In this episode, we talk to Dr. Russell Ledet about the barriers and doubts he faced as a black man and aspiring physician along his journey from security guard to MD PhD MBA.
“What if I were to have someone who looked like me, worried about my mental health when I was a child? How much better of a human would I be now? How many of those internal doubts that I had would be eliminated? And I wanted to be one of those people who really drove the conversation and utilized every ounce of my influence to really create something that can revolutionize what’s accessible in terms of mental health.”
– Dr. Russell Ledet MD PHD MBA
On December 14, 2019, 15 African American medical students from Tulane University School of Medicine posed in front of a former slave cabin at the Whitney Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, while donning their white coats. “We are truly our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” said a tweet of one of the photos. The image went viral and multiple national news outlets picked up the story.
The students formed The 15 White Coats organization, a nonprofit group with a threefold mission: To reimagine cultural imagery in learning spaces, lessen the financial burden of medical school for applicants of color, and influence cultural literacy in learning spaces. Donations and the sale of photographs and posters allow The 15 White Coats to distribute their photos to classrooms across the U.S., establish scholarships, and more.
Master Certified Coach Jill Farmer welcomes Dr. Russell Ledet, MD, PhD, MBA to talk about the barriers and doubts he faced as a black man and aspiring physician along his journey from security guard to MD PhD MBA. Specifically, Dr. Ledet shines light on the disadvantages that medical school applicants from marginalized communities face. In recognition of how important it is to have role models, Dr. Ledet encourages listeners to take action. He is receiving national recognition for starting 15 White Coats. Dr. Ledet talks about his journey from being in the military to becoming a security guard to realizing that he could go to college, and eventually to medical school after earning his PhD at NYU. He is a native of Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Dr. Ledet earned his bachelors degree from Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College at Baton Rouge. He earned his PhD in Molecular Oncology from NYU School of Medicine, Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. He earned his MD and MBA from Tulane University. He is a Triple Board Resident (Pediatrics/Psychiatry/Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) at Indiana University School of Medicine.
LinkedIn: Dr. Russell J. Ledet https://www.linkedin.com/in/rjledet
Find @the15white coats on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn
Dr. Russell J. Ledet, MD, PhD, MBA co-founded The 15 White Coats, an organization that helps to propel underrepresented minority students to the next levels of education by providing inspiration and economic support. Dr. Ledet has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, People Magazine, NPR, Washington Post, The Steve Harvey Show, and Good Morning America. Following medical school, he plans to focus on mental health accessibility for marginalized communities. He is a husband of 14 years to Mallory Alise, and the father of two little girls, Maleah Ann and Mahlina Abri.
@drrussellledet (IG/TikTok); FB
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Dr. Ledet: What if I would have had someone who looked like me worried about my mental health? When I was a child, how much better of a human would I be now, how many of those internal doubts that I have would be eliminated? I wanted to be one of those people who really drove the conversation and utilized every ounce of my influence to really create something that can revolutionize what’s accessible in terms of mental health.
Jen: Thank you for joining us here today on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I want to take a moment and let you know that we’ve been working around the clock at DocWorking to bring you CME credits, so that now you can let your continuing education budget help you to prioritize your own wellness and get on the path to living your best life. Everything we do at DocWorking is specifically designed with you in mind. We hope you’ll head over to docworking.com today and take our two-minute quiz to find out where you are right now on the balance to burnout continuum. Take our burnout quiz and this simple step alone can put you in the right direction toward living your best life.
Jill: Hi, everyone and welcome to this edition of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. You are going to be in for a treat today. I’m really excited to have Dr. Russell Ledet with us. He is a MD, PhD, and an MBA, a native of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Dr. Ledet co-founded The 15 White Coats, an organization that helps to propel underrepresented minority students to the next level of education by providing inspiration and economic support. Dr. Ledet has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, People Magazine, NPR, Washington Post, The Steve Harvey Show, and, last but not least, Good Morning America, Following residency, he plans to focus on mental health accessibility for marginalized communities. He is a husband of 14 years to Mallory Elise and the father of two little girls, Leah Ann and Melina Aubrey. Thank you so much for being with us here, Dr. Ledet. Russell, it’s just really good to have this conversation.
