Dr. LaMenta “Sweetie” Conway, during an April 7 event in Oak Park hosted by her nonprofit, the I Am Abel Foundation, which seeks to pair aspiring medical doctors with real life ones. | William Camargo/Wednesday Journal
Monday, April 11, 2016 || By Michael Romain
Dr. LaMenta Conway, the first lady of Neighborhood United Methodist Church in Maywood, has been a physician specializing in internal and pediatric medicine for more than 17 years, but there was nothing inevitable about the path she’s currently on.
She enrolled in Rush Medical College when she was 31 years old. At the time, she had three children — all of them under 3 years old. She had the ambition and the desire, but circumstances were forcing her to abandon her dreams.
“As a mother of really young children and a wife, medical school would be an incredible undertaking,” Conway has noted. “I wasn’t sure if it could be done. Who goes to medical school with three babies under three years old? In my moment of doubt, my mother said, ‘You do … that’s who does it!’”
“It took her three times to get into medical school,” said Conway’s husband, Rev. Jacques Conway. “She was the oldest student in her class. It took her so long to become a doctor, because she never knew the path to get into medical school. Now, she’s saying, ‘Because there’s a path I went through, I’m going to recruit doctors to meet students who have an interest in medicine.’ It’s all about paying it forward.”
The Conways hosted more than two dozen practicing medical doctors at Cheney Mansion in Oak Park on April 7 for a ceremony to mark the inaugural class of mentees to participate in Dr. Conway’s new nonprofit, the I Am Abel Foundation.
Dr. Conway, who practices at Elmhurst Hospital and teaches at Loyola Medical School and Hines Veterans Administration, selected around 25 minority high school and college students from the city and suburbs (two were from Proviso West High School) to participate in the rigorous program.
Each student was paired with a practicing doctor. Most of the doctors specialize in fields the students are seeking to break into. In addition to being paired with mentors, the students will go through an extensive regimen of premedical school training.
Although the overwhelming majority of I Am Abel participants are female, among the several male participants there was something of a rarity — twin African American males with elite educations and concrete plans.
Rashad and Sharad Crosby both attend the University of Chicago and both aspire to become doctors.
“I think one of the most important things about mentorship is just being able to guide these young people and help them understand what’s facing them,” said Dr. Khalilah Gates, Sharad’s mentor. “If you know what you’re walking into it’s easier to tackle it. And if you have somebody cheering for you while you’re going through it, that makes you all the more successful and it makes the path a lot easier.”
Dora and Larry Clay, of Broadview, know firsthand how important mentors like Dr. Conway (who they call “Sweetie,” her nickname) are to the medical school experience. Their daughter, Jessica Clay, 27, is in medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Whenever a problem arises she calls Sweetie and she’ll be able to talk her through it and help her through whatever problems she’s encountering,” said Larry.
“Just recently, Jessica called Sweetie and they talked for about two days in a row. My daughter wasn’t thinking things were going right and Sweetie told her, ‘It’s never going to be easy. Not in this profession.’ She’s been a godsend to our daughter.”
The point, the dozens of doctors who attended the April 7 ceremony noted, is to create templates for success that may be lacking for many minority students with serious ambitions of breaking into the medical field — students like Temi Ojo.
Ojo has wanted to be a doctor since she was in grade school. Her mother, perhaps sensing her daughter’s potential, pushed her through the prestigious St. Ignatius College Prep, often making her do extra loads of homework “to keep my mind sharp,” Ojo recalled. Then it was on to Hamilton College in New York — simply a weigh station, in Ojo’s mind, before inevitably enrolling into medical school.
While at Hamilton, however, Ojo had to juggle her coursework with the demands of a job. Her grades slipped. Her first meeting with a premed counselor, she hoped, would be just the kind of corrective she needed to get back on track.
“Up until this point I never had anybody tell me the ins and outs of applying to medical school,” she said. “I just knew I wanted to go there.”
Oho said she expected her counselor to “tell me all the things I needed to know to go on to medical school.” When she walked into the office and “before I could even sit down,” Ojo recalled, “She says, ‘I don’t think you can apply to medical school and don’t think that because you’re African American you’re going to get into med school.’
“She said, ‘Your grades aren’t that great.’ But when I asked her how I can improve, she was like, ‘At best, you can be a nurse or physician’s assistant.’ There’s nothing wrong with those professions, but they weren’t my passion. For a week straight I felt very, very defeated. I didn’t know what to do.”
Ojo said she ignored her counselor’s advice and channeled her mother, slogging her way through the rest of her college coursework and a mind-numbing regimen of postgraduate classes before applying to one medical school, where she earned acceptance — but only on the condition that she receive a certain percentage in a particular course. She missed the mark by around two percentage points — her dreams of getting into medical school temporarily dashed.
But then she met Conway, who introduced her to two other prominent African American physicians in Chicago — Dr. John Bradley and Dr. Fred G. Richardson. The two men have become legendary for mentoring many of the city’s black doctors.
““Dr. Conway told me her story and gave me the motivation to keep moving and from there I met Dr. Bradley and the first thing he said to me was, ‘You’re going to be a doctor, don’t worry.’ Then I met Dr. Richardson, and he told me you’re going to have to be the best, because nobody’s going to give you anything.’ From there, they put me into a pre-matriculation program,” she said.
Now, Ojo is finishing up her first year of medical school. VFP