As part of Black History Month, MedPage Today spoke with several African-American healthcare leaders in order to recall some of the triumphs that have been accomplished by black physicians in medicine, but also to highlight the inequalities and disparities that still exist in the field.
Antonio Webb, MD, is now a fifth-year orthopedic surgery resident at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, but he started out in the military.
Webb joined the U.S. Air Force right out of high school and spent 8 years of active duty service as a medic, while also working toward his bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas in San Antonio. Webb went on to earn his medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine.
Webb chronicled his experiences in Overcoming the Odds, writing about his experiences in the streets of Louisiana, his tenure in the military, and pursuit of his medical dream.
Tell me about some of the barriers that you faced on your journey to becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
Webb: A barrier for me was a lack of mentors or someone going into the field of orthopedics that I could look up to. Growing up, I didn’t know any black or minority doctors. I hadn’t met a black doctor, so I didn’t know it was possible until I was exposed to a medical program in high school. That program kind of exposed me to the field of medicine. From there, I got exposed to orthopedic surgery. But I would say a lack of mentors would be the main barrier, because there aren’t a lot of minorities that are in the field of orthopedic surgery.
That’s why I am passionate about reaching younger kids and students that are interested in coming into the field, not just in the field of orthopedic surgery but medicine in general, through my YouTube channel.
What was the inspiration for your book? How did that come together for you?
Webb: Growing up in Louisiana was a really challenging background. There were a lot of gangs and drugs. I had a lot of family members that went to prison, including my brother and sister. My mom has been in and out of jail and on drugs my whole life, and actually, due to her drug addiction, she has been shot and paralyzed from the waist down. Growing up in that environment and not having a mentor, or someone I could look up to and say that I want to become a doctor or work in a particular field.
I wanted to write a book as a look at my life and how I made it, how I came out of that environment and still reached my goals. Someone can pick it up and read it, and use it as a guideline when they are going through life and facing obstacles.
What do you think the specialty of orthopedic surgery can do as a whole to attract more minority students?
Webb: I would say exposure. If I didn’t see certain people in the field of orthopedics that looked like me, talked me, or people that I could relate to, I’m not sure that I would have gained an interest in it. So I think it’s important to expose not just medical students to orthopedics, but also pre-med, high school, and college students early on. Let them know that this is a particular field that you could possibly go into — it’s an option. That’s what I try to focus on with my YouTube channel, [giving] exposure to pre-med and medical students, and trying to get them into the boat so we can have more minorities in this particular field. There are a few programs out there that try to do that.
What advice do you have for minorities about making it through a very rigorous medical school program?
Webb: I always say you can’t get through medical school by yourself. You need some sort of support system, family, and friends. I studied with three or four people through my schooling and we got through medical school together. You can’t get through school by yourself.
The second thing is don’t be afraid to ask for help, because [medical] students are really high achievers — they do well in college, the top of their class with good grades and scores — but medical school is a whole different ball game. Students tend to be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to seek help psychologically or academically. Don’t be afraid to seek out mentors who have gone down the path. I sought out the third years and fourth year medical students when I was a first year.
What would you be doing if you weren’t in medicine?
Webb: I would be doing something in the STEM industry, because I love it. I enjoy creating things. I would probably do something in the film industry. I enjoy being a video creator and cinematographer.
What is your advice for avoiding burnout?
Webb: Burnout is a really hot topic, and I think it is something that should be brought to the forefront. I would say now that it is going to be a long road. To become an orthopedic surgeon, it’s going to be about 15 years of your life, so you have to be willing to [sacrifice] that time.
I think the most important thing is work-life balance. That’s really hard from my perspective, because I’m still trying to perfect that as well. Trying to figure out how much time you study versus spending time with family. As a resident, we work 80-plus hours a week. Then you come home and you study and do research and lots of other things. I would say find something outside of medicine that you are passionate about as well, whether it’s sports or medicine or travelling. Always remember what got you interested in medicine in the first place, because that’s what’s going to keep you going when times get hard, when you want to quit and give up, because it is a long and treacherous road.
How did the military help to prepare you for what you are doing now?
Webb: I think what I learned in the military helped me. We got up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., we went to run, and did [physical training] before the sun came up. The discipline that I developed during my time in the military stuck with me in medical school in terms of studying. And also, I learned how to work well under pressure. Taking care of wounded patients in Iraq while also getting shot at taught me resilience and this is especially important in surgery when you have to remain calm when things go wrong.
What advice would you give your pre-med self?
Webb: Enjoy the ride. It’s a long ride. Take it day by day. There will be days when you want to quit or give up. Remember why you wanted to take this path in the first place. I would say just enjoy it, and have fun along the way. Live your life.
What can we expect next from your career?
Webb: I am creating content for pre-medical students on my YouTube page who are interested in a medical career. I interview various professionals like a neurosurgeon, a dermatologist, or a physical therapist. I didn’t have access to such prominent and inspiring professionals when I was coming up through the years. If I could have gone online and watched a black surgeon, that would have inspired me to go into medicine. That’s my goal: to expose minorities to the field of medicine. I’m also doing a spine surgery fellowship, and eventually private practice after that.