Dr. Marcus Jennings is the chief family medicine resident at Louisiana State University (LSU) Health in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Dr. Jennings is a native of Memphis, Tennessee and he completed his undergraduate degree at the Xavier University of Louisiana. He then got his Master’s degree in Public Health from Tulane University School of Medicine before starting medical school at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine. He finished medical school at Xavier University in Aruba and is now a physician in his third year at LSU Health.
When did you decide to pursue becoming a physician?
I am a first-generation college student who aspired for a career in medicine through early experiences with my grandparents and other family members. I officially chose to pursue medicine in high school after talking with one of the only providers I knew in the community. His name was Dr. McGee, and he was an African American cardiologist in my neighborhood. I used to do my homework at his clinic.
I grew up in poverty, and my mom assumed I would just get a job and start making money after high school. But I wanted to go to college, so I did a Google search for high-paying jobs because I wanted to be able to provide for myself and my family. The first career that came up was physician so that only added to my interest in the field of medicine.
As I talked more with Dr. McGee, he really encouraged me to pursue medicine and told me about the Xavier University of Louisiana, which was the number one college that placed African Americans in medical school for over 20 years. Xavier had a pipeline process and was established with many universities to help students discover the health sciences. So I decided to start my journey to becoming a physician by attending Xavier for my undergraduate degree.
Did you have any healthcare role models growing up? How did this individual impact your pursuit of/passion for healthcare?
Dr. McGee played a major part in my pursuit of medicine. Not because he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes of being a physician, but he was a source of inspiration simply by being there and accomplishing what he had. He was a household name within my community, and he would do house calls for those who had issues with mobility and transportation.
For these reasons and more, he was my idol and I really felt empowered by him. He really made me believe I could achieve it myself because I was able to see myself in him. That is what makes me passionate about representation in healthcare today. Especially in my current position, which is in a small rural town about 1.5 hours north of New Orleans. The young black kids need to see someone who looks like them in a white coat.
What did your path to becoming a healthcare professional look like?
I started medical school at the University of Tennessee in 2007 and I completed 4 years there as an American Medical Association scholarship recipient. I was an A and B student for the most part, with a GPA steadily above 3.5. During that time, I also did some research at Harvard University School of Medicine.
About 2 weeks before graduation, I was dismissed from the University of Tennessee. I lied about having a commitment I couldn’t get out of because I had the opportunity to take a trip to Paris. As a result, I was told that I was too unethical to be a physician. I was treated pretty harshly, dismissed, left with student debt, and (for some time) I saw that as the end of my career.
Between my dismissal in 2012 and 2016, I was left with the task of finding another medical school, which ended up being Xavier University of Aruba. It involved a lot of knocking on doors, getting denials, filling out applications, and then finally getting in. At that point, I knew I wanted to go into family medicine so I connected with Dr. Russo to start that process. I finished medical school with a 4.0 and graduated with my MD and an honor degree.
I was then admitted to this residency program and worked more closely with Dr. Russo. I spent a lot of face time with important people so they wouldn’t be deterred by looking at my record and, instead, would see me for who I really was. I’m now in my third year as a senior/chief resident, and now I have matched a sleep medicine fellowship at George Washington University so I will be moving to D.C. soon.
My journey has been different, but I’ve had the chance to treat a range of patients and even be there for some in their last moments. I have enjoyed every minute of it and find myself falling in love with medicine more each step of the way.
What challenges did you face pursuing your healthcare career choice?
As an African American man at the University of Tennessee, I had to overcome a lot. I think about my early 20s and the time I spent in classes alongside people who also made mistakes. There were students who got into domestic altercations in the hospitals, those who stole tests and cheated, and others who made poor judgment calls. Yes, I made a poor judgment call, but I wasn’t treated in the same way as others who did the same.
There were a lot of people who said I was in medical school because of affirmative action and that I took their friend’s spot in class, so I had to endure a lot of negativity. But you can overcome those things, excel, and prove people wrong. Each of my life experiences is real, and that again gives me a passion for representation, the importance of diversity in both staff and leadership, and rightfully including people who can see things from the other side of the coin.
My journey hasn’t come without its lessons and hardships that taught me perseverance, being honest, and accepting my flaws. I also learned the value of taking responsibility for your mistakes but growing beyond those mistakes with your actions.
What resources did you use to help you pursue your dream of becoming a physician?
I had scholarships in medical school. I had a lot of support from my community and my family who rallied behind me. I also formed bonds with my peers, which helped me communicate my worries and ask for help. That’s an important aspect of medicine — it’s not an individual experience. It’s about working with your peers and seeking help when you don’t understand something. The community of medicine has been very important in my development.
I continually teach my residents and interns that you can’t work on the floor and not acknowledge others. You need to speak to the nurse, the janitor, and everyone else. Don’t get the feeling that you put on this white coat and you’re above others. It’s all about interdisciplinary teamwork, and that’s another source of support in the field of medicine.
What would you do differently, knowing what you do now?
I don’t see a lot that I would completely change. I look at my experience as a very unique one, but sometimes you have to give yourself credit for hanging in there. I beat myself up for years wondering how things would be if I could go back and not make that mistake. But my choice to come to Louisiana and train in primary care was a great choice that opened up so many doors. I don’t know if I would have been here if it weren’t for my journey.
What advice would you give students in a similar situation?
Stay committed and work really hard, but also take time with your family and find a good balance. It’s important not to become inundated with medicine. COVID especially has taught us that life is frail and you can lose anyone in a second. So don’t take anyone or anything for granted, especially your time, your work, and your personal life. Another major mistake is comparing yourself to others. You’re a talented individual who brings something unique to the table, so don’t compare apples to oranges. Also remember that there’s no such thing as perfect timing, and you can complete this journey at a pace that is right for you.
What does your typical day look like?
I’m up around 5 am having breakfast with my family. I get to the hospital by 6:30 and round all my patients, depending on my rotation. In inpatient medicine, you see everyone first thing and then do table rounds at 7:30. Each morning, we also have training and didactics to stay updated on new evidence-based practices and fine-tune how we treat our patients. Then I do rounds on the floor throughout the day. After rounding, I take care of patients, put in orders, and manage the changes we want to make. I also complete any discharges and admit new patients to the medical floor when I need to.
The day is always dynamic and you have to be ready for anything. You can try to control everything but that’s just not possible. I think about what I did today: I met with a patient who is terminally ill and scared. I was able to provide some reassurance and offer options while educating them that death is a part of life and sometimes acceptance is the right move. Knowing that you make a huge difference as a physician makes the challenges worth it.