Your Story Matters: Dr. David Malebranche, MD, MPH

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Dr. David Malebranche was born in a mid-sized upstate New York town called Schenectady. The son of a Haitian father who came to the United States in the early 1960s, and a 2nd generation Ukrainian mother who hailed from Granville, New York, he attended Catholic grade schools and high schools in Schenectady with his sister, Michelle. After completion of his secondary education, Dr. Malebranche attended Princeton University from 1986-1990 and earned his Bachelors of Arts in English and Pre-Med studies. In 1991, Dr. Malebranche matriculated into Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, and transferred to Emory University’s School of Medicine in 1994, completing his Doctorate of Medicine degree at Emory University in 1996. His residency training was in Internal Medicine at New York Hospital – Cornell campus in New York from 1996-1999. To complement his graduate medical education, he also partook in a Preventive Medicine Residency at the New York City Department of Health from 1999-2001, which included receiving a Masters in Public Health from Columbia University in Sociomedical Sciences.

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Dr. Malebranche was employed as faculty at Emory University’s Department of General Medicine from 2001-2012, and eventually promoted to Associate Professor before leaving that position to work at the University of Pennsylvania’s Student Health Center in Philadelphia, PA, from 2012-2015 as a Primary Care Physician. He currently work with WellStar Health Services, and serve as the Infirmary physician at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center in Marietta, GA.

Co-Chair of the Publications Committee – Jonathan R. Batson:

Dr. David Malebranche, thank you for joining me to answer questions about your career path and journey in medicine for our premedical and medical students as a part of the Journal of the Student National Medical Association’s Your Story Matters interview series focused on the state of black males in medical education!

1. What inspired you to pursue a career in medicine as a physician? 

My father initially. He is a retired general surgeon who practiced for some 30+ years, and had an incredible bedside manner to complement his clinical skills. He used to take me to the hospital with him and seeing him and how he interacted with other staff and his patients was such an inspiration. My interest in racial disparities and HIV work stems from seeing a lot of HIV during the mid-90s in Atlanta and New York, and seeing how poorly staff treated patients. I knew I could do a better job than they were doing.

2. What challenges did you face as an undergraduate student? Was there ever a time when you felt discouraged or someone discouraged you from being a doctor? How did you handle that? 

I had poor study habits as an undergrad, and I was distracted easily. It was my first time out of the house, out of Schenectady, and I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to do everything. Princeton had a tight-knit Black community, but we all experienced a lot of racism, especially from the Department of Public Safety – constantly asked to show ID just for being Black on campus, questions about if you were competent to be at an Ivy League school, racial insensitivity from other students and professors. Lots of microaggressions. I had many professors and others discourage me from being a doctor – mainly because of my lack of focus and average grades. I handled it by ignoring them – my father had instilled in me the confidence to know my worth and never to question my abilities. So I just kept it moving.

3. How did you balance the demands of medical school with additional obligations and challenges?

You know, I didn’t handle it well at all during my pre-clinical years at Michigan State. Its true what they say about undergrad being a cake walk compared to med school and that whole amount of information given in med school being like trying to take a drink of water from a fire hydrant. It was crazy. The big difference is that you have so much class work to cover every day, it doesn’t leave room for you to mess up in your personal life. So at the end of my first year when I moved out of the grad dorm to my own apartment, my boyfriend’s mother died suddenly, and other distractions took over – I lost focus and failed 3 classes during the summer semester.

I was put on probation and had to “decelerate” my studies and extend my 2nd year of medical school into two years. I was taking every other problem based learning module with my original class and had to watch them transition to 3rd year clinical while I stayed back to complete course work. It was humiliating and even with the decelerated class work, I still managed to almost fail out when I performed poorly on a couple of exams. I had to fight to prove that I knew the material, take the tests AND classes I had previously failed over. When I completed all that and knew I would be moving on to 3rd year, I cried like a baby. I don’t think I realized how bad I wanted to be a doctor until that moment when it was almost snatched from me. After that I applied to transfer to Emory, was accepted, developed a better way for ME to study, and passed my boards in 1994 and started 3rd year at Grady Hospital in Atlanta. I haven’t looked back since.

4. Did you partake in any summer academic or research programs as an undergraduate student?

I did two programs. After sophomore year there was the summer SEEK program at the University of Cincinnati that developed our scientific rigor. After graduation, I did another summer program at Michigan State University that was an MCAT prep program. Both were focused on underrepresented people of color, and both were wonderful experiences.

5. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges report, Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine,

“In 1978, there were 1,410 black male applicants to medical school, and in 2014, there were just 1,337. The number of black male matriculants to medical school over more than 35 years has also not surpassed the 1978 numbers. “

What do you think attributes to the decrease of black males pursuing medicine and what do you think is necessary to improve those numbers in the next 10 years?

I think the reasons behind the low numbers are multifactorial:
1. Black boys aren’t encouraged to pursue science and/or medicine growing up
2. Failing school systems don’t prepare young Black boys to study effectively
3. There’s always a racist teacher or guidance counselor to dissuade us from performing
4. Our families sometimes fail us and set low expectations
5. There aren’t enough of us as Black male physicians being visible and mentoring

Solutions:
1. More black and non-racist teachers encouraging science and medicine at an early age
2. More of us being visible and speaking at schools, being in media, vocal, etc
3. Families and churches introducing young Black boys to medicine early on
4. Holding schools and teachers responsible in grade and high schools for racist punishment practices and brainwashing low expectation techniques
5. More programs geared towards Black boys and men teaching about effective study habits, applying for med school, how to prepare for the MCAT, etc.

6. Why does diversity and inclusion matter in medical education and academic medicine?

It matters because if you don’t have diverse representation, you’re left with a bunch of White and non-Black medical personnel continuing to traumatize Black people in medical settings based on their own racial prejudice. This is no joke because it contributes to ensuring that racial health disparities always exist.

7. If you can write a note to your younger self about what you know today, what would you say?

Learn better study habits earlier, and never listen to low expectations others put on you.

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  1. EgorRzh says:

    What’s great about the Black Lives Matter movement is that I think it’s helping people realize that they don’t have to choose one part of your identity or another, but that you might have to speak out as an activist for racial equality. Or to advocate for your rights as a gender non-conforming trans person, or a same-gender loving man. But none of these things are mutually exclusive.