Eric Lucas Jr., center, shows students how to use an ultrasound during the Black Men in Health Care Empowerment Summit at University of Mississippi Medical Center on Saturday, June 10, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Brielan Terrell sat a few rows behind the other boys in the auditorium at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. 

The 18-year-old leaned forward, listening intently, as Eric Lucas Jr., a fourth-year medical student, demonstrated how to perform an ultrasound. As Lucas slid the probe across a medical manikin’s chest, he peppered his audience, about 35 young Black men clad in sports coats and bowties, with questions. 

“Can anyone tell me what a stable blood pressure is?” he asked. 

Terrell raised his hand and answered correctly: “120 over 80.”

Lucas beamed. This was exactly what he imagined three years ago when he came up with the idea for the Black Men in Health Care Empowerment Summit.

The one-day summer program saw its third cohort on Saturday, as over 100 middle and high school students from all over the state visited UMMC for tours and clinical simulations. Aimed at encouraging young Black men to pursue health care careers, Lucas pitched his idea during his first year at UMMC.

“That’s how I was raised,” he said. “When you walk through the door, you should help someone to walk in.”

Lucas, a graduate of Mississippi State University and native of Ocean Springs, always had a career in health care in his sights.

He remembers getting a microscope kit for a gift when he was 4. 

“Science has always kind of been my thing,” Lucas admitted. 

Brielan Terrell, center, and Clayton Neely participate in a dentistry exercise during the Black Men in Health Care Empowerment Summit at University of Mississippi Medical Center on Saturday, June 10, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Growing up with a dentist for a mom and a critical care intensivist for a dad, Lucas always knew being a physician was a real career option. But he also knows that’s not the case for many Black kids in Mississippi, including some of his medical school classmates. 

“One day, we were all hanging out, and I was like, ‘Man, how cool would it have been if we had a summer camp that brought us through all the medical schools and just getting exposed to what it takes?’” Lucas recounted.

“If you don’t see it, you’re not going to believe it.”

And so the summit was born. 

In Mississippi, a state with one of the worst health outcomes for people of color in the country, getting more young Black people involved in health care could make all the difference.

That’s why Dr. Demondes Haynes jumped at the opportunity to make Lucas’ dream a reality at UMMC.

“Just to let students know that a career in health care is an option,” he said. “Not that everybody that’s here today will become a doctor or dentist or a nurse, but we want them to know that it is an option.”

Students attend the Black Men in Health Care Empowerment Summit at University of Mississippi Medical Center on Saturday, June 10, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Haynes, associate dean for admissions at UMMC, said the only demographic group that had a decrease in students applying and being admitted to medical school in the past 40 years were Black men. 

Less than 6% of doctors in the United States identify as Black or African American, though Black people make up about 12% of the population. 

Though it’s been shown that, when Black patients are treated by Black doctors, they’re happier with their health care and are more likely to get the preventative care they need, one recent study linked the prevalence of Black doctors to longer life expectancy among Black populations for the first time. 

Black men have the shortest life expectancy in the country. The potential power of increasing the number of Black men in the health care field is clear. 

“We, as a medical center, want to improve the lives of Mississippians overall,” Haynes said. “This is important because we want to invest in students to contribute to Mississippi. So our hope is that some of these will enter the healthcare field and hopefully stay in Mississippi and improve life in Mississippi for all citizens.”

Throughout the morning, Black medical students and doctors led summit participants — including Terrell — through tours, panels and lectures.

As one of the oldest students in attendance, Terrell lagged behind to talk to medical professionals and raised his hand often. The incoming freshman at the University of Southern Mississippi had a lot on his mind.

During downtime of the ultrasound session, Terrell started chatting with Jaharah Muhammad, a third-year medical student, about his interest in pharmacy.

“Are you going to stay in Mississippi?” she asked.

He answered indecisively. 

Later, moments before the students filed out of the auditorium and the next group of medical students and doctors would try to open their eyes to the possibilities of a career in health care, Muhammad shared some parting words. 

“Consider staying here,” she said. “If you want more people who look like y’all in health care, this is where it starts.”

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Devna Bose, a Neshoba County native, covers community health. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied print journalism and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Devna reported on education at Chalkbeat Newark and at the Post and Courier’s Education Lab, and on race and social justice at the Charlotte Observer. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Star-Ledger and the Associated Press, and she has appeared on WNYC to discuss her reporting. Devna has been awarded for her coverage of K-12 education in the Carolinas.