Public Service Announcement with Dr. James E.K. Hildreth
Step inside the minds of health care leaders across the country with a new series aimed at spreading factual, informative and inspiring knowledge through conversations with a list of influential and knowledgeable health and policy experts in various fields. Hosted by James E.K. Hildreth, Ph.D., M.D., infectious disease expert and researcher and CEO and president of one of the country’s four HBCU medical institutions, Meharry Medical College, our first season focuses on relevant and interesting topics around health that will be effective in enhancing the dissemination of health care-based research and knowledge. We’ll provide an invigorating outlet for the voices of these empowered figures, who talk openly and honestly about their journey in medicine and policy, their motivations, the challenges they’ve overcome and their hopes for the future of health care.
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Podcast host James E.K. Hildreth, Ph.D., M.D., takes the guest seat in this unique first episode to guide listeners through his personal journey of struggle and triumph and to encourage others to take chances with their own goals, despite limiting circumstances.
“There is a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock called There Were No Mirrors In My Nana’s House,” Hildreth recalls. “I didn’t know my skin was too dark, my nose was too big, or my hair was too nappy. My mother took down the figurative mirrors and didn’t let all those things that the external world was throwing at me become internalized. My mother was not having any of it.”
In this special episode of Public Service Announcement with Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, guest host Marcus Whitney interviews Hildreth, who provides insight into his personal journey as a Black man in health care, shares how his childhood impacted his path through elite higher education and offers optimism toward the future of diverse health care.
Ambition Requires Support
Growing up in the 1960s, Hildreth describes how his father’s undertreated illness and eventual passing when he was 11 years old inspired his ambition to be in the medical field, and defy the racial boundaries that had been established.
“I could never quite understand why my father could never get the care he needed. And I realized that it was because we were poor and Black and lived on the wrong side of the tracks,” he said. “So it made me angry, to be honest with you.”
As more tragedies within the Black community took place, including the death of MLK, Hildreth’s mother urged him to transform his anger into action. This led to his rigorous pursuit for excellence in education.
“In April of 1975, I got a letter from Cambridge informing me that I’d been accepted to Harvard with a scholarship,” he illustrated. “The truth is, I applied to all the Ivy League schools, and they all gave me an acceptance. But since my research was at Harvard, that’s where I went.”
Recalling the instances where he doubted his own abilities yet exceeded those doubts, Hildreth lifted up people in his life who supported his ambition, and reminded him of his boundless capabilities.
“When I went into the ninth grade, there were a lot of people who didn’t want the valedictorian of my class to be an African-American male, but there were teachers who took the risk to make sure that I got what I deserved.”
Support Nurtures Passion
As a Black man enrolled at an Ivy League institution, Hildreth recalled his feelings of isolation entering Harvard, however described how he found community within feeling like an imposter.
“When I arrived in Harvard in the fall of ’75, there were 1600 students in the freshman class, and about 120 of us were Black,” he said. “We kind of bonded together because we all felt to some extent, like we were imposters. I had six colleagues that I went through Harvard with, and we did all kinds of things together.”
Reflecting upon the continuation of his education at Johns Hopkins, Hildreth told the story of how Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., the first Black faculty member at Johns Hopkins, made it possible for him and other Black students to enroll.
“He wrote personal letters to about 30 of us who had done really well on the MCAT with the message, ‘We’d love to have you here at Johns Hopkins.’ Levi showed me what one person can do with courage, and he was a great mentor for me during my time at Hopkins.”
Passion Fuels Curiosity
Sharing his passion for health care research and drive to always dive deeper to find new information, Hildreth described an experiment his professor prompted him to complete, which led to a never-seen-before medical discovery.
“It became obvious very quickly that the experiment had worked, and I realized I’m the only human being who has ever known this,” Hildreth recalled. “I thought, wow, that’s pretty powerful, right? That was the first time I really understood the excitement of generating new knowledge.”
Speaking about his current role as President and CEO of Meharry Medical College, Hildreth highlighted the importance of supporting his medical students who may pursue non-traditional tracks, nurturing their passion for the health care field.
“I was able to pay it forward by being the Dean for these students and trying to help them be successful in what they were doing,” he explained. “So part of my modus operandi is to create opportunities for students to get excited about something and possibly pursue it as their careers.”
Despite his many accomplishments throughout his career in education, Hildreth emphasized how he continues to dig deeper in his medical career, and is inspired by his dreams and ambitions to keep going.
“One of my first graduate students at Hopkins brought me back a wall hanging from China, and one of the lines in the poem reads that, ‘as long as your dreams overshadow your memories, you’re still young,’” he recalled. “And I still have some dreams that definitely overshadow my memory, so I’m going to keep on rolling.”