As a busy associate clinical professor of emergency medicine at Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, Lynne Holden, M.D., knows, firsthand, just how much hard work, support and guidance is needed for anyone to build a successful career in a health profession, let alone a child from a disadvantaged background. But it took a chance encounter with a frustrated single mom to help Holden see that she could use her knowledge to make a tremendous difference in the lives of young people who hoped to become physicians, nurses, pharmacists or find other ways to work in health care.

“Several years ago, I was riding the subway and reading a copy of Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story [the best-selling autobiography of a famous, African American surgeon]. A mother of four noticed the book and told me that her young son wanted to be a brain surgeon, but she had no idea how to make that possible,” Holden recalls. “At the same time, I had been forced to take a nine-month break from practicing medicine to recover from a near death bout with peripartum cardiomyopathy, so I was wondering what to do next if I could not resume my practice. In that instant, I realized I could help this young man,” Holden says.

RWJF Community Health All-Stars
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation scholars, fellows and grantees, along with the Community Health Leader award winners, address the health needs of the nation in unique and innovative ways. Whether they are creating healthier environments, bringing needed health resources to underserved communities, diversifying the local health care workforce or generating grassroots programs—they make a difference. This series tells their stories.

“I started by holding a dinner with doctors and other children who wanted to become physicians, but had no idea how to make their dreams a reality. That little boy (now a high school junior) sat at the table with three neurosurgeons. One became his mentor. His grades went from C’s to A’s and that was the beginning of Mentoring in Medicine [MIM],” says Holden, who won a 2009 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Community Health Leader award for developing the successful program. In addition to assisting students who face economic and social barriers to medical careers, statistics show that programs like MIM produce physicians and nurses who are more likely to choose to work in medically underserved communities.

An Emphasis on Community

After five years, Mentoring in Medicine has developed a roster of programs to guide elementary school, high school and college students as they pursue careers in the health professions. Activities include: academic enrichment, tutoring (in science, math, the MCATS), observing in the Montefiore Medical Center’s emergency department, leadership training, help finding scholarships as well as jobs, when possible. MIM students are even coached on how to handle that all-important medical school admission interview. “We now have approximately 600 researchers, surgeons, pharmacists, internists and other professionals in New York, Oakland, Atlanta and other cities volunteering to work with our students,” Holden says. The organization’s signature, kick-off event each year is the “Yes, I Can be a Health Professional Conference.” Other events include Morgan’s Big Biology Test—an interactive, hip-hop play that teaches students about obesity and heart disease while encouraging them to pursue careers in medicine.

This year alone, Mentoring in Medicine will see 21 students enter medical school, two enter physician assistant school, two enter public health schools and one enter nursing school. In September 2010, 15 entered health professional schools. While working on their grades, MIM students also learn about health care disparities and the critical importance of public health through Mentoring in Medicines’ Community Health Ambassador program. “We teach students how to spread the word about healthy living,” says Holden. “We volunteer at street fairs, barbershops, beauty salons and other grassroots events. In the spring of last year, for example, MIM partnered with six New York City hospitals to host a 16-week walking challenge. The idea is to help students to improve their communication skills in addition to learning about healthy living. They also increase health literacy in their communities, because they are already interested in healthy lifestyles so they take this back to their neighbors and family members. Our overall program objective is to increase the diversity of the health care workforce, while helping our students achieve their goals,” Holden says. “But we help them develop a commitment to working on health issues at the community level, by getting started in their own back yards.”

Each year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation selects 10 Community Health Leaders to receive an award. The winners are outstanding and otherwise unrecognized individuals who overcome daunting odds to expand access to health care and social services to underserved populations in communities across the United States. The program aims to elevate the work of these unsung heroes through enhanced recognition, technical assistance and leadership development opportunities.