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Healing 'Brick City': A Newark Doctor Returns Home

Feb 9, 2013
Originally published on February 9, 2013 12:11 pm

When Sampson Davis was in high school, he and two of his friends made a pact that they would someday become doctors. All three of them did. Along with those friends — and now fellow doctors — George Jenkins and Rameck Hunt, Davis co-authored a 2003 book called The Pact, about that promise and the way it shaped their lives.

Now, in a new memoir, Davis describes his experience returning to the Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, N.J. — the hospital where he was born — as an emergency physician. Davis joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about the book, Living and Dying in Brick City: An E.R. Doctor Returns Home.


Interview Highlights

On returning to Newark after becoming a doctor

"My calling was a bit different. It was important for me to come back and become a beacon of hope, if you will, to show young people, especially, that education can change a life. It changed my life, and it saved my life in so many ways."

On encountering a childhood friend, Don "Snake" Moses, in the hospital

"He was a young guy that I grew up with in the streets of Newark. And my past wasn't always perfect. I grew up in a single-parent home with five siblings [in a] drug-infested community. And I always had hopes and aspirations of doing more with my life, but I often say you can't aim for what you can't see. Growing up, I was surrounded by so much negative peer pressure and negativity, it wasn't long before I became a part of that fabric.

"Snake and I was a part of a team that committed an armed robbery when I was 17 1/2. And I often say 17 1/2 because had I been 18, my story would have been written differently. But it was that life experience that changed me around. I was sentenced to two years' probation. And I started back in high school and ... earned straight A's in high school, went off to college, and went down a different side of the fork in the road towards education. And Snake — Don Moses — stayed down the same road of crime, and he was in and out of jail.

"And it so happened that I finished college, I went off to medical school, came back home for my residency, and the first day ... I looked up at the board, and 'Don Moses' [was] written on the board in the trauma room. I'm like, 'Wow, I know that name," and right below was written the word 'deceased.' So, I'm sitting in there, looking at the board and thinking, 'What are the chances that this is the Don Moses that I know?' And unfortunately, I sprinted down to the surgical ICU and his body was taken away, but his family was there. It was the Don Moses that I knew from childhood."

On the need to acknowledge mental illness

"When you look at mental illness, in the inner city community particularly, it's taboo. It's almost like, 'I can't say to another person that I'm depressed, because it destroys, especially as a man talking to another man, it destroys the 'man code,' if you will. But in the book, I refer to a young man that I grew up with who was this bright, happy, young guy who I remember playing basketball with. I left, went off to college and medical school, and I returned. He didn't look the same. He tried to act as if he was happy, but everything about him screamed depression. His depression stemmed from many things: He lost his mother, he lost his girlfriend — his fiancee. And he never [sought] help for it because it was one of those situations that I've come to understand, where you just don't talk about it. He unfortunately took his life. He just spiraled out of control — he had no resources, and no ways of dealing with it or coping with it."

On what it will take to improve health care in inner cities

"I think one is attention to the matter at hand and to realize that there is a need that exists in the cities as far as health care. Not only in the cities but in a great amount of rural areas, as well. I also feel that there has to be a program in place that encourage[s] youth from the beginning to become doctors, to become health care professionals. There has to be more programs that exist ... to help the students matriculate through high school, through college, through medical school. Because more often, just like myself, you come back. You come back to home."

On feeling the responsibility to give back

"Through my mother's way of handling life, she always made sure that I understood the need to give back ... She always said, 'Once you make it, you have to come back and help other people.' Too often, in Newark especially, I see so many professionals that do make it out — they don't return. And I think that's a crime in itself ... You have to have some social consciousness to give back, to be a part of making it better tomorrow."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sampson Davis - make that Dr. Sampson Davis - has a lot of his life tied up in Newark, New Jersey. And Newark and a lot of other inner cities have a lot tied up in him. Dr. Davis wrote a previous book, "The Pact," about an agreement he made with two high school friends to become doctors. They did. And in a new book, he describes his experience in returning to be an emergency room physician in the Beth Israel Hospital in Newark - in which he was born - in a way that shines light on the particular needs of health care in inner-city America. Sampson Davis' new book is "Living and Dying in Brick City: An E.R. Doctor Returns Home." Dr. Sampson Davis joins us from the studios of WBGO in Newark. Thanks so much for being with us.

