What was it like growing up in Brooklyn?
It’s sink or swim. Success is marked by survival, not so much by good grades or all those other things. It’s a shame, really, but people are forced to look at life on an hour-to-hour basis. When I was a teacher in California, I turned 24, and I literally stopped dead in my tracks. I realized that I’d beat the statistics for young black men from my neighborhood. And I was like: wow, I’m not dead or in jail. What do I do now?
What was medical care like for your family and your neighbors?
I guess this is a commentary on what life was like in Bed-Stuy. You go to the hospital if you are injured, and you definitely don’t go to the hospital if you can avoid it. Nobody has regular check-ups with the doctor, and nobody has dental insurance, so you don’t go to the dentist. I couldn’t even tell you where those things were.
Robert Jones, shown at various stages of his life, has had a number of jobs and interests — including a stint as a teacher in Oakland, Calif. Today, he’s a first-year student at the UW School of Medicine.
Where did you go to college? How was it different from where you grew up?
It was very different. I was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The first shocker — I wasn’t freaked out by the coursework or anything like that — was that I couldn’t get anything to eat after 10 o’clock at night. I just never thought that was possible! There were other stereotypical things: Southern hospitality, people looking you in the eyes and saying “hi” to you on the street. Which is really unnerving coming from New York, because that doesn’t happen in New York unless somebody wants trouble. I ended up loving it.
How did you make the jump from teaching to medicine?
I applied to Teach for America, and worked in Oakland, Calif. It was similar to Bed-Stuy; it’s all about this oppressive restraint. Kids don’t believe that they have a chance. As far as access to health care, it was the same thing. There were major hospitals right up the street from our school, but no one knows how and when to access them. The more stark thing was that within the classroom, you noticed a lot of preventable illnesses, all the way from colds to infections, and other things…here I am teaching 13-year-olds, and it takes me two years to get somebody to look at this student to figure out he has Asperger’s.
Then I had a student named L. D. He’d stir the pot every now and then, but he was a cool guy. He got shot on his front steps, and people thought he wouldn’t walk again. When I visited the hospital, the doctors weren’t gentle enough, and they didn’t take time with the family. I would sit and explain things to them. And I was like: “Look. Nobody’s going to hand you the diagnosis you want. When that physical therapist comes over, don’t complain. Don’t moan and groan. This should be the most exciting point of your day. You strap on your brace, you get in there, and you bite your lip and you power through it.” The last time I saw L. D., he could get out of his wheelchair and walk around with a cane.
That was it. All along, I told my students I wanted to be a doctor so they could have this image of something that they didn’t believe was possible. When that thing with L. D. happened, that was the final push. I felt so authentic. I felt so comfortable being at the hospital and talking through those things with the family.
Why did you choose the UW School of Medicine?
The UW seemed to fit my ideals, and they showed it. When I visited, it seemed like everyone was really focused on caring for the underserved. It wasn’t just lip service. It felt like it was so ingrained — that no matter what you wanted to do, even if you wanted to do cardiothoracic surgery, you couldn’t help but frame your plan in the perspective of those in need. It was comfortable. I felt like the mission was strong and true, and that the support for minority students was strong. I’m also receiving scholarships — I wouldn’t be able to attend this school and pursue this dream without them.
What do you think you’ll do after medical school?
It’s a tough tug-of-war for me, because I feel really authentic and alive with primary care. And with my physical therapy and sports background, anytime someone talks about bones and joints and muscles, my ears prick up. I think I could go either way; ultimately, I just like feeling valued.