OAKLAND -- Last Saturday night was Castlemont High School senior Jazmin Stenson's night.
The 16-year-old 4.0 student, cheerleader, newspaper editor and co-student body president wants to be a neurologist. Dozens of Bay Area African-American medical professionals involved in the Sinkler Miller Medical Association, including doctors and nurses, gave her a lift at their 30th Annual Scholarship Dinner and Dance at the Oakland Marriott so she can pursue that goal.
"This is a huge honor and the start of my career as a doctor," the scholarship winner Stenson said at the dinner table as she waited for Oakland's own Tony! Toni! Toné! to get the dancing started.
Sinkler Miller Medical Association is an organization of health professionals in Alameda and Contra Costa counties who are mostly African-American and who strive to improve the quality of health care in the Bay Area, advance the art and science of medicine and maintain a high standard of medical ethics. The association formed in 1969 and there are 300 members in the organization today. Sinkler Miller is a branch of the National Medical Association and it supports mock medical clinics for the Physicians Medical Forum's Doctors on Board Program every March. That program teaches mostly minority high school through college students what it's like to be in the medical profession and gets them excited about a career in medicine.
"For someone to be successful you have to start them early," Sinkler Miller President Katrina Peters said. Peters works at UC San Francisco and is a professor of psychology at the school. "Hopefully, we can help young people start a medical career. It's really about supporting the goals of African-American students."
Montclair resident Dr. Michael Charles, an orthopedic surgeon who now works as a medical judge and decides the true extent of a disability, said there are a lot of reasons why people get better from their illnesses. It could be the technology that's used in the operating room. It could be the medicines. It could also be, he says, the doctor that the patient relates to.
"If people are leery about their doctor, no matter how good their surgeon is, he may not be able to make them feel better," Charles said. "When you're in the throes of pain, it might be important to look up and see a face that looks like your mother's, your brother's, your sister's."
Charles is the past president of Sinkler Miller and the originator of Physicians Medical Forum. He's from San Francisco and studied at Rutgers University. When he graduated, he was recruited to work at Herrick Hospital when it was the major trauma center of the East Bay. He was attracted to the East Bay because of Sinkler Miller's mission to advance black medical professionals in the field.
"I tell (young doctors) it's not about making a million bucks," he said. "It's about making people heal. The whole room doesn't light up but those two who say 'that's what I want to do' are the ones who are going to be successful."
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and Oakland Raiders orthopedic surgeon Warren Strudwick Jr. were the night's hosts, playfully ribbing President Barack Obama about the failures of the Affordable Care Act website. Lee said African-Americans in the East Bay provide important services to patients of all nationalities, especially in low-income areas.
"African-Americans in this community have provided badly needed health care services when it was otherwise unavailable," she said.
Dr. Anthony Jones, who has a family practice on Pill Hill in Oakland and who lives in Redwood Heights, volunteered to lead a workshop of about 30 students at the Doctors on Board program last year, teaching them how to do a physical exam including measuring heart rates and blood pressure and listening to the lungs.
Jones said that as a physician of color who went to medical school at the University of Washington, some of his earliest positive impressions from the black medical community helped guide him into the medical field.
"There were definitely mentors early in my career that were encouraging and supportive of my efforts," he said. "Having a positive, early contact with role models can really define someone's future career."