I: What was it like coming to Denver as an immigrant doctor?
Coming to Colorado from the New York, I was impressed by everyone’s friendly behavior and attitude to me and my family. This was important for an immigrant like me for in the end, places are just that – places. It is the people in those places that make a difference – friendly and welcoming or unfriendly and unwelcoming. I spent a year at The Children’s Hospital, training in Thoracic surgery aiming to return to Kenya to offer my surgical services to my countrymen. When it became clear that that was not possible, I was forced to do the next best thing to support my family – I went into private practice in Denver. I was qualified, I was young and energetic.
Denver gave me a place to settle down in and raise a family. I was one of four Black surgeons, and we helped each other, joining the unsung struggles of professional minorities that’s common across White America. It is a struggle more intense in the medical profession that has for several centuries been as a “Whites only” preserve.” But I was warned that it was going to be hard building a practice. “They’ll try and kill you,” a gentleman who was urging me to pack my bags and go elsewhere said. It is true, the competition was fierce; the turf war brutal and intense. But I was determined to make it work. You couldn’t come from where I grew up in Africa, with the poverty that was our birthright and wilt like a rose just because of a little competition.
I have been friends with a number of African Americans but must admit I am too much of an African. Some habits and behaviors from our birthplace never really change. Such is the burden of the traveler and the immigrant. As a Black physician colleague once told me: “You’re just not sophisticated Pius. You’re too much like an African.” There is an aggressiveness and razor edge sharpness to the American character that the African mind can’t quite countenance or develop. I think it’s an attitude and psychological posture American Blacks have had to adopt to survive in this White man’s land. The characteristics and personal qualities that served me well living among lions and elephants in Kenya need supplementing to deal with the American street.
All in all, in addition to the foregoing, it has been an excellent adventure; I still wear the skin I wore when I left the tropics. It’s rather worn and loose – time does that to all of us. But I am very proud of it. I have succeeded in thwarting my competitors’ aim to reject and drive me out of Denver. With my dogged demeanor, I have improvised and survived. I actually have come to enjoy and cherish the fight – remnant of the fighting spirit I developed in the African bush. I feel it has made me into a tougher man. It certainly has stimulated many ideas which I use in my writing – my second and last career.
II: Are we seeing more representation in the ranks of physicians here in Colorado?
Sadly not. It has taken many years for the “medical establishment” to understand that training and accommodating more minority physicians into the rolls of the profession is as important as it is treating “colored” people fairly. In the three and half decades I have been in Denver and Colorado, the thought and idea of diversity in the medical field has remained just that – an idea. Blacks and Hispanics make up 31% of the US population, and less than 13% physicians of color in the US. This is inadequate and needs correcting. The recent Covid pandemic clearly showed the deleterious significance of such a deficit. In some locales, up to 60% of those dying were minorities – much of it an indication of the lack of pre-pandemic medical care resulting from the lack of healthcare for minority patients who suffered from diabetes, hypertension, obesity, COPD, etc. They all were factors contributing to the high mortality. The Covid pandemic was sadly more of a minority killer than any other group’s. Tiny steps are being taken to increase medical school enrollment of Black and Hispanic students. They are tiny and also inadequate. Numbers at CU Med school of different minority groups are: about 4% Black, 6% Hispanic and less that less than 1% Native Americans.
III: What do you think we need so that we have more BIPOC doctors?
The quality of K-12 minority education must improve if high school graduates are to succeed in STEM education at the college level. For too long the Black High school to Prison pipeline has become a durable, strong structure to break. The failure at the K-12 level is multifactorial and includes: poor schools; disruptive, chaotic, violent neighborhoods; poor discipline and school teachers who are not particularly strong in maths and science pedagogy. A majority of the American population that says, “they are bad in maths” referring to Black and Hispanic students; parents who are themselves math illiterate or maybe infect their children with the disease of “I hate math,” or “I am no good at math.” The weight of 400 years history of “you just can’t do it,” all weigh heavily on many Black children.
The solution is a societal transformation; parents who transmit an attitude of “you can do it.” The public at large should be re-educated to become a can do organism. To minority kids, Colleges and universities have for decades appeared like inaccessible castles surrounded by tall gates. These institutions should come to the street, village level so that poor students see they too can become engineers, doctors and mathematicians. Just because someone is poor doesn’t make them dumb and talentless. It is the talented poor that we should seek: to promote, support and encourage to be the best they can be. God knows they are out there in large numbers – on the street, in jails, in failing schools; potential doctors, engineers and mathematicians. Their rescue and salvation is our nation’s obligation.
In short, we need to get young kids and older students enthused in the wonder of science and the truly simple language of mathematics. We should start at the kindergarten level teaching this language that’s no different from others and which, once mastered becomes a truly pleasurable experience. To savor and appreciate the nuance of its vocabulary, syntax and sentence structure is the key to open the educational door that all of us have passed through on our way to many professions and careers. And one of the professions is medicine.
IV: What are you trying to do to make that happen?
Cognizant of the paucity of minority physicians I have become an advocate of medical and STEM education. At first I believed getting universities and colleges (Institutions of Higher Education – HEIs) involved with students at high school level was ideal. Colleges know how to teach to entrance exams (SATs and ACTs) and therefore can teach our students what it takes to go to college. The infrastructure is there; all we need do is bring schools, students and colleges together. Or so I thought. I was disappointed as I approached many in HEIs. In fact some asked me: why are you doing this? What qualifies you to do this?
I now have a group of highly motivated individuals going into the community and working at the community level. With an eye to strengthening the STEM education of students, in consort with the Boys and Girls Clubs, a number of engineering groups and other businesses, that B&G Clubs deal with, we are planning to teach students how to take SATs and ACTs as part of such an intervention. Once that is in place in Colorado, we plan to slowly engage other entities across America. Clearly, we must begin small and grow as time and resources permit.
V: What do you like about living in the Denver area?
A place is its people and I have made many “friends” in four decades here. With the many universities and colleges, Denver has an academically stimulating atmosphere which I love. The literary milieu is fabulous. Over the years I have belonged to various groups including Fiction Writers’ group and others. I love the Theater scene a lot as well as other entertainment aspects of the city. Over the years I have been lucky to write for several newspapers and have been on Radio and TV. One of the most satisfying feelings in our lives is when other people appreciate something of value in us. I am now retired from the practice of medicine; the time I have at hand allows me to write and think. I just finished writing two books – a memoir and a novel and am hard at work on a new novel. They are all possible because Denver’s atmosphere is conducive to creativity.