Bringing diversity to the white coat
Laura Gates Feb 16, 2023
IU School of Medicine Triple Board Resident shows minoritized youth, ‘You’re capable.’
March 18, 2022 is forever etched into the memory of Russell “R.J.” Ledet, MD, PhD, MBA. With his wife of 18 years, Mallory, and their two daughters by his side, Ledet joined his Tulane University School of Medicine classmates in simultaneously opening sealed envelopes that would reveal their residency matches.
When Ledet saw “Indiana University School of Medicine Triple Board Residency,” he was overcome with emotion.
“I’m proud of you, Black man!” he shouted over and over, speaking to no one but himself.
Triple Board Residency is a rigorous, five-year program combining training in three fields: pediatrics, general psychiatry and child and adolescent psychiatry. Not only did Ledet become the first Black male to enter the program at IU, but he later learned he was the only Black man to match into any Triple Board Residency through the National Resident Matching Program in 2022.
Nationally, just 4 percent of active psychiatrists are Black or African American, compared to a U.S. population that is nearly 14 percent Black. Additionally, Indiana has a severe shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists (CAPs)— just seven CAPs per 100,000 children, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry—indicating great need for culturally competent mental health clinicians.
“Dr. Ledet’s application stood out,” said Rachel Yoder, MD, director of the Triple Board Residency at IU School of Medicine. “He is a veteran, has an MBA and PhD, and developed The 15 Whitecoats—a nonprofit dedicated to reducing barriers for students of color applying to medical schools. In medical school, he also worked to develop practical, relationship-based interventions for underserved youth in his community. He was undoubtedly among the top candidates for all Triple Board programs across the nation in 2022, and we were thrilled that he matched with us.”
It was an encounter with a Black boy in New Orleans that convinced Ledet of his calling. The boy was a patient at a pediatric psychiatry clinic, and he wasn’t talking to his attending physician. When he caught sight of Ledet, he couldn’t stop staring. Ledet didn’t look like other doctors. He looked like someone the boy could relate to—someone from his own neighborhood.
“At the time, I had a big ’fro,” said Ledet, then a Tulane medical student. “I started talking to him about red beans and rice, the New Orleans Saints and beignets, and then we got down to his ADHD and how it was being managed at school and his real issue, which was about this girl he liked who was distracting him in class. He ended up asking the attending (physician), ‘Could he be my doctor?’”
Ledet has long believed representation matters in medicine. Growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, he never saw a Black doctor. He didn’t have access to quality health care and never heard about mental health care. He had no role models to show him a pathway to a career in science or medicine.
“I want to provide what I needed during my origin—someone who was concerned about what was going on in my mind and what was going on in my body,” said Ledet, “to be a physical and mental health advocate and a bold leader for change.”
He wanted to do his Triple Board training at IU because of the people and the inclusive climate. Since coming to Indiana, his initial impressions have only solidified.
“I don’t have to change some component of who I am to be here,” Ledet said. “No one is judging me for my hair—my locs, my cartoon scrubs or the way I talk. I get to bring my personality to work, and that’s a nice feeling. They just let me be R.J., with all my flavor.”
‘Don’t you ever forget where you came from’
Ledet describes himself as a “man of many experiences.” He holds six degrees including a PhD in molecular oncology, a master’s in business administration (MBA) and an MD. He’s also a veteran of the United States Navy, trained in military intelligence and cryptology, who was selected to serve in the Ceremonial Guard in Washington, D.C.
The list of Ledet’s achievements is extensive:
- Multiple scholarships and fellowships including being a Tillman Scholar
- Cancer researcher funded though the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Studies
- Co-founder of a nationally recognized nonprofit organization propelling underrepresented minority (URM) students to the next levels of education and aspiration
- Numerous appearances in national media including People Magazine, NPR, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, The Steve Harvey Show, The Kelly Clarkson Show and Good Morning America.
Despite this notoriety, Ledet’s foremost identity will always be as a kid from Lake Charles. He forever hears the words of his grandma admonishing, “Young man, no matter how far you go in life, don’t you every forget where you came from.”
Ledet grew up in a single parent home with a mom who told him he could do anything—but his surroundings didn’t make that seem true. Some days, his family would go dumpster diving behind Sam’s Club to see what they could find for dinner. Sometimes the electricity bill wouldn’t get paid and Ledet would read by candlelight.
“Growing up, I didn’t really think too much about my future,” he said. “It was just about survival.”
His escape was reading: “I probably read over 2,500 books by the time I graduated. That was my way to imagine a different world—imagining the mountains of Nepal or the tundra of Antarctica—something to take my mind away from where we were living.”
It’s no surprise that, as co-founder and president of The 15 White Coats, Ledet is now working with the Cummins Inc. corporation and the Black Worldschoolers Mobile Bookstore to place book boxes in 25 schools in Indianapolis’ Martindale-Brightwood community so children can access literature featuring Black stories—both true stories and fictional adventures of Black protagonists.
