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From Fixing Cars To Saving Lives, An MD Mechanic On A Mission

Discussion in 'Doctors Cafe' started by Mahmoud Abudeif, Sep 28, 2019.

  1. Mahmoud Abudeif

    Mahmoud Abudeif Golden Member

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    Every new doctor feels overwhelmed, but few have to field questions from national media outlets while literally just starting their residency.

    At 47 years old, Carl Allamby, MD, realized a dream long deferred. Having spent decades repairing vehicles, he changed course, stepping out from underneath a car's hood onto a medical graduation stage and into the national spotlight. Now an emergency medicine resident at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital, Allamby's journey was first detailed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and was then picked up by social media and news outlets around the world.

    Allamby is adamant that his story serve not only as inspiration but as exposure for key issues that prevent certain groups from representation in the field of medicine. His ambition of becoming a doctor was nearly suffocated by coming of age during the crack epidemic. Now raising his own children, Allamby is as dedicated to his new patients as he is to using his story to motivate the physicians of the future.

    Can you tell me a bit about your journey into medicine?

    As a young person, you have these dreams of becoming something special, these big things that you want to be. But then you get lost in the things that life steers you toward. When I was really young, I wanted to be a doctor. I remember in high school I used to write "Dr Allamby" on papers sometimes. I would get in big trouble by my English teacher, who would say, "Hey, you have no idea what it takes to be a doctor!" But somewhere, I lost that desire.

    I grew up in a really poor neighborhood. Both my parents lived at home, but only my dad worked, and he didn't have a great-paying job. He lost his job as a minister when I was about 5 years old, and we got evicted out of our home. It was right at the height of the crack epidemic that hit East Cleveland and many other underprivileged suburbs pretty hard. Growing up in that environment, there wasn't a lot of opportunity. Just surviving in school was more important than good grades.

    As I progressed through junior high and high school, there weren't many jobs in my neighborhood. I ended up getting a job at a parts store, where a gentleman remembered me helping my dad out. I think I was about 16 when I walked in and asked for a job. He said, "You know, I really don't need the help, but I remember you and your dad working so hard and you being so helpful. I've got to hire you, just to give you a shot."

    From there, people would come in the parts store and say, "Hey, can anybody put these on?" So I would offer my services, and my boss was okay with me fixing the cars in the parking lot at the end of the day after I got off work. Things just grew from there. By the time I was 19, I quit the parts store and just worked on cars full-time and opened up my business.

    So how did you find your way back into wanting to become a doctor?

    I was at a point in my business where it was close to the 20-year mark, and I was just looking for that next new thing. I enrolled back into college in order to get a business degree. Toward the end of that program, I was forced to take this biology course. They had to drag me kicking and screaming. On that first day of biology—very elementary stuff, you know—it sparked my interest. It made me remember, "Wow, this is what I wanted to do from a young age!"

    I remember thinking that medicine was going to be the next big thing for me. I would reinvent myself and go in a different direction. I've always enjoyed helping people. My parents always taught me to do things out of love for doing it, not because it pays a big check. Do it because you want to do it. Medicine was like the ultimate in giving back to humanity. At the stage of life that I'm in, I want to pass on knowledge to that next generation in order to make our world as palliative a place as it can be.

    How did your family respond?

    Oh, my wife was super-supportive. She knew all of the troubles that I had gone through in business. Being a small businessman, you work long hours, you're constantly putting the profit back into the business, and it's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. My wife understood all those struggles. She understood that I wanted to go in a different direction. She grew up in a similar circumstance as I had. She didn't question it at all. She's been my biggest supporter.

    My younger kids weren't even born yet! But my older ones were excited. They were like, "Yeah, Dad, this is great." I remember my daughter cheering, "Daddy's going to be a doctor someday!" It was so far removed that I was like, "Calm down, kid, things may not pan out..."

    There were definitely some challenges for you.

    It was mostly getting over the fear of possibly not being able to support my family financially. I had meager savings for all the years that I worked. There was just that fear of running out of money, running out of support. Because there is nobody else for me to ask for help. There's just no extra money. There's no uncle for me to go ask. If I failed at doing this, the consequences could be huge, as far as still owing school loans, not having a profession, and having to do something to try and get by.

    I actually had a $120,000 scholarship to go into primary care, but I had to give that back after choosing emergency medicine. It turned into a loan instead. So I owe that on top of my student loans.

    Beyond taking on financial challenges in your 40s with a family, you've mentioned that you have found a real lack of representation.

