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Conversations That Matter Episode 5: Darrell Pone, MD

In “Conversations That Matter,” our blog and audio series, Deborah J. Tuttle, MD, and John P. Piper, MD, Vice Dean for Educational Affairs Leon McCrea II, MD, MPH, interviews members of the College of Medicine community and others in the medical field about their lives, their journeys in medicine, and their thoughts on diversity in medical practice and education.

Darrell Pone, MD

In the interview below, Dr. McCrea talks with Darrell Pone, MD, a retired physical medicine and rehabilitation physician. Read on to get to know Dr. Pone, and learn even more about his life and career in the latest episode of the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion's podcast "Conversations That Matter."

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Dr. Pone: I was born – what happened was my dad was a fourth-year medical student, and when I was born there were complications, the umbilical cord was around my neck. I nearly died.

Dr. McCrea: You nearly died? Wow.

P: Yes, sir. They called the pastor. And after I was born, it was dad’s last year of medical school, so they chose to move to Long Island, where there was a nearby cerebral palsy center.

LM: Okay.

P: And dad did his residency nearby, at a place called Meadowbrook Hospital.

LM: Oh, Meadowbrook Hospital, okay. I know of a place called Meadowbrook up there.

P: Well, they changed it to the National Medical Center.

LM: Okay.

P: So, they gave me a lot of tests to test my IQ and they said my parents had to make a choice: should I go to a school with other children who have cerebral palsy, or go to public school with accommodations? They chose the latter.

LM: They chose to send you to public school with accommodations, okay.

P: Yes, for grade school. I took a cab to school because they did not want me to be on a bus with kids like you. [Laughs] In middle school, things changed.

LM: Okay.

P: In middle school, I got two sets of books, one for home and one for school so I didn’t have to carry books.

LM: Got it.

P: In middle school I would leave first period five minutes early, go to second period, leave five minutes early. They didn’t want me to walk the halls when the rough kids were running around.

LM: Got it.

P: Because I had braces on my legs. My medical diagnosis was cerebral palsy, spastic quadriplegia.

LM: Spastic quadriplegia, okay.

P: It affected my speech, arms and legs, and problems with fine motor coordination.

LM: Okay. Great, now, curious thing, you said your dad was a doctor?

P: Yes, sir.

LM: What kind of physician was he?

P: Internal medicine.

LM: Internal medicine, okay.

P: That was key: he was the doctor of the community.

LM: Okay.

P: All the guys went to dad for their physicals, the elderly went to dad for their acquired medical diseases, and dad was a hero. I was ‘Dr. Pone’s boy.’

LM: Right. Absolutely.

P: And I had cerebral palsy, so they told me, ‘Darrell, you’re going to have to be smart. Because what you have is physical, you’re going to have to have a high IQ.’

LM: Right, you’re going to have to work it out. So, you survived that, you’re leaving classes early in middle school, getting around with braces, and taking a cab to school every day. So, how was high school?

P: I was a normal kid. No more taking cabs, I got to leave classes on time. I could walk better – I had a surgery on my left hamstring in middle school, so I could walk better. But in high school, I was intimidated, because the girls looked so much older, they were prettier, and the guys were huge. And I had to have my college choices, so I studied.

LM: [Laughs]

P: I remember all the teachers were strict. And the first test I took was with all these tenth grade high-schoolers, and I got an A. I felt like, ‘Wow, I’m smart.’ Plus, my dad’s buddy taught me to play chess – best thing that ever happened to me.

LM: I play chess too, Dr. Pone.

P: Oh, good, then you know. Chess gave me confidence. It helped me with physics, math and other classes, but I suffered in reading.

LM: Okay.

P: I suffered in reading. I used to stutter. I wasn’t a great reader. But I’ll tell you a secret.

LM: Okay.

P: In those days, we were sexist. The guys would say, ‘Pone, you’re a boy and you’re good at math and science; you can be a doctor.’

LM: Yeah.

P: They said girls should do well in social studies, but boys should do well in science and math, and be a doctor. And my father encouraged a lot of Black kids to become doctors.

LM: That’s awesome. So you navigate high school, you figure all that out, and then you go to college. Where’d you go to college, Dr. Pone?

P: I did my first year at Howard.

LM: Howard! An HBCU.

P: Yeah. But then I transferred to a college up in Long Island called C.W. Post, if that sounds familiar, and actually pledged Alpha Phi Alpha.

LM: You pledged, too? Neat!

P: With accommodations, though.

LM: Yeah, I know, but still. Listen, I’m a Kappa. You get all that Panhellenic love. A Phi A. So, listen, half the game though is understanding your history. If you can learn your history, you’ll be alright.

P: Right. And I got a B.A. degree in chemistry and did one in physics and math.

LM: Okay, so you did three years at Howard –

P: One year at Howard.

LM: One year at Howard?

P: Three years up in New York, Long Island University.

