Prince George’s County, just east of the Maryland line from Washington, D.C., has a reputation for a sizable population of wealthy African-Americans. For physician and author Damon Tweedy, though, that isn’t the whole truth – at least not for the part of the county where he was raised. The farther from D.C. you get, he says, the wealthier the population – the closer, the poorer. Tweedy grew up somewhere on the D.C. side of the middle.
“Very few of the people in my neighborhood went to college – particularly men – unless they were athletes,” Tweedy recalls. “There were more who went down the path of legal troubles and all those sorts of things than the path of education.”
When Tweedy ended up at Duke University Medical School in the late 1990s, this was the background he brought with him. Many of the other students had grown up in comfortable households, the children of doctors themselves, while he hailed from a working-class D.C. suburb, raised by parents who didn’t go to college. He’d always been academically oriented – even nerdy, he says – but it was still hard not to feel like an outsider. In his childhood neighborhood and in the media of the time, there were precious few examples of black men who found success without going through sports.
Tweedy’s new book, a meditation on race and medicine, “Black Man in a White Coat,” is also his memoir of those years. While he soberly explores the cultural causes of (and potential diet and lifestyle treatments for) diseases that disproportionately impact black patients, he also presents occasions when the doctor-patient relationship transcended race. Today he’s a staff physician at the Durham VA Medical Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the very medical school where nearly two decades ago he felt like an outsider.
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There’s a tacit message in the book, then, one to kids growing up like Tweedy did: You can do this too.
“I’m not really the kind of person who likes putting myself out there, but I think there needs to be examples of people doing things a different way and succeeding,” Tweedy says. “It’s not just about me.”
As a kid, Tweedy had the positive example of his big brother, who went to college for academia’s sake.
Tweedy isn’t anti-athletics – he exercises regularly, likes sports and plays basketball – but says it’s needlessly limiting to view sports as the only path to success. In the environment he grew up in he didn’t know what else to do until he took a placement test at a teacher’s suggestion and landed in a science and technology magnet program.
“The general (school) population was maybe 80 percent black, but within the magnet program we’re talking 5 percent, 10 percent – the rest were white or Asian,” he recalls. “That was my first exposure to that. It was really a different world.”
Tweedy was surrounded by students with aspirations in science and medical fields. By his junior or senior year of high school, this appealed to him as well.
“It all came to fruition when I tested into that magnet program,” he says.
Now, as a faculty member at Duke, he’s the first alumnus teaching his particular course, an introduction to medicine class centered on doctor-patient communication. At 41, he’s young enough to relate to the students, but has been out long enough to reflect on how much has changed at the university since the late ’90s. He supervises young doctors who are training to go into psychiatry, and he practices medicine at the VA Hospital. That’s particularly special to Tweedy, as his family has a legacy of military service: His dad served, one uncle fought in Korea and two others in World War II, and his grandfather was in World War I.
And he writes. He’s a physician first, he says, but he likes to write and sees himself doing more of it. “With this book, clearly the focus was on race, and how race and medicine intersect,” Tweedy says. “I’d like to write more about psychiatry that’s my specialty. Once the dust settles with this particular project, I’d like to start diving into that.”
Meet the author
Dr. Damon Tweedy reads from his memoir, “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine,” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3522 Wade Ave., in Ridgewood Shopping Center in Raleigh; and 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6, at The Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., in Durham.