Russell J. Ledet spent four years patrolling the doctors’ parking lot at Baton Rouge General Medical Center, where, as a security guard, he watched people in white coats come and go from the building. He fantasized about what his life could be.
“Yeah, why not?” Ledet recalled.
Whenever Ledet had free time over the next several months, he was in the operating room and visiting patients with Patrick Greiffenstein.
“It just so happened, God put me in the right place at the right time, and it worked,” said Ledet, 34, of Gretna, La.
Now, seven years after he was a security guard at Baton Rouge General Medical Center, Ledet is assigned to the hospital as a medical student.
He is doing his pediatrics rotation at the Louisiana hospital and is in his third year at Tulane University School of Medicine.
“It’s like the ultimate comeback,” Ledet said.
As he comes and goes from the hospital, he sometimes runs into people he used to work with when he was a guard. Once when he was recently in the emergency room, one of them yelled out: “You did it! You actually did it!”
Ledet grew up in Lake Charles, La., with a single mother who worked as a certified nursing assistant. They relied on food stamps to eat. After high school, Ledet joined the Navy and was stationed in Washington, D.C., from 2004 to 2007. He entered the Reserves, and his wife — Mallory Alice Brown-Ledet, whom he met in high school — persuaded him to go to college while she worked at a bank.
They moved back to Louisiana in 2009, and Ledet enrolled in Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge.
Ledet initially thought he would become a social worker, like the ones who had helped his family when he was a child. But one day, his chemistry professor told him that based on his performance in class, he should major in biology or chemistry. Ledet took on both sciences as a double major. That same year, he started the security-guard job to help support his family — which included a new baby, Maleah.
Ledet didn’t have his sights on becoming a doctor then, and certainly did not view the hospital job as a backdoor way into the medical field. He said he simply needed a job to pay the mortgage.
This family grew up picking cotton. Decades later, they returned to the place they sharecropped — as homeowners.
But once he started working there, he became enamored by the hospital environment, with its intensity and variety: In one building, you had everything from gunshot wounds to babies greeting the world.
“Being in a hospital was to some degree a motivating place, because you saw these really smart and talented people walking around who were really cool to be around,” he said.
Greiffenstein — the doctor whom Ledet shadowed 10 years ago — now is a trauma surgeon at University Medical Center in New Orleans. He said he gets requests for shadowing regularly, but Ledet was the only security guard who had ever asked.
“It’s hard not to like him right away,” said Greiffenstein, explaining why, in part, he said yes when Ledet asked to shadow him.
He said Ledet’s path to becoming a doctor has been “remarkable.”
“Especially for a guy who started as a security guard,” said Greiffenstein, who wrote Ledet a letter of recommendation for medical school.
Ledet graduated from college in 2013 and left the security job but didn’t decide to become a medical doctor right away. He moved east with his family to attend New York University, where he earned a PhD in molecular oncology in 2018; meanwhile, his wife got a psychology degree at Kean University in New Jersey. His research on prostate cancer earned recognition, but Ledet fondly recalled his shadowing days in Baton Rouge and felt called to the clinical, hands-on work of a physician.
“I knew a lot about prostate cancer … but I really didn’t understand how to treat a patient,” he said. “That’s a whole different ballgame.”
Ledet decided to apply for medical school. Just about an hour after his second daughter, Mahlina, was born, Ledet got an email from Tulane University in New Orleans: a full scholarship to medical school. He moved back to his home state and started medical school in 2018.
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I’d be lying if I said any of the events that occurred today were ever a thought as a child. My wife and I shared our 12th anniversary, my childhood best friend drove me to get my white coat, and my family was actually there to witness me obtain a white coat. It’s by no means a small feat to make it this far, considering what it’s taken to get here. Yet, I wouldn’t trade one moment of my past now knowing this day has come and gone. I’m beyond grateful for all the Lord has done, and our future could not be any more hopeful. God, you really showed out. #MyClassIsLIT #CarshopRaisedMe #LakeCharlesNative #NYU2Tulane #TulaneWhiteCoat2022 #mychampionsmyteam #onestepclosertothepeakofthemountain
Over the summer, Ledet started his third-year rotations, after indicating his location preference for Baton Rouge General Medical Center. He was thrilled when he got it.