It’s about representation and resilience—just like the start of The 15 White Coats. A powerful photo featuring 15 African American medical students from Tulane is what launched the nonprofit. Not only does the image show Black faces in white coats, but it also has a notable location—the former slave quarters at Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation. The bold caption states: “Resilience is in our DNA.”
“We don’t have Black doctors up on the wall in our classrooms,” Ledet said. “That photo was about changing the narrative about who is capable of doing what.”
‘Have faith and be fearless’
Ledet’s inspirational path to the white coat wasn’t linear, but each step in the journey contributed to where he is—and who he is—today.
He married his high school sweetheart when he was 19, and they soon developed a mantra in their marriage: Have faith and be fearless. They had their first daughter when Ledet was at Southern University and A&M College—one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)—where he initially planned to study social work after his time in the military.
To help support his family, he took an evening job as a security guard at Baton Rouge General Hospital. That’s when the call to medicine settled in Ledet’s soul. He started asking every doctor who walked up the ramp from the physicians’ parking area what it was like and if he could shadow them.
“A lot of them were like, ‘Security guards don’t become doctors,’” Ledet recalled. “It didn’t stop me. I just kept asking.”
Eventually he found a doctor who said “yes”—trauma surgeon Patrick Greiffenstein, MD. Ledet was so excited he stayed at the hospital all night so he could sign the paperwork first thing in the morning. He soon found himself in an operating room observing a lumpectomy performed by African American breast oncology surgeon Peter Bostick, MD.
“He said, ‘Get in here and learn. We’re going to get you into medical school,’” Ledet recalled.
Ledet didn’t make it into medical school on the first try. However, he landed a full scholarship for a PhD program in molecular oncology at New York University School of Medicine. As a graduate student, he launched Clear Direction Mentoring, an initiative that brought in students from the lowest performing high schools in New York City’s five boroughs and allowed them to participate in science labs and career mentoring.
“For some of these kids, this was the first time someone told them they were capable,” Ledet said.
At NYU, Ledet found strong mentors when he joined the lab of Michael Garabedian, PhD, and Susan Logan, PhD. They enjoyed Ledet’s bright smile and deemed him a “breath of fresh air” for their lab. As much as they loved Ledet—and his family—they knew his dream was to become a physician and work directly with patients, particularly ones who would benefit most from seeing a Black doctor.
“Russell was full of enthusiasm and curiosity, qualities that helped him become an outstanding scientist, and that will help him treat people as a physician,” Logan said. “I don't think that getting a PhD was easy for Russell, but he grew into the rigor and the intellectual commitment because he is very bright and persistent. These qualities and his strong sense of community and family contribute to his success.”
Ledet’s perseverance paid off. He was proud to receive an offer of admission to an Ivy League medical school (Cornell), but he instead chose to accept a full-tuition scholarship to Tulane. He and Mallory wanted to go home to Louisiana.
Ledet will never forget the emotions of that first day he did a surgical rotation at Baton Rouge General—the same hospital where he once wore a security guard uniform. Now he was the one wearing the white coat.
‘I’m living proof it’s possible’
It was Ledet’s oldest daughter, Maleah, who was the inspiration behind that viral 15 White Coats photo. When Ledet and a friend from NYU planned to visit Whitney Plantation, he sensed it was important for Maleah, then age 9, to come along. The museum focuses on the history and legacy of slavery in the United States.
On the car ride home, Maleah suddenly exclaimed, “Dad, I get it—being a Black doctor is a big deal!” In that moment, she understood for the first time how far African Americans in the United States have come.
According to the AAMC’s 2022 Physician Specialty Data Report, less than 6 percent of active physicians are Black or African American. Diversity is rising among medical students and residents, but there is still work to do, particularly for Black men. Of the almost 23,000 students admitted to all U.S. medical schools last year, less than 10 percent were Black or African American, according to AAMC data on race/ethnicity and gender. Black women in medical school outnumber Black men nearly two-to-one.
That’s why Ledet is proud to be a Black man wearing a white coat. Growing up in Lake Charles, he never would’ve thought it possible. His message to youth from minoritized backgrounds is this: “I’m proof it’s possible. Never stop dreaming, and always be willing to put in the work. Those two things will get you far.”
Ledet relates well to the patients and families he now sees in Indianapolis, especially at the Eskenazi Health pediatric continuity clinic, which serves patients with many adverse social determinants of health.
“Dr. Ledet’s personal lifetime experiences and background are very similar to those of many of the patients he sees, and I think that helps him relate to them and their families and the challenges they face,” said Thomas Klausmeier, MD, the continuity clinic supervisor and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at IU School of Medicine. “Not only does this make him more understanding of the roadblocks these families have in obtaining medical care, following through with medical recommendations and making lifestyle changes necessary to optimize health, but he also serves as a positive inspirational role model for these kids. His advocacy will help us, as a medical system, improve the care these kids receive.”
As proud as he is to wear his white coat, Ledet won’t let it remove him from Lake Charles. His life mission is to inspire Black youth, cultivate opportunities and ignite cultural transformation.
“One of my mentors said, ‘If God gives you a vision, you need to pursue it,’” Ledet said. “I took that by the stranglehold and did it.”