Life sometimes has a funny way of bringing you back to the places that you’ve been to before. For Dr. Russell Ledet, this meant returning to a hospital to help on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic… several years after he worked there as a security guard.
“My grandmother used to tell me ‘You need to learn how to care for people, in whatever way you possibly can.’” Ledet said that he grew up “thinking only rich people go to college,” so he enlisted in the Navy and took a job as a security guard after his military service ended. It was during this time in the hospital that the words of his grandmother aligned with what he saw from the medical staff treating patients.
For around five years, Ledet worked at Baton Rouge General Medical Center in Louisiana as a security guard, while hoping to one day work at the hospital as part of the medical staff. Ledet told Good Morning America that he would often study medicine on note cards and approach doctors to ask if he could shadow them.
Most of the doctors simply said they didn’t have the time, but one doctor took a chance on Ledet and the results were truly life-changing. “It just so happened, God put me in the right place at the right time, and it worked,” Ledet said.
Dr. Patrick Greiffenstein, the chief surgery resident agreed to mentor him. “He would often do a night shift and stay for surgery the next morning,” Greiffenstein said of his mentee’s eagerness to learn. Ledet eventually earned a Ph.D. in molecular oncology from New York University in 2018 and is currently enrolled in both Tulane’s M.B.A. program and medical school.
Paving the way for the next generation
Not only is Ledet’s story a remarkable leap forward for him personally, but it serves as inspiration for his two daughters and a new generation of black medical professionals.
Ledet made headlines in late 2019 when he and several of his Tulane School of Medicine classmates — dubbed the 15 white coats — posed for a photo on a Louisiana plantation that once held slaves. The viral photo was a powerful example of what Ledet called “ancestral resiliency” for him and his other black med school classmates.
“I think we did something right and 50 years from now, people will still talk about this image,” Ledet told People of the photograph. “No matter how you feel about it, it’s a visceral reaction to ‘Here is what our country essentially started with and here’s how far we come.'”
Only around 4 percent of medical doctors in the United States are black, and everything from economic disparity to lack of role models factors into the complex reason why so few black men enter the medical field.
For Ledet, who was raised by a single mother who often had to rely on food stamps to get by, his success now offers him a way to build a bridge to disenfranchised communities and serve as a role model. The husband and father is striving for a triple board residency to be certified in pediatrics, general psychiatry, and child/adolescent psychiatry. He hopes to help increase access to mental health in marginalized communities. “We are fortunate that Russel has chosen medicine,” Greiffenstein said. “We’re going to be better for it.”
Working at the hospital where he once wore a security guard badge, but now sports a white coat, is a reminder to Ledet of his humble beginnings. “This is one of those reflective points when you’re trying to understand how far you’ve come and how far you got to go.”
Photos via Russell Ledet.