LM: Long Island University, got it.

P: And I took a class in social science. That was the best course I ever took in school, called “The Psychology of Women,” about their history, the women’s movement, their struggles. And that was valuable because my first professor in medical school was a woman, Dr. Harrah. She taught us cell biology and histology.

LM: Cell biology and histology. I definitely vividly remember histology – not with great memories, I did not love histology. The slides and all that stuff? Ugh.

P: Right, right.

LM: But you’ve gotta understand the way the cells work in order to understand human disease. So you finished Long Island, and do you take time off or do you go straight into medical school?

P: Right to medical school.

LM: Straight to medical school! So let’s – I have a question: did you have to take the MCAT back then?

P: We had to take the MCAT.

LM: Oh, my gosh. So, how was the preparation for the MCAT?

P: I think I took a prep class. I took the MCAT in 1976 – let me tell you a story about that. I was rejected from Meharry.

LM: You were rejected? Why?

P: They didn’t say why. But here’s the deal: my dad saw the letter, and he was upset. He said, ‘You guys aren’t admitting Darrell because he has CP.’ He sent them a letter, and two weeks later, I got a letter of acceptance.

LM: From Meharry?

P: After dad’s letter.

LM: Wow. Now, did your dad go to Meharry?

P: Yes, sir.

LM: He was a Meharry alum. Got it.

P: He was in the room when I damn-near died. He was a student.

LM: Wow. That’s unbelievable. I mean, what an emotional toll for him, for your mom, the whole nine yards. Oh my gosh.

P: And when they didn’t admit me, he was upset.

LM: I bet he was! Because, listen, you had the talent! It wasn’t a talent issue.

P: Right.

LM: Now, did you consider applying to any other schools or was Meharry where you wanted to be?

P: I got into Howard, I got into Stony Brook and then Meharry.

LM: You got into Stony Brook and into Howard and Meharry had the audacity not to take you?

P: Mhm. So, I chose to leave home, and go south to my people. I wanted my degree to be signed by a Black man.

LM: I love that.

P: And there’s one thing about Meharry I’ll never forget. When I walked into lectures at Meharry, people would freak. Guys would say, ‘Pone! Pone! There goes Pone.’ They cheered me like that. Because I was a superstar.

LM: No, listen, you – I want to get into some of those details in a minute, but also just, understanding your intellect and your ability and the understanding of what it took to get that far. So, you go to Meharry, you do your four years of medical school, and then you go do a residency in internal medicine?

P: I received my medical degree from Meharry Medical College in 1981, and then went into residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R).

LM: You do PM&R, wow! Which is interesting because PM&R has not been around forever.

P: It came after the war to help with injuries in the line of duty, in particular to the legs.

LM: So, you did physical medicine and rehab, oh my gosh.

P: The chairman at the hospital where I did my residency on Long Island said, ‘people with cerebral palsy are lazy.’ I’m Black, I have cerebral palsy, and he hired me. And while I’m doing this internship, he’d say this quote: ‘In my experience, people with cerebral palsy are lazy.’

LM: Wow.

P: Maybe he said that to motivate me, maybe because he was racist. He was a huge guy, and he could’ve helped me more. He just wanted to hold me up. He was intimidating, and this is my first week of the internship.

LM: That’s unreal. So, I guess the question – so, you do physical medicine and rehab, and then you decide to build this career? Now, I want to jump back a little bit, and let’s talk about medical school. So, tell me about what medical school was like for you. What were the joys and what were the challenges when you were in medical school?

P: The joy was study groups, nothing like the study groups, because then everybody would understand the material. I had a study group and really enjoyed it, and I loved internal medicine. But the whole thing about medical school was, I had depression, and they gave me a sleeping pill for insomnia and not medication for bipolar disorder nor a prescription for depression. They should have diagnosed bipolar and prescribed medication for bipolar disorder. And students didn’t get checked for mental illness. Nowadays, everybody talks about mental illness because of COVID, but back in the 70s, psychiatry was not respected yet.

LM: Wow.

P: Now, it’s ‘send ‘em to a shrink.’ But back then with any depression – if you were depressed in medical school, was it something you could express in medical school? I needed to sit down with my mental health professional, because in my case, medications were different. I have cerebral palsy, I have bipolar disorder, I have clinical depression, and all different types of medications for all these things. Would a Black man ever admit that? No. But that medication is required for me.

LM: Mm.

P: People will say, ‘You don’t need that stuff, you need Jesus.’ Jesus helps. God helps with that as well and abstaining from alcohol. And getting sleep at night, and other things that get ruined when you study medicine. And in the 70s they said, ‘Study, study, study.’ No, no, no. The most important thing in medical school is to get your sleep. When we sleep, our memory works.

LM: Mhm.