Dr. Ledet: Thank you so much, Jill for having me. I’m super excited to be speaking on DocWorking.
Jill: So, tell me a little bit about your origin story. What led you to where you are today?
Dr. Ledet: Yeah, I think it was a puzzle that we just figured out along the way. When I was growing up, we really didn’t have much, and so it was very interesting, the journey I took to get here. I finished up high school and decided that the United States Navy was the best option, so I enlisted in the United States Navy as a cryptology guy, which basically meant I worked in intelligence for about five years. As I was finishing up those first five years on active duty, my wife really convinced me that I was smart enough to go to college. She was like, “You know, I think you have the stuff.” So, she helped me to apply to college, and, obviously, I wasn’t on active duty anymore, so, I needed to get a job and ,I got a job as a security guard at a hospital, which was rather interesting because it was my first time really being exposed to medicine up close and personal.
Because I got that up close and personal experience, you know, in seeing trauma and how it was treated, and chronic disease and how that was treated, I started to be intrigued by medicine and really I was just enamored by the white coats walking around the hospital. I would ask them like, “Hey, how do you become a doctor? What do you do, what do you need to do?” and a lot of them were like, “I don’t know why you’re worried, because security guards don’t become doctors,” which I think in hindsight, they were correct. Security guards don’t become doctors, security guards become double doctors and so [laughs] I always think about that. And so, eventually, I did get someone to say like, “Hey, I’ll allow you to shadow me.” This is a surgeon guy by the name of Dr. Patrick Greiffenstein, who’s actually now a trauma surgeon here in New Orleans, and that really got me on this trajectory.
I didn’t get into medical school the first time, but I did get into graduate school, so I went on to do a PhD at NYU School of Medicine in molecular oncology and tumor immunology, and then decided that going to medical school and business school made sense, so I did a four-year MD/MBA at Tulane and now, I’m heading off to Indiana University for a triple board residency in pediatrics, adult psychiatry, and child and adolescent psychiatry.
Jill: It’s a fantastic story and also, so sobering to everyone who hears it in understanding how close somebody who is obviously as brilliant as you are with an MD, PhD. I think that’s literally the most intelligent people in the world. And yet, you came pretty close to maybe not even moving on to higher education. What do we all need to learn from that part of your story?
Dr. Ledet: That you need someone in your corner who just gives you a chance. For me, my wife was that window. I had been with my wife since high school, so she really was able to see my brain, and how it worked, and what I was capable of doing, how fast I would read books, just how cerebral I was with just learning things. She was like, “You know, I think you’re smart enough to go to college” and I remember telling her like, “I thought only rich white people go to college.” She was like, “No, no, you can go to college” and I was like, “So, who’s going to pay for it?” She was like, “You have a G.I. Bill. The military will pay for it.” It was just these very basic things. People always ask me like, “Why didn’t you go to college out of high school?” I was like, “My mama didn’t even know how to fill out a FAFSA form” so we didn’t even know where to start.
Counselors weren’t really a thing at the school I went to so, I think you have to look at everyone as if they have the capability to be just as educationally accomplished as me, and if they fall short, that’s okay but you have to give them a chance. I tell people I have the resources and the wherewithal to give people a chance because of biases, from racist biases or just internal biases, unconscious biases, we overlook people who are probably just as brilliant as me, if not more brilliant, and so we really have to check ourselves.
Jill: Yeah, that’s one thing you take away from today, and particularly for our white listeners just to understand how ingrained the systems are to overlook, and I think we just have to really own that, and be willing to think completely differently about who we decide has potential and who doesn’t. It’s a travesty to think about the impact and brainpower that’s being wasted because people are being overlooked that could have a huge impact on medicine and on science.
Dr. Ledet: Yeah, 1,000%. I think a lot of that just comes from doing some self-learning. I always would tell a lot of my friends and all these different educational institutions I went to. I was like, “They have the ability to change” and I know that because I’m a scientist and I see how fast people are willing to try a new experiment in order to come to a new conclusion or to get new data and I think that malleability and their willingness to learn something new is something that we can apply to something that’s been a problem for a very long time. I always say like, “If we can invest as much money and energy as we did to sequence the entire human genome, you’re going to tell me that we can’t figure out how to fix structural racism and the systemic risk?” Don’t tell me that because I know that we’re smart enough to do so. We literally figured out how to sequence the entire human genome. And now, we’re sequencing tumors every day, all day. We are smart enough to do this. We just got to sit down and devote some real time, and energy, and resources towards it.
