URBANA — Emergency-room physician Dr. Sampson Davis grew up in the inner city of Newark, N.J., surrounded by fragmented families, crime and drugs.
But he made a pact with two high school friends to go to college and become doctors, and in 2000, they founded the Three Doctors Foundation to provide free health, education and mentoring programs in the community.
Davis has written books, appeared on Oprah and other national talk shows, was honored with the Essence Lifetime Achievement Award and is the youngest physician to receive the National Medical Association’s highest honor, the Scroll of Merit.
The keynote speaker for Friday’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Countywide Celebration talked with The News-Gazette about his journey, his heroes and his advice for young people.
Growing up, what motivated you to achieve?
My environment where I grew up pushed me to try to aim for better and for more in life. I wasn’t comfortable in that type of environment.
I wanted to make something more of my life. I didn’t want to become a street hustler, I didn’t want to become somebody that was on drugs, I didn’t want to become a statistic.
Fortunately, along the way there were mentors that appeared in my life and helped to build me. My mother obviously was there; also, certain individuals who would step in through periods of my life.
I would sort of latch onto them to find my way to where I wanted to go. I recognized positivity in them.
You’ve said you had to strike a balance between being smart and ‘socially acceptable on the streets.’
It was a survival skill. It was one of those things where you had to blend into the community.
It was a fun place, it was very colorful and dynamic, but it was also one of hardship. ... I had to be a chameleon of some sort, blend in with the community I was in while doing well in school.
Academics was not something embraced in my peer group. You would get teased and called names if you did well academically. ... If you got an A on a math test, they might call you a nerd or corny or square.
I tell kids if they call you a nerd today in school for doing well, that’s OK because they’ll be calling you ‘boss’ tomorrow.
What is your advice to other young people struggling with similar circumstances?
Just to stay the course and trust the process. It’s a little easier today because of the social internet and exposure to hundreds of millions of people.
When I was growing up, you didn’t have that. You just had your community you grew up in.
Now, you can reach out to other communities on the internet. There are more ways to express yourself, to really find that group you can belong to.
Kids today going through any challenge, whether it’s atmosphere or financial or home-based challenges, should tell themselves this is only temporary. The greatest years to live are still in front of them.
If they do the work now and put their heels to the ground and stay the course, it’s going to pay off. They have to put the work in, they have to believe, and they can’t surrender to their circumstances.
Tell us about the pact you made with your two friends in high school — Dr. Rameck Hunt and Dr. George Jenkins — to become doctors.
Those two guys are my best friends. We met in high school, ninth grade, same classes pretty much throughout the four years of high school.
We had similar stories. We were all smart. We were just having fun as teenagers. We didn’t know what we were going to do with our future because no one in our immediate family had ever gone to college, coming from single-parent homes.
In our senior year, a recruiter from a local college, Seton Hall University, came and did a presentation on careers in health and science. We were cutting class in that particular moment, and a security guard chased us into the class where this presentation was happening.
The security guard let us be. The presentation went on about becoming doctors, dentists, bench research scientists. ... When the seminar was over, everybody was excited.
We applied to Seton Hall, we were accepted as pre-med majors, we all went to medical school and dental school together.
Along the way, we just supported each other.
How did you choose medicine, particularly emergency medicine?
I would say it found me. I always enjoyed helping people. When it came to choosing emergency medicine — I always call it organized chaos — it resembled my life.
I think for me, it’s the immediate gratification that you receive from helping someone else, from being a part of saving a life in the most immediate way.
I don’t have to sit around and wait for days for a result. I immediately can bring a person back from death. That part excites me.
It reflects my life in a lot of ways, just having these moments. I wasn’t expecting to become a doctor, I was cutting class of all things, and here I am now.
It’s just life chances and life moments.
Whose idea was it to set up the Three Doctors Foundation?
We graduated medical school and there was a story about it in the local paper, the Star Ledger. It was on the front page, and the title was “The start of something big,” and it had photos of the three of us from our high school graduation days.
From there, it snowballed. We just started having opportunities to do more media, more speaking events. We just felt a burning need to give back.
Through some local talks we started to do, we raised some dollars. We were going to give the money away for a scholarship. Then we decided that would be a one-time thing. Why not do something more permanent?
We decided to start a foundation. We founded the Three Doctors Foundation as first-year residents. We had to be the only philanthropists we knew who had student loans. We are now celebrating our 20th year.
You’re obviously a role model to others — who is your role model or hero?
It’s cliche, but I think my mother is my hero in many ways, just because I’ve seen how hard she’s worked to raise six kids in a two-bedroom home, a single parent with no education.
She had the foresight to say, ‘You’re going to school, you’re going to school, you’re going to school.’
I admire Wes Moore (CEO of the Robin Hood anti-poverty group). I think he’s doing a lot of great things for the community.
I look at somebody on the highest level, like Barack Obama. Whether you like him or not, you know his intentions are genuine. He cares about the community, about galvanizing rather than separating.
What do you think Dr. King would focus on today if he were still alive?
The world has changed so much. I think he still would be on the same sort of path of just being the best person you can be.
I think he would still be fighting social injustice, and making sure we are all accountable for what we believe in and fighting for what we believe in.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include him as one of my heroes.
Martin Luther King shows a lot of humanity and self-respect and dignity that we can all learn from. To hear him say, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” or “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” — those types of quotes and the ability to always put people first in his journey is something I try to emulate.
Let me do what I can do to leave this place better tomorrow than it is today.
That’s the philosophy I live on every single day.