Yes, I Can! Showing Disadvantaged Youth That They Can Be Health Professionals, Too

    • October 16, 2015

Originally posted: March 20, 2015
Last updated: October 7, 2015

Position at time of the award: Executive Director, Mentoring in Medicine; Bronx, N.Y.; Attending physician, emergency department, Montefiore Medical Center; Bronx, N.Y.; and associate professor, clinical emergency medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Bronx, N.Y.

Current position: Same as above

In 2009, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation named Lynne Holden, MD, an RWJF Community Health Leader in recognition of her work with Mentoring in Medicine, (MIM) the organization she co-founded to help disadvantaged youth fulfill their dreams of becoming health care professionals.

The problem. Racial and ethnic minority health care providers play a key role in addressing health disparities. An Institute of Medicine report noted that minority health care providers are more likely to serve minority and medically underserved communities, increasing access to care among these populations. A study by The Commonwealth Fund found that minority patients were more likely to follow the physician’s advice if the physician was from a minority group.

Yet African-American, Latino, and other minorities are vastly underrepresented in America’s health care professions. That means fewer role models to help talented minority young people envision health care as a career path they could successfully pursue.

Inspirations pointing the way. Lynne Holden knew she wanted to be a doctor from the time she was 6 years old. Growing up in Philadelphia, she would race home after school each day to watch the TV program, “Marcus Welby, MD,” and the program that followed it, “Rescue 911.”

She received more direct inspiration when an aunt who lived in New York City introduced her to Muriel Petioni, MD, a well-known African-American physician practicing in Harlem. Holden was able to shadow Petioni and her colleague, Melissa Freeman, MD, as they worked, establishing a relationship with them that lasted for decades. (Petioni died in 2011 at the age of 97.)

Looking back, Holden says that opportunity taught her a crucial lesson: It is possible for an African-American female to become a physician. “It wasn’t until I saw them in action,” she says, “that I realized, ‘Wow, I can be like them.’”

An enforced pause and an epiphany. Through her high school and undergraduate college years, Holden pursued a career in medicine with singular determination, signing up during every summer break for a different “pipeline” program designed to help minorities enter science and medicine. “Once I decided that this was something I wanted to do,” she says, “I was determined to get as much exposure in as many areas as possible.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology at Howard University in 1987 and her MD at Temple University in 1991. Today she is an attending physician in the emergency department at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y. She is also an associate professor of clinical emergency medicine at the affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Although she had accomplished her childhood dream, it wasn’t until a health crisis forced Holden to stop practicing medicine for a time that she received what she now describes as her calling.

A bout with postpartum cardiomyopathy after the birth of her daughter made it impossible for Holden to walk more than a few feet without becoming short of breath. Unsure for a time whether she would ever be able to return to the physically demanding hustle of emergency department medicine, her husband (an engineer and entrepreneur coach who she’d met during one of her summer “pipeline” courses in high school) encouraged her to think about passing on some of what she had learned.

“[My husband] encouraged me,” Holden recalls. “He said, ‘Even if you don’t go back, you’ve been through the journey and you can help others who are underprivileged who want to do what you’re doing. They may dream but they don’t know where to begin. You know what to do.’”

Her husband’s encouragement was seconded by messages she received from another source, her Higher Power. “I’m a spiritual person,” Holden says. “I was born and raised in a Baptist church, and through meditation and prayer it became evident to me: ‘You are here not only to take care of people but to take care of communities, and this is how you’re going to do it.’”

A mission is born. With the help of two colleagues, Holden started an organization called Emergency Physicians Organized for Community Service, which sent its members to high school health fairs and other gatherings to talk to students about health issues. That project eventually evolved into the far more ambitious organization called Mentoring in Medicine. Holden is its president.

Formed in 2006, Mentoring in Medicine (MIM) gives disadvantaged young people opportunities to meet and listen to individuals with similar backgrounds who have successfully pursued careers as physicians, nurses, physician’s assistants, or other jobs in the health care field. MIM also offers students practical advice on opportunities that will open the way for the education they need to turn those dreams into realities.

“We let them know that this is something they can achieve if it’s something they want to achieve,” Holden says. “The major obstacle for students is lack of confidence, and that’s mostly because they don’t see people who look like them who are doing what they want to do.”

An array of programs provide continuity. MIM engages students as early as elementary school and through college in an array of hands-on learning opportunities, including conferences, community presentations, in-school courses, shadowing opportunities, and leadership programs. Unlike the summer pipeline programs that Holden attended, where “you would meet people but never see them again,” Mentoring in Medicine strives to build relationships with young people that last.

