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Newark Doctor Aims To Be Education's 'Michael Jordan'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, cable television has become a staple of our daily lives, of course, and if you live in parts of south central Los Angeles, you might have the Galloway brothers to thank for your daily dose of news, sports and entertainment. We'll talk with Clinton Galloway about how his fight to bring cable to underserved communities took him from city hall to the Supreme Court. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, about 30 years ago, Sampson Davis made a deal with his best friends that they would all become doctors, all help each other through college and not allow the others to drop out. Davis is now an ER doctor and, along with his two doctor friends, a cofounder of The Three Doctors Foundation. That group tries to help other kids achieve their goals. Davis also treats patients in the same community where he grew up as the fifth of six children, where he was arrested after an unsuccessful robbery attempt and where he served time in juvenile detention.

From his experience growing up in the streets of Newark, New Jersey and now treating the patients who come to the ER, Davis has learned some hard lessons about how to survive and thrive in America's inner cities. His new book is called "Living and Dying in Brick City: An ER Doctor Returns Home."

Dr. Sampson Davis, welcome to the program.

SAMPSON DAVIS: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

HEADLEE: You know, you mentioned in the book that very few doctors write about the health care crisis in urban areas, you know, and I looked it up. You're right. There are lots of books from social workers. There are lots of books from policy experts, but very few doctors. Why is that?

DAVIS: Well, you know, I think physicians traditionally are bombarded with treating the patients and sort of being busy that, oftentimes, they look at the scenario as - OK. Let me fix this. But they don't look at it as - how can we prevent it - oftentimes, so I think, you know, if you step outside your office or step outside the confines of the hospital, you start to see the community and then you start to see the health care issue as bigger than one patient at a time.

HEADLEE: Well, are things different there now? I mean, when you step outside the hospital, do you see a different Newark than the city in which you grew up?

DAVIS: Unfortunately not. Some of the struggles and issues, some of the poverty-stricken concerns are still present and prevalent. Some of the health care access is a big issue. It actually is worse because we've - over the last five years have lost three hospitals in the city, so it's tougher now than it was, actually, when it comes to health care compared to years ago.

HEADLEE: Do you think that you have some advantage, perhaps, as a physician and treating patients because you grew up there or because you understand or does that matter?

DAVIS: I think it has some value in that I grew up here and I know the streets and know the people first before I even became a physician. I think I'm able to relate and sort of help people to understand their health. I think that's the biggest issue when it comes to health care. There's a bridge or a lack of a bridge, actually, between the patient and the health care provider and then, so often, patients have fear, fear of what they have and what they're going through and they don't necessarily know how to connect with their health element.

HEADLEE: You know, I mean, reading your book, you tell not only real stories from the hospital where you work, but you tell a lot of stories about how close you came to becoming a statistic, how close you came to getting swallowed up in the drug trade and ending up with gunshot wounds like the patients that you treat. And it feels to me like you're still grappling with the - I guess the confusion about how you made it out.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, I do have a little bit of survivor's guilt, not so much now as I did compared to before when I first started, but I mean my life could have ended up the same way. In the book, I talk about an experience when I was 17 and a half when I committed a armed robbery with another friend and I was caught and sent to juvenile detention and, fortunately, I was given a second chance.

And then fast forward. I went to medical school and became a doctor and returned back home and I'm in the emergency department, the trauma center and I see a name on the board, Don Moses, who I refer to in the book. And underneath his - well, through his name is a slash and underneath his name is the word, deceased, and I'm saying, Don Moses. I feel like I know this name. I know this name. And then it hit me that this is probably the same Don Moses who I was with when I committed the robbery and so I sped down the hallway once the rounds were over and his family was gathered outside the room. His body had been removed, but it was the same Don Moses and, unfortunately, he was shot multiple times and lost his life the night before, so it just really cemented how close my life could have came to ending the same way.

HEADLEE: How do you keep going? I mean, you talk about your frustration in dealing with people who come in to get pain medication because they're addicts and you say you want to shake them and say, you don't have to live like this. With people who don't have insurance, with people who can't get their diabetes treated so they end up in the ER, how do you keep going in every single day and committing the same amount of dedication and effort to each patient?

DAVIS: It's tough, but I feel like each person want to be the best person that they can be. I feel that when it comes to, you know, for instance, you alluded to prescription drug abuse, which is a big problem and the CDC has called it an epidemic. And now prescription drug overdose outnumbers automobile accidents. But then you look at the flip side is we have to - as a physician - by prescribing prescription narcotic, I have to inform the patient that this is addictive, and that there's a chance of addiction if they overuse it. So I think it's about education and awareness and informing the patients. And so, at the end of the day, I think we all have skin in the game. As a physician and physicians, we can do better as health care providers. And as patients we can do better. I think as a patient you have to be in charge of championing your care and be on the front line of understanding your high blood pressure, your diabetes, your asthma, your heart disease. You have to go through all your preventative screenings, your colonoscopies and your mammograms at a certain age.

HEADLEE: You wrote that you want to become the Michael Jordan of education and I, you know, my husband is in ER medicine. That takes up a lot of your time. Why not sleep? I mean why spend this time doing your foundations and all these other things that you're doing?

DAVIS: This is a passion of mines. I enjoy practicing medicine but I also feel like it's so vital to put a face to health. And when you're looking at especially youth and some of the challenges and issues that they're facing and you compare it to rural areas or inner-cities or poor suburban areas, they don't have too many heroes or faces to emulate and model themselves after. Growing up in Newark, I was bombarded with people who carried guns, who sold drugs. So when I was looking for role models I had a lack of to choose from. So I think it's important to have this face out there that kids could sort of aim for and sort of compete against all the negative images. So this is a passion. This is a passion of mine and it helps to keep me going.

HEADLEE: And yet, I have to ask you, that many inner-city kids, as soon as someone becomes successful they lose their connection with them. They can't see themselves in Barack Obama. They can't, oftentimes, they said they can see themselves in the faces that they see on TV. How do you mentor kids who feel as though the life they're living is the only one they'll ever live?

DAVIS: Well, you have to be present. I make it my duty to stay within a community and to do programs through my foundation and community. I host a mentor day. I host a walkathon. It's important that you give back and it's important that you stay involved in the community in one way or the other. And I think by doing so, you know, people start to really feel connected to you, the people that you're trying to help.

HEADLEE: So you actually include a lot of very, very practical real-world advice in your book. But if you could give one piece of advice to a kid maybe growing up in the streets the way that you did, what would you say to him or her?

DAVIS: In the book, I really try to share real-life stories because I feel that we all are connected by our stories. And so I tell these stories and the stories can be a family member, friend, and at the end of each story I give anecdotes or...


DAVIS: ...how to sort of take better care of yourself. But when I look at the situations that some of the youth are going through today I just, I feel that if I came from where I came from growing up and not having Dad in the home and having drugs in and out of the home and having crime and despair all around me, if I can sort of make it, so can you. And I just feel like it's the will to succeed, the will to overcome, we all have it, we all possess it, we just have to keep pushing forward. Sometimes it's that last little bit of energy where you're ready give up, where you're ready to quit, that last ounce of energy will make the difference between success and failure.

HEADLEE: Dr. Sampson Davis, co-founder of the Three Doctors Foundation. His latest book is "Living and Dying in Brick City: An ER Doctor Returns Home." Thank you so much for taking the time.

DAVIS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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