Meharry Medical College working to inspire youth to pursue medical careers

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By TRAVIS LOLLER Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The number of African-American men entering medical school hasn’t budged since the late 1970s, and Dr. James Hildreth wants to change that.
Hildreth is president and CEO of Nashville’s Meharry Medical College, the oldest historically black medical school in the country.

On Friday, Hildreth and about 200 Meharry faculty and medical students spent the day at Haynes Middle Health/Medical Science Design Center, a public middle school with a student body that is primarily African American. They dissected frogs and conducted mock dental clinic — activities that were designed to be fun and educational. But Hildreth said part of the value of the day lies simply in the children seeing and interacting with black doctors and medical students.

Hildreth was 11 when his father died of cancer in 1968. His family was poor and African American and lived in Arkansas. Because of that, “my dad didn’t get the kind of care that was available to others,” Hildreth said.

He decided then to become a doctor and went on to attend Harvard and later Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Now, as Meharry’s top official, Hildreth helps foster its mission of service to the community that includes partnering with local middle schools to encourage young black students to enter health sciences fields.

“It’s both a personal goal and an institutional goal. African American males are the only demographic in this country where medical school enrollments are declining,” Hildreth said. “I want to particularly focus on young black males, give them an opportunity to challenge their assumptions, show them they can do things other than professional sports.”

Seventh grader Keyshawn Walker recently won a school contest for an essay he wrote about how Hildreth inspired him to want to become a sports medicine doctor. Keyshawn said he related to Hildreth’s story because he also lost a close family member.

“I figure that being a doctor will be a helpful thing to humanity,” Keyshawn said. “I like helping people, just being there for people who need help.”

As the two dissected a frog together, Hildreth quizzed Keyshawn on the body parts and what they do.

“Do you know why the lungs are so small?”

“Because they breathe through their skin.”

Hildreth smiled.

Then, observing Keyshawn’s steady hands, he commented, “He’s going to be a surgeon.”