The environment and condition that one grows up in sometimes has a major impact in their future, however, with life as we know it, the future is what you make it.
Russell Ledet took charge of his life although he did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. No one can see the end at the beginning of their journey, and it is easy to quit when things get tough.
Ledet persevered and with the right support system, he is currently training to be a medical doctor at the same hospital where he was a security man some years back.
Ledet was raised by a single mother and he and his sister sometimes combed through the dumpster for dinner. They lived in a crime-plagued neighbourhood of Lakes Charles, Louisiana and survived on food stamps.
Growing up, the college was not an option on his plate because he did not think he could afford it. At age 18, in need of “a way out,” he enrolled in the United States Navy Ceremonial Guard in Washington, D.C. after High School.
He said, “When it came down to the idea of college, it was never an option. It was like only rich people do that. The only thing I knew how to do to get out of the neighbourhood I was in was to go to the military.”
Russell served a few tours in the Navy and it was in the military that he started aspiring for greater things because he met people that made him realise success is not a far-fetched philosophy.
“I started to realize that the world was more than where I was from,” he said.
He studied to be a military cryptologic technician in Pensacola, Florida where he met his wife.
Ledet left the Navy to start a family with his wife and moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2009, then enrolled in Southern University and A&M College, a historically black college on a full scholarship.
As a family man now, he needed extra income to take care of his family, so he took up the position of a security guard at Baton Rouge General Medical Center.
On his shifts, he would study organic chemistry note cards and bugged the doctors at the hospital for the opportunity to understudy them. However, many of them turned down his offer until one doctor, Dr Patrick Greiffenstein, a surgery resident at the time, allowed Ledet to understudy him without hesitation.
“They’d be like, ‘man you’re a security guard, you can’t ever be a doctor,’ however, in life, sometimes it only takes that one Yes to propel you to greatness.
“Majority of doctors were male and White. In my life growing up, I didn’t meet too many White guys who were nice to me, it’s just a rare thing.
“You gotta think about it, I grew up in the Deep South, a lot of the White guys were mean to me, they’d call me a n***er, or a little boy so it was hard to approach these people to help you,” Ledet said.
In between moving back to Louisiana and starting his family, Ledet went on to get a PhD in Molecular Oncology and Tumour Immunology from New York University. He believes the world is his oyster now.
“It’s like a playground for me now that I understand and realise I can do all of these things. Nobody ever told me it was okay or that I was capable”, he said.
In February 2018, the same day his second daughter was born, Ledet got accepted to Tulane University School of Medicine with a full scholarship.
He is currently two years away from graduating to become a medical doctor with an MBA through a dual program at Tulane University.
Returning to the very hospital at which he served as a security guard as a medical student has been a “surreal” experience. According to him, he is done with surgery rotation and will start his pediatric rotation at Baton Rouge General Medical Center shortly.
“It’s been surreal to go back and work in the same operating room I once escorted Dr Greiffenstein to as a security guard,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put medical students in the crosshairs of the virus and although Ledet is concerned about the safety of his family, he also deems it a privilege to help save lives.
“I say it’s a privilege because I think of any opportunity you are given to care for people, you never take it for granted.
“It’s a bit scary because I have children and a partner to go home to. I signed up for this though, so I’ll do my part with pride and dignity,” Russell said.
This is not the only ‘heroic’ venture for this 34-year-old medical student. Aside from being a U.S. Navy veteran, a family man and a business student, he is a mentor and role model for people in his community and beyond.
“Coming from where I come from, nobody tells you that you can do things in the world, you can make an impact. If nobody tells you, you don’t know. But now that I know I can tell the kids,” he said.
Last December, he and 14 other medical students from Tulane University made headlines with a photograph they took in front of the Whitney Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, a slave quarter, as a way of honouring their ancestors.
The aim of the photo was to inspire future generations to show how far African Americans have come; it immediately went viral after it was shared on social media. Out of that, Ledet formed 15 White Coats for which he serves as president and manager.
Since then, 15 White Coats has given out scholarship money to other deserving medical students.
“Half of the issue is people are in a corner saying, ‘woe is me’ and they aren’t reaching out for any help.
“If you reach out to 10 people, one of them will reach back out to you. Not everybody will, but someone will,” Ledet said.
Ledet further said, “Our big plans are to start a high school in New Orleans and then we want to find a big donor to pay for an entire incoming class of medical students around the country that are from marginalized communities.”
According to BBC, Ledet hopes his success will serve as an inspiration to other young African Americans. He wants to be a “triple border, which is someone who’s board-certified in paediatrics, general psychiatry, and child and adolescent psychiatry.”