P: When we sleep, it helps our outlook – I learned that in the third year of med school. But for years they said, ‘Just study, just study. Stop crying, just study.’ But things are changing. Please, tell your students, encourage them: Do. Not. Cram. When you cram it pushes your brain too hard, it decreases your memory. Get your sleep.

LM: So, my God, thinking about that and the challenges you must have faced. So, you have cerebral palsy and you also have to deal with bipolar disorder, you have anxiety at some points. That’s a lot to carry. Who did you talk to?

P: I went to the hospital and saw the psychiatrist.

LM: Got it.

P: The other thing you’ve got to understand about bipolar, is your mood goes down when you’re stressed, so then it was always down. Every one of my friends was stressed out about exams and going out with the girls. And that would really have me up, but with mood swings from mania, you’re overly happy, to depression when you are down, and you have poor concentration. When you’re up every day is a beautiful day, everything’s beautiful with tests and girls. [Laughs] But when I was down, I could not pick the right pair of socks. I’d go in my sock drawer, and ask, ‘Today should I wear the brown socks, or the black socks? The brown socks, or the black socks?’ You can’t make a single decision. That’s what depression is for me. But you wear socks every day. You want to take ten minutes to figure out what pair to wear. If you can’t decide what pair of socks to wear, you can’t concentrate in your lessons, right?

LM: Right. Oh my gosh. That’s unreal.

P: And you think about yourself and about how you seem to others, all the time. You can’t really see yourself when you look at your reflection. Then it ranges from depression to a phase of mania, and I’m living life so quickly like, ‘Go, go, go, go.’ So, the disease is a range.

LM: Yeah. So, I have a follow-up question for that in terms of, tell me about residency. How was that? You transition, you decide to go into physical medicine and rehab, and it’s in a space where, you say you go to residency in New York, right? Okay, so you’re going back to Long Island to do residency –

P: Long Island.

LM: Right. So, you’re in a space where there should be a sensitivity to your disease process, and yet you’re living that every day. What was that like?

P: Great. They understood that I have a disability, and it gave me a different outlook. I’d be the doctor that could understand disabled people better. We had patients who lost legs to Type II diabetes, or had strokes due to age, and other patients who lost use of their limbs but wanted to get back some movement. It’s a lot of work, and what’s really key is to make sure we screen them for depression. I’m going to listen to patients, I’m going to try to engage. You look at the patient and ask, ‘Are you depressed?’ ‘No, no, no.’ Today, patients admit that they are a little depressed. The difference today is they come out with it when I’m treating patients. So, I knew doctors needed to listen to their patients, and it’s so little extra work. Just do the work because it’s important. Just listen.

I had a brother come to my clinic one day. He walks in and starts to scream, ‘Where’s Dr. Pone? I don’t want a substitute. Where the hell is Dr. Pone?’ And this is in New York City. He gets into my office, and I say, ‘What’s got you going?’ Five seconds, and he’s in tears, crying. In my office, he was in a safe place.

LM: That’s right.

P: He cried because he suffered in life. And he knew he could tell me. Why? He’s handicapped, he’s Black. He grew up in a system that said, ‘Man up, no more of that.’

LM: Right.

P: As physicians, when we see any patient, regardless of their color, we have to listen.

LM: So, Dr. Pone, you were able to carve an amazing career despite a significant physical challenge. And I guess the question is: why? Why did you persevere so hard?

P: One word: war. World War II.

LM: Okay.

P: Dad was in World War II. Dad made me work two jobs, rake leaves, shovel snow.

LM: He had you out there shoveling snow, huh?

P: I shoveled snow and raked leaves from middle school until we moved to a bigger home and hired professionals.

LM: Okay.

P: And I made food, washed our cars. He wanted me to be a hard worker. That’s why.

LM: Okay. It sounds like your dad was amazing.

P: He was a great man. He loved being a doctor, and he loved us no matter what. When he died, there were people lined up for three blocks for the funeral.

LM: Wow. Were there any challenges that you received from your patients as a result of your physical limitations?

P: There are two I remember – one woman who wanted a different doctor because she couldn’t understand the way I talked. And another always looked at my handwriting. She was obsessed with my handwriting. I hate when people talk about my handwriting. Doctors did it, nurses did it, patients did it, medical students. And that was my biggest challenge. And the other one, too, people would say, ‘For everybody you talk to, it’s hard to understand you.’ It’s hard for me to speak, and hard for them to understand; hard for me to write, hard for them to read. That’s tough. That was hard.

LM: But you figured it out, Dr. Pone. So, what is the next challenge for you? What other impact are you looking to make in your walk and in your existence?

P: I’d like for someone to make a movie of my life.

LM: That’s awesome. I mean, your story is unbelievable, and I’ve just started to scratch the surface. So, as we get ready to wrap, is there any message you want to leave to an aspiring medical student?

P: Yes: learn about other cultures because you never know where your career will lead. You’ve got to learn the ways the world works. You’ve got to look for your newest blind spots.

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