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Former security guard realizes his dream of graduating from medical school

Dr. Russell Ledet simultaneously earned his MBA from Tulane University
Published: May. 24, 2022 at 10:10 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - On a balmy Saturday morning, Tulane University’s unified commencement ceremony unfolded. And among the graduates was a man whose journey is steeped in resilience and determination.

That day Russell Ledet, Ph.D., added M.D. and MBA to his academic achievements after a unique journey. He was chosen to give the student commencement address and his oration prompted a standing ovation.

“There’s something so powerful with looking yourself in the soul, like dead in the soul and telling you, that you are proud of you,” said Ledet to his fellow graduates.

The fabric of Ledet’s resolve was woven far from the uptown campus.

“It was as tough as you can imagine. My mama was fighting tooth and claw to, you know, keep the lights on for my sister and, I. She did the best she could, you know, my mama was a certified nurse’s aide, and for the most part, she made minimum wage. There were nights when the lights were off and we were lighting candles,” said Ledet.

Ledet grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana and at times his childhood proved even harder than being in a home without electricity.

“Using water from the neighbors’ water hose to take baths at night, digging in dumpsters behind Sam’s Club for DiGiorno’s pizzas and not yet rotten fruit,” said Ledet.

When he graduated from high school, he had no vision of matriculating into college.

“My mom didn’t even know how to apply for the FAFSA, so that’s why I went to the military. She was like this is what you need to do, or you can go get a job; those are the only two options we have,” Ledet stated.

So, in 2004, the U.S. Navy became his job.

But life has a way of offering second chances. And Ledet was a recipient.

“After I finished my first five years of active duty then I went to Southern University in Baton Rouge while I was still on reserves for the United States Navy,” said Ledet.

He said a candid conversation he had with his wife, Mallory, paved the way.

“I was in the United States Navy at the time. I remember making this comment to my wife, I thought only rich people go to college. She was like nah, you can go to college, too. So, she actually helped me to apply to Southern University,” said Ledet.

But enrollment in college did not erase his familial responsibilities. So Ledet took a job at Baton Rouge General Medical Center as a security guard job.

“That security guard job was the first job that was offered to me, I was fresh off of active duty and I needed to make money for my family, so I took it. I had gone to Southern University with the intention of becoming a social worker,” said Ledet.

It was a job that altered his path.

“While I was a security guard, you know, I started to become inspired and I wanted to become a physician and so obviously I started asking as many physicians as I could, could I shadow you, could I shadow you? And a lot of them told me like, security guards don’t become doctors,” said Ledet.

But one doctor honored Ledet’s request.

Dr. Patrick Greiffenstein, now an LSU Health trauma surgeon at University Medical Center in New Orleans, recalls his encounter with Ledet.

“I was the chief resident on the surgical service there and it was late one night, I was leaving the hospital probably close to midnight and everybody was gone and I was on my way out to the car and he walked up and introduced himself and offered to walk me to my car and I said, sure and we were just sort of, you know, small-talking and then he asked me what I did and I said I was a surgeon and his eyes lit up and he said, he asked me if he could shadow me and that he wanted to go to medical school and I said, sure and I gave him my cellphone number,” said Greiffenstein.

Ledet was elated.

“And it blew my mind because, you know, of course, you hear so many no’s you can’t believe you’re hearing your yes and he was like yeah, why not? And just the next day, I stayed at the hospital overnight in the library so I wouldn’t miss him the next morning when he came to the hospital,” said Ledet.

Greiffenstein says he did what was necessary to have Ledet follow him as he did surgeries and cared for patients.

“We got the paperwork filed so that he could come in and officially witness the operations and follow us in the patient care rooms and he was just fascinated,” said Greiffenstein.

Ledet said of the access he was granted, “And it really changed my life.”

Greiffenstein says Ledet was dedicated from the start.

“His desire to learn and he read on his own and he looked up things, so it seemed obvious that this was real for him,” said Greiffenstein. “Most prospective students, you know, when they shadow a physician they, you know, go once or twice. Russell, like every opportunity he had, you know, he would stay late and then go into his shift the next morning or do a shift and come join us in the morning.”

Fox 8 asked Greiffenstein what led him to say yes when Ledet asked to shadow him.

“First of all, if you’ve met him, he’s a disarming guy, he’s incredibly charming, just very, very easygoing. But beyond that it just didn’t occur to me that there would be any restrictions on his desire to look at a medical career,” said Greiffenstein.

Ledet went on to graduate from Southern University with a double major: chemistry and biology. He had earlier switched his major from social work.

But a bachelor’s degree would not be the end of Ledet’s academic pursuits.

He attended graduate school and succeeded there, too.

“I earned my Ph.D. in molecular oncology and tumor immunology from NYU School of Medicine in New York City. I was there from 2013 to 2018,” said Ledet.

