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Carle's first Black chief medical officer talks about mentoring the next generation of physicians

Dr Napoleon Knight
Carle Health
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Carle Health
Dr. Napoleon Knight.

There aren’t a lot of people like Napoleon Knight. He’s an African American physician. That’s rare. He’s an African American male physician, even less common. And after three decades in the profession, he’s now at the top level of administration as the first African American chief medical officer at Carle Health.

Dr. Knight said he wants to make the rarity of people like him less so.

“I still have work to do to try to ensure there are more people like me coming through the pipeline to hopefully be doing what I'm doing one day, because they'll be bringing other people along behind them,” said Knight.

Knight said when he came to Carle three decades ago there were only a couple African American physicians. Now there are around 50. Being named chief medical officer is bigger than the status of "first African American" to hold the post at Carle, he said.

“I'm honored to be in the role, I'd say they put me through a pretty rigorous process to make sure that I was a person who was qualified to do the role and have the attributes to do it. And I'm extremely happy and honored at being given the opportunity,” said Knight.

Knight said he tries to mentor African American medical students in a variety of ways including how to deal with prejudice. Lest you think a white coat insulates a doctor from racism, Knight said, think again.

"I've been called the N-word multiple times during my practice career. If that is the first time that happens to you, whoa! That's not supposed to happen and how do I deal with the situation when I have to keep taking care of that person who actually used that word when they were talking to me?" said Knight.

Among the stories Knight tells med students is of a patient who spewed invective when he didn't like the advice Knight gave him, which was to allow a transfer to a different hospital where a higher level of care was available.

"He just went on and on and used the N-word and things like that. I eventually called the hospital administrator and said, ‘Well, I've done what I can do. Good luck.’ And he used a few choice words with that person too. Eventually we got him to do what needed to be done," said Knight.

That was not the last time Knight saw the patient.

"He and I today talk very respectfully to each other because I actually saved his life one time when he came in not doing so well," said Knight.

Knight said all Black doctors can do is offer to take care of that kind of patient or help them go some other place if they choose to do that.

Knight said the overall number of African American physicians continues to be small — about 5% of all doctors. But male physicians are even more scarce, just 2% of the total.

"You gotta have people believe in you. And then the channels that you go through to get wherever you want to go have to be open. And I do think that over time in our country, that continues to get better. There have been times when doors weren't open for certain types of people," said Knight.

Starting early

He said the road to becoming a doctor is long as well, and there are doors at each stage of education.

“I used to drive my father crazy, because he would ask me all the time: Am I ever going to be done with school?” said Knight. “You have to go to school. You have to pass your tests. You have to get into a residency program. You have to survive the residency program. And then you have to practice as a physician and do good work on top of that.”

He said it’s not unusual for someone to come out of medical school $250,000 in debt.

“A lot of people look at that and it's just a path and a hill they're not sure they're willing to climb unless you have great support systems along the way. For some people, I think they lose their way before they get there,” said Knight.

He said the percentages of African American physicians have not budged much in a couple decades, so more support needs to happen early in a child's education to keep those doors open. At every stage of his own life, Knight said someone was there who believed in him. In fourth grade it was a math teacher, Mr. Schaeffer, who took the bold step of trying to introduce the elementary level class to statistics.

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“And he called my mother and told her that. She said, ‘You've lost your mind.’ And he did it because he was a great teacher. He just recognized here's a group of kids that like math and he thought he would try it. And we did it and it was great. You have to reach out to people that have capability and enthusiasm,” said Knight.

He said people also need to see others in the role that they can use to form the belief they can do it too.

“The only African American doctor I knew was my family doctor. No matter when I would come back to town, I would call him. You got to start with those people. Then you have to work with their parents and say, this child has an aptitude to do this,” said Knight.

Knight said he and a group of about 50 "Black Physicians of Carle" try to find med students to mentor individually.

“I call him up, and I go, we're going to lunch. And they're like, well, I'm studying, and I go, I know you're studying, but we're going to lunch. It's an opportunity to talk, because people need to know what possibilities there are. In medicine, there's all kinds of things you can do. What do you really like to do? Let me help you narrow this down so you can have a better focus in how you should structure yourself, in getting from point A to point B," said Knight.

After that, he said, mentoring involves introducing the young people to your own networks, so they have someone to connect with who are in other careers.

“I say, if you're having a hard time, just pick up the phone and call me, because everyone needs a little kick in the rear, to help get them back, on the pathway, or just a listening ear,” said Knight.

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