Jill: Yeah, exactly. So, your experience of being a scientist in medicine and then on to med school led you to see something that inspired you to do above and beyond just not only the grueling academic rigor of getting a PhD and then going into med school, but you said, “Oh, I need to form an organization.”
Dr. Ledet: Yeah, it was totally unintentional. It was just living on purpose. The 15 White Coats was birthed out of a conversation I had with my eight-year-old. We had gone to visit that exact same plantation, Whitney Plantation, my daughter and I, and one of my best friends, the summer before we took that photo and when we were driving back, my daughter made a comment to me. She said, “Hey, dad, I finally understand why it’s such a big deal to be a black doctor in America” and I was like, “Hmm, why do you say that?” She was like, “Well, we just left a plantation. There was a time when people who look like you weren’t allowed to read, or write, or count, or any of that.
“And so, now I’m riding in the car with two black doctors like, we’ve come a long way and that’s a big deal.” I was like, “Yeah, I’ve been trying to tell you that forever.” [laughs] But then, what came from that was like, “Oh, we have an opportunity to show the world just how far black people have come in this country” and so I obviously teamed up with a lot of my classmates and we took those photos. The intention was first to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come, but also how much work we have to do. The world was obviously inspired by it and we didn’t want to take all that as just notoriety. We wanted to do something with it.
We started raising money, and creating these scholarships, and we also took those photos and put them in classrooms all over the world for free, so a lot of the money that we raise even now goes towards putting those posters in classrooms all over the world for free, schools can go on our website, sign up for a poster, and we mail it out to them for free. But also, we create scholarships for people who are applying, people who are in medical school and need help with preparing for board exams, mental health subscriptions. We just gave out 20 Calm app subscriptions, and we will continue to evolve in the way that we go about giving out these scholarships. But it’s really just to breakdown that economic barrier to becoming a doctor. Most people don’t even know how much it costs to become a doctor. It cost upwards of $5,000 to $10,000 to apply to medical school.
Jill: Yeah, I think there’s just a lot of barriers that we need to systemically work on taking them down. An example I heard recently with a physician coaching client trying to recruit more people of color into the particular discipline of surgery and saying, “Oh, we just have such a hard time attracting people into this” and some people really got down to the nitty-gritty and they said, “You know, a lot of the students who have come from more economic privilege, they can take a whole summer and just essentially be observing for no pay with a surgeon to decide, if that’s going to be a discipline that’s interesting and somebody else who maybe needs to earn money, who comes from a situation where the parents aren’t just funding all of this doesn’t have that opportunity, so they’re not going to be attracted into a particular discipline or area without those kind of systemic reach outs to say, “Okay, how can we financially support somebody to have that same opportunity to observe?” Is that the kind of things that you’re talking about when you’re saying systemic changes?
Dr. Ledet: Yeah, I think that’s a perfect example of some of the systemic changes. I think it is really just being conscious of those things, right? Even for those folks who want to apply to those specialties, they can’t afford to not match, because they need that residency pay check, they don’t have family money to rely on, so they need to match, and the likelihood of matching into some of these specialties where is incredibly difficult where if you haven’t went to the moon and come back. You just can’t afford not to match. Obviously it costs a lot of money to even enter into the match, and so you’re at an economic disadvantage when it comes to matching, but you’re also at an economic disadvantage when it comes to preparing to match. So, exactly what you’re talking about, the summer research programs, it costs a lot of money to go and do an away rotation an dso, yeah, those disadvantages really are a key driver to the disparities we see and who matches to what specialty.
Jill: And these conversations, we just can’t have them enough, because I think there’s just not nearly enough awareness. So let’s talk about, during this medical school education that you have gone through, and your experience as a scientist, and your experience in life and as a veteran, you have also become very interested in focusing on mental health accessibility for marginalized communities. Talk about if you would, the genesis of that awareness of the need and why you think it’s so important for you to focus your life and career on that moving forward.