Dr. Russell Ledet overcame obstacles to not only pursue higher education but to realize his...
Dr. Russell Ledet overcame obstacles to not only pursue higher education but to realize his dream of becoming a medical doctor.(Source: WVUE)

Still, he wanted to be a medical doctor.

Greiffenstein read from the letter of recommendation he wrote on Ledet’s behalf.

“To whom it may concern. I would like to offer my support and recommendation for Russel J. Ledet as a candidate for medical school,” read Greiffenstein.

And in 2018, at the age of 32, Ledet entered Tulane’s School of Medicine with a wife and two young daughters.

And he would come full circle when as a medical student he did rotations at Baton Rouge General, the same place where he had previously worked as a security guard.

Greiffenstein was asked how he feels knowing that he played a role in putting Ledet on the path of medicine.

“Well, you know, I think that it’s, I’m incredibly fortunate, I feel very, very grateful that I got a chance to be a part of his process. Really I’m little bit surprised that I’m given as much credit, you know, the guy is relentless, his enthusiasm for the work, his just incredible work ethic, I mean all of these things, not to mention his natural talent have gotten him where he is. I really opened the door a crack, I didn’t do a whole lot, it was really nothing to give him time and a little bit of space,” said Greiffenstein.

On the day of his FOX 8 interview, Ledet walked down a long hallway on the first floor of Tulane’s medical school.

“So, this is the History Hall, these are all of the giants before me, all of the people who became physicians at Tulane University School of Medicine,” he said.

Medical school is challenging. Ledet was asked if he had ever considered giving up.

“Yeah, I’ve had a bunch of moments where I wanted to give up, but I can look to the commitment my wife has had to my career, the fact that my children’s life is in the balance,” said Ledet.

Blacks make up 5% of practicing physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

In December 2019, Ledet organized a photoshoot at the Whitney Plantation upriver from New Orleans where African Americans had been enslaved. He, along with 14 other black medical students stood in front of slave quarters in their white coats.

“Medical school is extremely tough, it’s extremely tumultuous and sometimes you need a moment to remind yourself why you’re doing this and just how far you’ve come, how much of a privilege it is to be in medical school looking the way we do and being who we are and we took those photos and they went absolutely viral,” said Ledet.

Ledet says it was a conversation he had with his daughter Maleah after they visited the plantation with one of his friends who was visiting from out-of-town that served as the inspiration for the photo: The 15 White Coats.

“She said, well, just think about it, we just left a slave plantation and there was a time when people who look like you and Uncle Phil wouldn’t be able to be doctors and now I’m riding in a car with two of them, so we’ve come a very long way. And obviously, blown away because an 8-year-old is telling me this,” said Ledet.

From that discussion, the idea for the photos was birthed, says Ledet.

“I turned to Phillip and told him, hey man, I have an idea. I think I should get together some of my classmates and we should go take a photo at that Whitney Plantation and show the world how far we’ve come, and I called some of my close friends and they all thought it was a good idea. So, December 2019 we went there, we experienced the plantation and then we took those photos. And while a part of it was for the world, a part of it was for us,” said Ledet.

He was asked why he did not give up on shadowing a doctor after being rejected by some physicians.

“Yeah, I always think to myself I can’t let your no be my no,” said Ledet.

His perspective was published in the Journal Nature Genetics.

“I think the core message is that there is a story to be told about being a black man and traversing medicine and science,” said Ledet.

In March on national Match Day, Ledet and his fellow graduating medical students learned where they will do their residency training.

“I’m headed to Indiana University’s triple board program where I’ll be a pediatrician, adult psychiatrist, and child and adolescent psychiatrist,” said Ledet.

Greiffenstein had hoped Ledet might follow in his footsteps and become a surgeon.

“We really worked on him hard. I thought I almost convinced him, and I thought he was interested enough in vascular surgery that he might pursue it. He almost, he almost went that route,” said Greiffenstein.”

But Ledet is bent on improving mental health in marginalized communities.

“Obviously, children and their mental health is something that is very paramount to my life. I’m raising two young daughters and I really think about what they’re thinking about and so I want to make sure that I can put a dent in mental health for children,” said Ledet.

And following his speech to all of Tulane’s graduates at the commencement ceremony, during a separate medical school ceremony, Ledet received his medical degree and an MBA.

“It means my children’s future is solidified, it means that all of my dreams have come true,” Ledet said in advance of the ceremony.

He was asked what the secret to his perseverance is.

“You got to pray a lot. I’ve prayed a lot, I’ve surrounded myself with some prayerful people, some willing people to devote to my future and I’ve just said to myself, I’m going to give myself a chance,” said Ledet.

And once he is done with the triple-board residency program in Indiana Ledet says he will return to Louisiana.

“I’m coming home, staying home. I want to make an impact here in New Orleans,” said Ledet.

After the photos of Ledet and some of his medical school classmates went viral, Ledet co-founded the non-profit, The 15 White Coats which mentors students and encourages more blacks to pursue medicine.

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