“It was just about counting down the days until I could walk into the hospital,” Ledet said.
And when he did return, it felt like a homecoming. Ledet lives in Baton Rouge during the week and drives home to the New Orleans area on most weekends.
Although Ledet is at the beginning of his third-year rotations, he is confident he wants to earn a triple board residency: pediatrics, general psychiatry, and child and adolescent psychiatry. He plans to open a clinic in New Orleans offering mental health services for marginalized communities.
And to be a better business owner, Ledet managed to squeeze in one more project: He is working on an MBA while in medical school. Ledet said he wants to be an inspiration for his own children and other young people who may be struggling.
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Fathering, my favorite thing to do. It's the one thing I can promise myself I'll never slack on. I'll spend countless hours finding an even better way to be there for Maleah Ann and Mahlina Abri, also known as Moja and Mbili, respectively. If every career aspiration and initiative I wanted to accomplish failed, the one thing I could always hang my hat on is my desire and willingness to be a PRESENT FATHER. I think it’s easy to highlight my fatherhood and all the glory that comes along with being “Dad.” What takes a bit more introspection is to recognize those who ensure my success as a father. This year I recognize my wife, Mal, as one the reasons I’m a great father. She keeps me in the loop when I get too busy, slows me down when I’m scatterbrained, and encourages me to be a spiritual father first. Most importantly, she lets me know I’m doing a great job at being a father. That means the world to me. Thanks babe for helping me to be the best dad I can be. @blacklove @theblackmancan @blackdad.challenge @blackdoctorsmatter @blackfatherswearehere @blackmalephds @blackenterprise #fathersday #theledettribe #onestepclosertothepeakofthemountain #blackfathers #blacklove #blackfamily #blackexcellence #blackfathersmatter #melanin #blackdads #theblackmancan #blackmothers #blackunity #blackgirlmagic #blackfatherhood #melaninpoppin #blackdadsmatter #dad #blackisbeautiful #father #thedadgang #blackwoman #black #daddy #love #blackmen #blackconsciousness #parenthood #blackdadmagic
“This world isn’t going to hand anything to you; you’ve got to get it,” he said. “Time is a nonrefundable resource.”
Just about 5 percent of American physicians are Black, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. With that in mind, Ledet wants to help other Black people pursue a medical education.
Last year, Ledet took his daughter Maleah, now 9, and a group of 15 Black medical colleagues to Whitney Plantation, a former plantation where enslaved people worked and lived. They took a picture of the group of 15 standing in front of a cabin that housed enslaved people, with everyone wearing the white coats. He did it with the idea of helping young people see images of what they could become.
He posted it on social media and it went viral. He said he got thousands of messages of support from people who found the image very powerful.
After the Whitney visit, Ledet remembers his daughter telling him, “Dad … now I understand why being a Black doctor in America is a big deal. Dad, just think about it: We just left the plantation. When Black people were on plantations, they couldn’t be anything but slaves.”
He started selling T-shirts and photos with the copyrighted image to raise money to give scholarships to Black students. He has raised about $20,000 through The15whitecoats.org.
“Anything that you want to accomplish in life, it’s within your reach,” he said.
Ledet’s background is unusual for students in medical school, and he has been an advocate and inspiration for other Black medical students, said Bennetta Horne, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Tulane’s School of Medicine.
“A lot of students may not have seen a doctor who looks like them,” she said.
As for Ledet, he plans to graduate in May 2022 and then will do a residency; he likes the idea of staying in Louisiana but will go wherever he matches.
“I’m just grateful, man,” he said. “I’m grateful I made it here. I’m grateful that I didn’t give up. I’m grateful that people believed in me.”
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