    There's just such underrepresentation when you walk into a hospital. There's not many medical professionals from underprivileged societies, people who came from these harsh environments. For children or young folks, or even adults or older folks who are patients there, they might not understand the opportunities that are available to them.

    My ambition in medicine is to be an example that you can come from a disadvantaged place, a place where there is poor education, and through hard work and ingenuity have opportunities available. I don't like the idea of people giving up on themselves because they just can't see a path to what they dreamed about.

    You look at things that I experienced during the crack epidemic in my neighborhood, where it largely affected people who were poor and underrepresented. There wasn't that much push, that much drive, to stem the effects of that. From a child's point of view, it seemed like there was just a binary choice between locking them up and letting them suffer.

    Then you look at this opioid epidemic that has affected affluent communities and people from all walks of life. There we see a more appropriate response: Money is put toward treatment, and it's not criminalized. We treat people now at the hospital for opioid use and then discharge them. There's no police there.

    When I was growing up, if you had cocaine in your system and you were pregnant, upon delivery, they had laws where they were allowed to take your baby from you because you were seen as an unfit parent. That's been turned around because of awareness. Only people from underprivileged communities can express these problems.

    When we see these things going on, when we see these inequalities, when we see people suffering needlessly because there is disinvestment among the community, we can alert people to that. Not that we can change everything, but at least we have the knowledge to put forth to say, "Hey, this isn't right." Health has much more to do with factors other than how fast you make it to a hospital. It has so much more to do with where you live, the resources that are available to you, and the environment that you grow up in.

    I've seen you talking in various interviews about how your background as a car mechanic has helped you communicate with patients, but it sounds like your community and upbringing in general have had a major influence.

    It definitely gives me empathy. I remember when I was volunteering in a local Cleveland hospital, there was a young mother. She was homeless. She had three young children with her. They were trying to find a place for her to go that night. It was like midnight, and one of these kids was balled up in a chair. The kid was the same age as my youngest at the time. They were just trying to stay warm. You can see the look of fear on these kids' faces, and you wonder what kind of life these kids are going to have. But then also I wonder, what kind of life has this mother had to have her children in this situation? I mean, her life had to have been equally bad.

    For me, just having that empathy...I'm going to go to bat for everybody I deal with. Whether they come from affluent society, whether they are down and out, or whether they have some kind of addictive problem. I'm going to go to bat for them as often as I can. Because those people need to have a voice as well. That's just one of the things that I feel like my upbringing in an underprivileged society gives me: knowledge of the things that happen in the inner city. It's not that you're a bad person. Everybody has the capacity to be something.

    Has your experience as a mechanic come into play during your medical education?

    Definitely! When you talk about organic chemistry and combustion and the moving of electrons, all of those things are fundamentals of the automotive field. If you understand electrons and the way that those work, the way that different atoms or different metals can share electrons or how they're distributed, that's a lot of the principles of electricity. It's the same way that the cardiac system works.

    It helped picturing different things in the car being different parts of the body. You have computer systems, wiring, and sensors. I mean, it's the same thing: We have sensors in our body that send information to our brain. Then our brain makes decisions as to what to do with that information. Then it has outputs that drive the motor or the mechanics of your body. All of that is what I have done my whole life.

    Other than overwhelmed by everyone's interest, how are you feeling about this major change in your life?

    I am enjoying my new career. Look, I know I come from a different place. Our first day of residency, our residency director asked everybody who has worked before to raise their hand. Only about half of my group raised their hands. For a lot of people, this is their first job with a lot of responsibility. That's a lot to ask of people: to be in charge of others' lives. And a lot of them have not had the experiences of true adulthood and true responsibility yet.

    But for me? I have done so much. Raising a family and running a business, I am used to juggling a lot. But I still try to find time to make myself sane. I just finished working out for the past hour and 15 minutes, and after we finish here I'm going to go for a 5-mile run! Hopefully I make it...

    I feel like I'm managing it pretty well right now, but I'm just in my second month. We'll see how that turns out, but I'm optimistic. I am going to work hard every day to make a difference in my patients' lives. I work with so many people at the Cleveland Clinic who do the same thing. Everybody who I've come across has really put their patients first. I'm just glad to be part of a team that puts humanity before paychecks and before wealth.

    There's so much I'd love to add about my childhood and everything, but people are going to have to wait for the book for that! Seriously, there is probably a book in my future, and a few places have contacted me from Hollywood too who want the rights to my story, but I'm not doing anything like that right now.

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