The University Record, January 21, 1998

'Hero of Medicine' gives tips to aspiring doctors

Keith Black

Carol Bennett


By Rebecca A. Doyle

"Art is a passion that is practiced with discipline," says Keith Black, "and science is a discipline practiced with passion."

The importance of discovering the thing you love most to do was number one on Black's list of what he used to stay focused on his medical career in the face of the adverse issues that confront minorities.

Black is a neurosurgeon who was featured on the cover of Time magazine's special report last fall titled "Heroes of Medicine." He is currently director of the neurosurgical institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, University of California urologist Carol Bennett, and their two children. He began his medical education with the Inteflex program at the U-M and completed his residency in neurological surgery here in 1987. The pair spoke in an overflowing Ford Auditorium in University Hospital on Jan. 15 as part of the University's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

In contemplating what he could offer those pursuing medical or scientific careers, Black came up with five points he said helped him in meeting adversity and shared those and some of the issues that minorities face in pursuing careers in academic medicine.

Black began his scientific career when he was in fourth grade, he says. He feels fortunate to have discovered his love of science at an early age. The advantage to knowing where the passion in your life lies, he says, is that in pursuing your career, when you get up each morning "you're not going to work--you're going to play. I feel incredibly privileged to go and do research and surgery and to do the things I do." Loving what you do allows you to face adverse situations with a different attitude than you would otherwise have, Black maintains. Second on his list is being persistent and aggressively pursuing your goals.

When he was in 8th grade, his family lived in Pennsylvania and his father was working on a degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

"I would go and knock on lab doors in the hospital. Nine out of 10 times, the door was closed in my face," he said. "But one out of 10 times, the door would open and I would get to go up in the lab and learn about cochlear medicine and cardiovascular research."

Black noted the importance of finding a mentors involved in what you want to do. When he needed to write a grant proposal, he says, he found someone who had written many of them and asked questions. In addition to helping open some of the doors, mentors who have already established careers can help by sharing what it is really like in the field, what the obstacles are and how they overcame them.

The fourth point that Black shared with students was the principle of the martial art Tai Chi, which, Black says, teaches that instead of "opposing the force, you allow the force to come to you and then utilize that force." He learned to not allow the forces to hit and stick, but to hit and roll off. He cited an incident at the U-M when he decided that his field should be neurosurgery, but was challenged by the chief resident of the program who questioned his knowledge and ability. Instead of letting the chief's words prevent him from continuing, Black read everything he could about each patient's condition, found journal references and copied them to back up his position and ended his rotation with honors from the chief.

It is very important to keep balance in your life, Black noted, because in medicine "we see a lot of death and destruction."

"People say that if you really want to understand an artist, study his art. I think if you really want to better understand God, study what God has created. There is nothing better to understand what God has created than to study human biology or neuroanatomy."

Finally, Black said minorities have a special responsibility especially to future generations to try to change society to one that is color blind, "and to try to change it as rapidly as we can, whether it is one at a time or in groups."

Black told about a man who returned to the operating room at the U-M after his operation to thank Black for more than the successful surgery.

"He said to me, 'I'd like to thank you for two things: One, for saving my life, and second, for allowing me not to be a racist, because before you operated on me, I didn't like Black people." "One step at a time, with Godspeed," Black concluded.

Black's presentation was sponsored by the Medical School Office of Admissions; the divisions of Neurology and Urology; Medical School Diversity Fund, the Office of Student Programs; Inteflex; the Office of Faculty Affairs; the King/Chavez/Parks Visiting Professor Program; and the Office of the Associate Provost for Academic and Multicultural Affairs.


Medicine needs physicians who represent patient populations

By Rebecca A. Doyle

"I was lucky," Carol Bennett told the Ford Auditorium audience last Thursday. "It was relatively easy for me. I came along in an era when I was accepted and wanted in my medical school at Georgetown, and later at the University of Michigan."

Bennett came to the U-M for her residency, and while she was in Ann Arbor, met and married Keith Black. They spoke last week at the Medical School's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the presentation titled "Diversity and Medical School Admission: Why We Can't Wait."

Bennett, who is an associate professor of urology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the audience that a diverse medical school class means that physicians will be better prepared to treat the diverse populations they will see.

"In California, and in a few other states, things are changing for women and minorities in medicine," she said. "Proposition 209 in essence states that no racial or gender differences will be considered in admission of students to any California school."

Bennett noted that since the change in admissions policy, a 17 percent drop in minority applications to medical schools in the California system had been recorded, and declining minority enrollment in other professional schools, such as law, also had been documented. California, she pointed out, has a high minority population of not only African Americans but also of Hispanic and Asian people.

"Test scores are important for measuring an individual's knowledge, but character and ability to communicate effectively are also critical," she said. "It is important that there is sufficient representation from the constituent patient population."

No one is advocating admission of students who are lacking in the basic skills needed to succeed at medical school, she said, but once those requirements are met, it is necessary to admit qualified minority applicants who will be able to deliver medical care with compassion and understanding and in whom patients will place trust, and to produce professionals who can succeed in academic medicine and motivate others to succeed.

"As we head into the next millenium, medical education will require the leadership of all members of our society," Bennett concluded. "Minority populations, even today, continue to have their medical needs addressed and served primarily by minority physicians."

Bennett's presentation was followed by a diverse panel of medical students and educators who each addressed the issue. Panelists were Kelly McLean, first year medical student; Terry Samuels, fourth-year medical student; Michael Woodring, elementary school teacher at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor; Arie Nettles, assistant professor of education; and Gerald D. Abrams, professor of pathology.

Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Gilbert S. Omenn thanked both the audience and the speakers for coming to the program and concluded it by saying, "I'm aware, and I'm sure all of you have thought of this as a badge of credit for our interest here, our courage, on this crucial issue of our time. This University is going to fight for what we believe is right. The kinds of values and experiences and growth reflected in comments here this afternoon around real diversity are essential to the future of the country and to the kinds of missions we have for education and medicine and every other aspect."