remains relatively small, too, but is increasing.
And only 3 percent of medical school faculty identify as black or African American, the association’s numbers show.
At Drexel’s medical college, 65 students out of 1,051 — about 6.2 percent — are African American. No medical college locally has more than 10 percent, though blacks make up about 20 percent of the population in the eight-county region.
The reasons are varied. They include the daunting costs of medical school and the disproportionate number of young black males in the nation’s underperforming schools.
They also face challenges once they get to medical school, including biases from both attending physicians and patients, Corbin said, recalling his own experience.
“In some instances the expectation is less for a person of color,” he said. “In some instances, the feeling of invisibility is palpable.”
Some patients, even black patients, felt as if they would get better care from a white doctor, he said, “which was hurtful.”
It took Graves and Egbe six months to compile the initial list of doctors for the network. The toughest part was reaching them, Graves said.
“It was hard to get personal emails or personal numbers,” he said. “Sometimes we had to send them two or three emails until they responded.”
When reached, they were eager to help, Graves said. The initial meeting of doctors and medical students occurred in January 2016 at the Pyramid Club, drawing dozens of students and doctors.
Peterson flew in and served as guest speaker.
Also there was Charles Nelson, an orthopedic surgeon and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was impressed that Graves and Egbe reached out to doctors beyond Drexel.
“It’s critical that we become more diverse,” Nelson said, “to do a better job taking care of the diverse population that we serve.”
Through the network, Egbe, 28, of Monmouth County, found Minda Green, a Drexel gynecologist and obstetrician.
“I shadowed her and was able to work with her, and she wrote me a letter of recommendation,” Egbe said.
After graduation this spring, she’s headed to the University of Maryland Medical Center for her family medicine residency.
As Egbe and Graves prepare to graduate, they are handing responsibility for the network to younger students, including third-year student Giscard Adeclat, 25.
“The reality is that it’s all about networking sometimes,” Adeclat, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said, “and pretty much having a resource, a pool of resources, of physicians who made it and … quite frankly, they look like you.”
While some medical students may have family or friends in medicine, he had no one. His parents came to the United States from Haiti and he and his sister were first-generation college students.
“I don’t have those resources,” he said, “a family friend who can hook me up with this experience or this mentor.”
At the networking event, he met Nelson and later shadowed him. Now, he plans to go into orthopedics. He wants to help other students have the same experience.
“I think this can blow up and become an amazing resource for years to come,” he said.
As for Graves, he learned Friday that he’ll head to the University of Chicago Medical Center for a residency in emergency medicine. Every year, graduating students apply for residencies around the country and rank their choices. Chicago was his first choice. Then he hopes to do a fellowship in sports medicine and work with student athletes. He also wants to be a mentor.
“I know how valuable it is,” he said. “So that’s kind of like my passion in addition to being a doctor.”