When Abdoulie Njai was a teenager in Wichita, Kansas, he volunteered at a local hospital every Saturday. Njai enjoyed visiting patients, listening to their life stories and hearing their encouragement to keep pursuing his dream to become a doctor. But sometimes he was made to feel like he didn’t belong, like when a nurse tossed a mop to him because she assumed he was a janitor and when security guards questioned why he was in the building.
“I remember one of those times it really bothered me,” said Njai, who recently finished his third year as a student at the MU School of Medicine. “I went home and asked my dad, ‘Why does this keep happening to me?’ He sat me down and said: ‘You have two options. You can let this make you want to quit, or you can use it as an opportunity to show them that someone like you can be a health care worker.’ ”
That experience stuck with Njai, whose parents emigrated from the tiny African nation of Gambia and worked food-service jobs so he might one day wear a white coat. He never took for granted the opportunities available to him in America, nor accepted that people who look like him should have to settle for a lesser version of the American dream.
“I see him as a very driven, determined, dedicated student who wants to see change and doesn’t just sit back and complain that change needs to happen,” said Laine Young Walker, MD, the associate dean of student programs. “He makes it happen.”
In the spring of 2020, Njai met with the deans in the Office of Medical Education and suggested starting a Common Read program for incoming medical students featuring a book that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion. The deans agreed.
Njai and fellow student Patricia De Castro selected “Seeing Patients: Unconscious Bias in Health Care,” by Augustus A. White. One of Njai’s mentors, Gregory Della Rocca, MD, PhD, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, had given him the book the year before. It explains how doctors’ biases can affect their care for patients. Njai and De Castro created the facilitator’s guide to be used in discussion groups, and in August 2020, the book was required reading for new MU medical students.
“Learning about implicit bias, diversity, equity and inclusion is just as important as learning about pathophysiology, learning how the heart pumps or learning about pharmacology,” Njai said.
Njai’s activism didn’t stop there. When the first COVID-19 vaccines were approved, he took note of the questions, skepticism and misinformation he heard about the vaccines at his barbershop. On the advice of his barber, he and fellow student Michela Fabricius created a vaccine survey to learn the questions members of the Black community had about the vaccine. He delivered the surveys to the barbershop in December.
In February, Njai, Fabricius and another student, Deidre Dillon, visited local Black-owned businesses to discuss the vaccines and pass out fliers promoting an online community forum called “Let’s Talk: COVID Vaccines and the Black Community.” During the forum, the survey responses were discussed by an expert panel, which included MU School of Medicine faculty Laura Henderson Kelley, MD, and Christelle Ilboudo, MD. Njai served as one of the moderators.
Njai was encouraged by the response to the vaccine outreach. He wants to partner with MU doctors in the future to visit Black-owned businesses to offer blood pressure and blood sugar tests and to answer questions.
“I feel obligated as a Black male in medicine to do what I can to get into the community and show my face,” he said. “We know there’s a lot of hesitancy and mistrust — and rightfully so — about the health care system within communities of color. I think the only way to truly address that is to get out there, have frank conversations and be real, like, ‘We’re here to hear your concerns.’ ”
Njai will further explore his interest in health policy this year. He was accepted into Harvard’s Master of Public Health program, and he will complete that degree before returning to MU in 2022 for his final year of medical school. His ultimate goal is to be a surgeon and focus his research and outreach on population health and health policy.
Those who know him now have no doubt he is right where he belongs.
“Abdoulie embodies the American dream,” Della Rocca said. “His parents were immigrants and have toiled for him to be as successful as possible, and he has taken full advantage of that. I can’t think of a better way for him to thank his parents than for him to be doing exactly what he’s doing.”