I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. I consider myself very blessed and fortunate to have both parents, whom migrated from Mississippi during Jim Crow in the 1950’s, to give me a stable and loving home. My parents were children of sharecroppers who made little to no money growing and picking cotton among other things. After living in Chicago for many years my mother graduated from Malcolm X College as a Certified Respiratory Technician and my father had obtained his high school diploma. They worked very hard to provide for me and my sister. There was nothing that we lacked and we were afforded a decent education. I remember days my mother would come home and I would curiously attempt to read her science books. She would say that she hoped that I would pursue a career as a physical therapist because I loved sports and seemed to be interested in science.
While living in Chicago my older brother was murdered and I’ve seen and experienced things that no child should have. After graduating from grade school my parents agreed to send me to live with my older sister, who was attending the University of Iowa at the time, to give me a better opportunity for success. When I moved to Iowa City I attended City High, graduating in the year 2000 with a low GPA. I was your typical high school kid that was more focused on sports and girls than my studies. I never once thought of what I wanted to do with my life, nor did I have anyone to guide me in that decision-making process. Though I had many strong and good male role models in my life, nothing captured my attention to pursue a career. So, I did what many people do because they were told to, I enrolled in college attending Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City. That didn’t last long due to lack of ambition and desire for school. I did well for a few semesters but would eventually burnout and that led me to dropout. For many years I worked many low paying, dead end jobs.
As the years went on, I married an Iowa grad who was a nurse and had two boys of my own, who would both be born at the University. In 2010 my family and I moved to Des Moines. Again, I found myself working various jobs, until one day I tore my Achilles tendon on my 30th birthday. At that time, I was working as a transporter at a county hospital. They would eventually fire me due to me not being able to walk for a few months. This was a feeling that I would not want to experience again. The helplessness after being let go due to a freak accident. A part of me wanted to be in a position where people would value me and my work ethic. To be in a position where they would work to keep me employed.
As I laid in bed with that blue cast on, I thought to myself out loud, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life.” My wife who was working on getting her master’s to become a Nurse Practitioner suggested I go back to school. I told her, “Why would I go back to school, don’t you see what happened before? I’m not smart enough.” She looked at me and said, “You’re not that little boy anymore, you have a family to take care of now. In all this time what has caught your attention or interest?” I honestly sat and thought about all my experiences in life to this point, what was I most interested in. A few hours later I told her watching the birth of my children by C-section was cool. I got to see the whole thing from beginning to end and at the same time crack a few jokes with the doctors. My wife explained that the people who were dressed in blue were surgical techs, “You can go to school for that, and it only takes two years to finish,” she said.
PODCAST EPISODE: Medicine: Color, Culture and Equity Pt. 1
The first installment of our new mini-series, Medicine: Color, Culture and Equity. As we celebrate MLK Day today and look ahead to Black History Month, Marcus Cooper, certified surgical technologist at St. Luke's, joins Dr. Arnold to discuss being black in medicine. The struggles, challenges, successes, role models and more.
That same year in 2012 I enrolled at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) to earn my pre-requisites. I must say that I was very nervous about attending. I didn’t want to let myself, or more importantly my family, down. This was the fire that kept me going. To strive to be something in life. The first class I had was a human science class. I never did well in high school science but knowing that this was going to get me somewhere in life I worked at it. As funny as it was, I found out that I really enjoyed learning about the human body. From then on nothing was going to stop me from achieving my goal.
I faced some bias before even getting into the program. Because of how weird the entry exam was the coordinator of the program looked at me and said, “I don’t think you’re going to cut it.” Even though at the time I had achieved a 4.0 GPA, had been awarded various scholarships, and had been on the Dean’s and Provost’s lists just about the whole time I was attending. I told her I just need one shot. She agreed but said if I failed one test I was out. I said “fine.” I ended up graduating with a 3.5 G.P.A. and honors. After graduation, I worked at Iowa Ortho in Des Moines for four years before moving back to the area and working as a surgical tech at St. Luke’s for the past two years.
I whole-heartedly feel giving people an opportunity is a crucial part of opening the doors to a successful career for minorities. I believe we should go out in the community and help high school seniors get on that successful path. We should help them get things lined up and give them a chance to see what success in the medical field really is and that it is obtainable. This would be positive for many minorities but especially for those in my community, the black community. For example, we could sponsor or provide training for entry level positions. In doing this we provide a source of income and insurance, as well as a sense of self-worth. Assisting with furthering education through scholarships and tuition reimbursements is mutually beneficial for the hospital as it could help with retention of quality staff. Reaching out to minorities in this way reflects our FOCUS values. People tend to cherish the things they work hard for and this allows for a better quality of life for them and their family.
I am truly glad I was given an opportunity and want others to be afforded that same kind of opportunity. Not long ago I was just a kid from middle-class Chicago who didn’t know what he wanted in life and now 24 years later, I’m in the surgical suite assisting with brain surgery! Who would have thought?