“If a young person is interested in a health career, they could join Mentoring in Medicine and come to an event and meet people” she says, “but then we would tell them about these other programs they could go to, so that they come back to us, to continue to get the guidance they needed.”

“Yes, I can be a Health Care Professional!” (now called the Health and Science Expo) is an annual one-day extravaganza and immersion into health careers and healthy living that includes hands-on workshops, interactive displays, and educational seminars. The event in New York regularly draws more than a thousand students (middle school through post-grad), parents, educators, health professionals, and other collaborators.

Through after-school programs and in-class credit-bearing electives, MIMe also goes into middle schools and high schools in underserved communities to teach students about human body systems and diseases that affect them, as well as about career opportunities in the health field.

Once MIM students reach college, the organization offers students who want to go to medical school a “boot camp” experience of what that will be like and tools to succeed once they get there. Called the Medical Pathway Program, the 20-week course teaches basic science as well as life skills—such as how to network, how to be a leader, and how to improve their mental performance.

College students who want to know more about health careers also have opportunities to shadow health care professionals in active practice. In the Montefiore Medical Center emergency department where Holden works, for example, some 32 colleagues who work there participate.

Having working health professionals show them the ropes makes a deep impression on many students, Holden says. She recalls one young woman—the first in her family to go to college—who spent three months as a volunteer in the emergency department observing the work of staff members. “Lo and behold, fast forward five years later, she’s part of the team,” Holden says. “She’s a physician assistant.”

Another success story is Samsiya Ona, who immigrated to the United States with her father from Togo speaking no English in 11th grade. Her father’s diagnosis of prostate cancer inspired her interest in medicine during college. She attended a “Yes, I can be a Health Care Professional!” conference and met a MIMadviser, Irwin Dannis, MD, a former clinical assistant professor in the department of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and former co-chair of admissions there (since retired). Following his advice, she attended MIM’s Medical Pathway Program and was subsequently admitted to Harvard Medical School on a full scholarship.

“Those are the stories that keep me motivated,” says Holden. “It is when I see students who came to us bare, so to speak, and who are actually being fulfilled and continuing on their journey to become what they dreamed of becoming and more.”

Spreading the Mentoring in Medicine model nationally. Since 2006, MIM events have reached approximately 50,000 students, parents, and educators and more than 900 health professional volunteers have taken part. But Holden believes the program can—and should—reach more people

Named an RWJF Community Health Leader in 2009, Holden used the $105,000 project portion of the award to create a training manual that enabled volunteers to offer the MIM Health and Science Expo outside of New York City. As a result, since 2012, conferences have been held in Atlanta; Columbus, OH; Detroit; Hardin, MT; New Orleans; Philadelphia; and Washington.

Award funds also helped to support a 2012 and 2013 pilot test of an online course called the Virtual Summer Science Camp, intended to extend the organization’s reach through the Internet. The online course, with live video streaming and real-time chat capabilities, covers the cardiovascular system, anatomy, physiology, dissection, and medical terminology. The course also offers advice on finding health care information, improving study and test-taking skills, applying to professional schools, and preparing presentations.

Holden and her team are seeking funds to create additional modules and to make the Virtual Summer Science Camp an annual summer program.

Community Health Leader perspective. Holden’s has received a number of awards for her work including the Empowerment through Education Award from Essence magazine and Maybelline, the Visionary Educator Award from the Society of Academic Emergency Medicine, and the Remarkable Woman award from Lifetime TV. Holden was also named as one of the 25 Most Influential Black Women in Business by the Network Journal magazine.

But being named an RWJF Community Health Leader is perhaps her most prized award. “It was one of those messages that we should continue the work that we’re doing and that it’s very needed,” Holden says. She regularly draws on the rich network of contacts she meets at the annual gatherings of Community Health Leaders.

“The award opened up so many doors for me on so many levels,” she says. “I am definitely still discovering people and people are still discovering me, and it’s a network that has grown substantially.”

Postscript. As of October 2015, Holden continued to serve as executive director of MIM.

RWJF perspective. The Foundation recognized the first 10 RWJF Community Health Leaders in 1993—unsung and inspiring individuals who work in their communities, often among the most disenfranchised populations, to address some of the nation’s most intractable health care problems. The last round of leaders was chosen in the fall of 2012. The program closed at the end of 2014. For more information, see the Special Report.