Oncology Fellows: Reminding Ourselves of How Far We've Come

Oncology FellowsMarch 2020
Volume 12
Issue 1

For us, a group of 15 black students at Tulane University School of Medicine (TUSCOM), a visit to the Whitney Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, was a no-brainer. The process of navigating medical school is pure hell at times, and you need inspiration wherever and whenever you can get it.

Russell J. Ledet, PhD

Russell J. Ledet, PhD

Russell J. Ledet, PhD

For us, a group of 15 black students at Tulane University School of Medicine (TUSCOM), a visit to the Whitney Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, was a no-brainer. The process of navigating medical school is pure hell at times, and you need inspiration wherever and whenever you can get it.

We draw inspiration and motivation from one another. New Orleans, after all, was one of the largest slave markets in the country, and the Whitney Plantation is less than an hour from Tulane. There was no better place for a group of black prospective doctors to celebrate our triumph over systems meant to annihilate us. Ledet, a molecular oncology scientist, reached out to his colleagues at TUSCOM with the following email. Eventually, they received international acclaim and an opportunity to have an impact on people far beyond New Orleans.

Thursday, September 19, 2019; 1:44 am

Russell: Over the summer, one of my closest friends from New York City came to visit me. During the stay, we took a trip to the Whitney Plantation, preserved in the Whitney Plantation Historic District near Wallace, Louisiana. That experience was so different from anything I had ever witnessed. The Whitney Plantation is unique compared with ones that celebrate the plantation owners—it is the only plantation museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people.

Considering the aforementioned, I presented the idea of gathering the melaninites of the School of Medicine to experience the Whitney Plantation and take a photo in our white coats. I figure that photo will be iconic and speak volumes, and I also think it is an opportunity for us to be reminded of how far we have come.

Prior to this email, I had presented the idea to some of my colleagues, and they were on board 100%, all agreeing this was a necessary trip. I reached out to Joy Banner, the museum’s director of marketing, and she was elated to give us a tour.

My colleagues immediately understood the underlying purpose of this proposition. One may ask, “Why is that unity important?” Our answer is that we have a shared understanding of the importance of remembering the resilience and resistance of our ancestors, which ultimately has afforded us the opportunity to be in the position we are today. Their strength courses through our veins. We are fully aware of that and wholly acknowledge it.

To be candid, this was about our needing something. We needed a soul revitalization. We needed a visitation from souls long gone. We needed to be reminded of our instilled resilience, and the Whitney Plantation expedition on December 14, 2019, did that for us. Fifteen TUSCOM students made it out to the Whitney Plantation, and we are all the better for it now. We went there in all black with our white coats on. Other patrons were in awe of us just walking around.

Each of us gained something different from the trip. For some, it was a remembrance of a violent, monstrous, irrefutable crime that still does not have the power to stop our progress. For others, it was an out-of-body experience that left them numb. Before we left, we took these iconic photos in front of an original slave quarter on the plantation.

Those photos wound up in People magazine, on websites for HuffPost UK, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. We have been thrust onto an international platform, spoken on news stations, and addressed hundreds of school-age children. We plan to place these photos in classrooms and homes nationwide. Our photo will hang in the halls of K-12 learning institutions from New Orleans to Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas, Georgia, Washington State, Missouri, New York, Washington, DC, and more.

This is only the beginning, but we are grateful for our beginnings. We started a group, the 15 White Coats, and launched a website, www.the15whitecoats.org, to take advantage of this moment. Opportunities to share our story and the impact we intend to make have not slowed down. Our mission is to (1) install 100,000 photos in 100,000 classrooms nationwide by 2022, (2) raise enough funds to aid medical school applicants of color, and (3) place cultural literacy centers in classrooms nationwide. People cannot be what they do not see, and by placing our photo in schools, we further the process of reimagining cultural imagery about who can do what, especially for children. Just applying to medical school costs $3500 on average, and we can help to lighten that burden for folks who simply cannot afford the cost but have all the qualities to be great clinicians. Finally, we need our young people to read books that resonate with their reality, and by placing literature that aligns with their lives, we hope to encourage more literacy.

Our goal is to make photos like these commonplace so we can move on to other issues in humanity. If we are to ever move the needle on breaking down structural racism and its manifestations in the healthcare system, having more people from disenfranchised histories in medicine has to be part of the equation. We are not the ultimate solution, but we are surely part of the remedy.

We’ll close this by saying we are not looking for sympathy. Don’t misconstrue this. This ain’t the story about the unfortunate black folks who survived opposition and are now training in medicine. This is the story about the triumphant queens and kings who illustrated resilience. As Uché Blackstock, MD, once wrote, we chose “bravery over fear.” We do not see that changing anytime soon. The 15 White Coats are here to change the world for the better.

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