DR. SAMPSON DAVIS: Oh, thank you for having me.

SIMON: You know, a lot of people, with the blessings of their friends and family, would have gotten out of inner-city Newark, gone to medical school and then become a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. What made you come back?

DAVIS: You know, for me, my calling was a bit different. It was important for me to come back and to become a beacon of hope, if you will, to show young people especially that education can change a life. And it changed my life and it saved my life in so many ways.

SIMON: Your book opens especially dramatically because you recognize an old friend who comes into the emergency room - Don Moses or Snake. How'd you know him?

DAVIS: He was a young guy that I grew up with in the streets of Newark. And my past wasn't always perfect. I grew up in a single-parent home, five siblings, drug-infested community and I always had hopes and aspirations of doing more with my life. But I often say you can't aim for what you can't see.

Growing up, I was surrounded by so much negative peer pressure and negativity it wasn't long before I became a part of that fabric. And Snake and I was a part of a team that committed an armed robbery when I was 17 and a half. And I often say 17 and a half, because had I been 18, my story would have been written differently. But it was that life experience that changed me around. And I was sentenced to two years' probation and I started back in high school and received and earned straight As in high school, went off to college and went down a different side of the fork in the road towards education.

And Snake, Don Moses, stayed down the same road of crime. And he was in and out of jail. And so what happened after I finished college, I went off to medical school, came back home for my residency - I was doing my trauma residency. And the first day I started my trauma residency, I looked up at the board and there's Don Moses written on the board in the trauma room. And I'm like, wow, I know that name. And right below was written the words deceased. So, I'm sitting in there looking at the board saying what are the chances that this is the Don Moses that I know. And, unfortunately, I sprinted down to the surgical ICU and his body was taken away but his family was there, and it was the Don Moses that I knew from childhood.

SIMON: I'm embarrassed to say it hadn't occurred until I read your book that the threat of suicide and the problem of depression in inner-city America might be disproportionate too.

DAVIS: Yes, it is. I mean, when you look at mental illness, in the inner-city community particularly, it's taboo. It's almost like I can't say to another person that I'm depressed because it destroys - especially if it's a man talking to another man - it destroys the man code, if you will. But in the book, I refer to a young man that I grew up with who was this bright, happy young guy who I remember playing basketball with. And I left, went off to college and medical school and when I returned, he didn't look the same. He tried to act as if he was happy but, I mean, everything about him screamed depression.

His depression stemmed from many things. He lost his mother, he lost his girlfriend, his fiancee. And he never seeked help for it because it was one of those situations that I've come to understand, that it's, you just don't talk about it. He, unfortunately, took his life. He just spiraled out of control. He had no resources and no ways of dealing with it or coping with it.

SIMON: Yeah. Toward the end of this book, you decide to leave Beth, what you call Beth Israel. You call it Beth almost like a family member. Now, you're still involved in Newark. But what can be done to bring more medical care, including more doctors, into inner-city areas?

DAVIS: I think one, is attention to the matter at hand and to realize that there is a need to exist in the inner cities as far a health care; not only in inner cities but in a great amount of rural areas as well. I also feel that there has to be a program in place that encourage youth from the beginning to become doctors, to become health care professionals. There has to be more programs that exist that's in place to help the student matriculate through high school, through college, through medical school. Because more often, just like myself, you come back - you come back to home. Through my mother's way of handling life, she always made sure that I understood the need to give back, to come back and to help. She always said once you make it, you have to come back and help other people. Too often, in Newark especially, I see so many professionals that do make it out, they don't return. And I think that's a crime in itself, that you have to have some social consciousness to give back, to be a part of making a better tomorrow.

SIMON: Dr. Sampson Davis. He has left Beth Israel in Newark but he continues to practice medicine in New Jersey and travel the country to offer advice on medical care in inner cities. His new book, "Living and Dying in Brick City: An E.R. Doctor Returns Home." Sampson Davis, thanks so much.

DAVIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.