Dr. Ledet: Yeah, I think the biggest driver for my passion around mental health accessibilities for marginalized communities just comes from raising two daughters. I’m raising two little black girls in the south right now and obviously we’re moving to the Midwest for training. But my oldest child, who has been a tennis player since she was three years old. For a lot of listeners who don’t know, tennis is a very cerebral sport and it’s also a very white sport, and so my daughter and I’ve had a lot of conversations around her mental health. This has started probably when she was six, seven years old. We’ve had these open conversations and she’s told me about the impact of the sport, the way the sport looks, the way the sport is procured and really put together.
And obviously, as a coach in tennis, I’ve looked at a lot of these kids and just looked at where their mental state was when they’re playing this game, and then I think back to my own childhood and it’s like, “Wow, what if I would have had someone who looked like me worried about my mental health when I was a child? How much better of a human would I be now? How many of those internal doubts that I have would be eliminated?” and I wanted to be one of those people who really drove the conversation and utilized every ounce of my influence to really create something that can revolutionize what’s accessible in terms of mental health for children. You know, in my head I envision an app that literally addresses mental health resources for marginalized communities. It makes it accessible, you know, just as accessible as Google is to everyone, and I I think that will really, really, really help. I don’t necessarily know how to do it yet. I got to become a child psychiatrist first. But in the meantime, obviously, I know how to balance more than one thing. So, I’ll figure it out.
Jill: Yeah, that’s a pretty, pretty amazing intention and goal to set your sights on, particularly at this point in your career, and I think the conversation is opening up coming out of the pandemic about understanding childhood and adolescent mental health, and how it isn’t just a thing that happens to people who aren’t parented well. It kind of exposed that there’s just a lot of pressures, the conversation probably a lot of us and older generations, just put a lot of stuff under the rug, didn’t deal with trauma, and that is continuing to create mental health issues in generations that are coming up. Now, they’re just being more open about it and hopefully the solution is coming, and your emphasis on how much more challenging it is for underserved and marginalized communities, I think is a really very, very important place to take the conversation as well.
Dr. Ledet: Yeah, I think when we look at suicide rates among young black children, they’re the highest they’ve ever been. That’s scary, that’s scary for me as a parent, that’s scary for me as a tennis coach, that’s scary for me as a budding child psychiatrist. It’s one thing for me to recognize the emotion of it being scary, it’s another thing for me to recognize that emotion and do something about it, and so I think, I think there’s some power coming, I think there’s a budding partnership with the National Association of Mental Illness to address it in young children especially in marginalized communities that I’ll be working on, I think we’ll do something powerful. I think we’ll change the way things are done and address it in a major way.
Jill: I’m so excited to follow the impact that you have on medicine, on the world, on marginalized communities, on all of this. It is just incredible to see how you are able to take a vision and an idea, and carry it through with the follow through that is beyond, it’s superhuman. [laughs] really, I can’t imagine anybody else being able to do all the things that you’ve done, Dr. Russell Ledet, thank you so much for this conversation. How can people reach out to you or reach out to learn more about what it is you’re doing and to support any of the projects that you have going?
Dr. Ledet: Yeah, so, to reach out to me personally on LinkedIn is drrussellledet, on Instagram it’s @drrussellledet, and really to ping The 15 White Coats, @15thewhitecoats on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and we have a website where people can figure out what we’re doing and make donations which 100% go towards our cause at www.the15whitecoats.org. We’re doing really good work and I hope you all not only listen, but donate.
Jill: Well, I’m excited for the next leg of your career in Indianapolis as you move toward a career as a child psychiatrist, and thank you so much for taking the time to share your story for inspiring us, to pointing our attention in the direction where it definitely needs to go around accessibility to medical education for a much broader group of highly capable people, and for helping us to all remember that accessibility to mental health for children needs to go all the way across the board. This has been a really powerful and inspiring conversation. I just want to thank you.
Dr. Ledet: Thank you so much Jill for having me. This is awesome and I’ll definitely be back that’s for sure.
Jill: And thanks all of you for joining in for this conversation. Please share it, share it widely. These are important concepts that we all need to be talking about. And also, go to docworking.com today for information on how you can thrive in work and in life. Until next time, I’m Jill Farmer.
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