July 29, 2022
In “Conversations That Matter,” our blog and audio series, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 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.
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."
Leon McCrea (LM): Can you tell our audience about your life prior to your career in medicine?
Darrell Pone (DP): 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. 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. And dad did his residency nearby, at a place called Meadowbrook Hospital.
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. In grade school, I took a cab to school because they did not want me to be on a bus. In middle school, things changed. I got two sets of books, one for home and one for school so I didn’t have to carry books. 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, because I had braces on my legs. My medical diagnosis was cerebral palsy, spastic quadriplegia. It affected my speech, arms and legs, and caused problems with fine motor coordination.
LM: Okay. Now, what kind of physician was your dad?
DP: Internal medicine. That was key: he was the doctor of the community. All the guys went to dad for their physicals, the elderly went to dad for their acquired medical diseases, and my father encouraged a lot of Black kids to become doctors. Dad was a hero, and I was ‘Dr. Pone’s boy.’
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, how was high school?
DP: 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. 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.
DP: Oh, good, then you know. Chess gave me confidence. It helped me with physics, math and other classes, but I suffered in reading. But in those days, people were sexist. The guys would say, ‘Pone, you’re a boy and you’re good at math and science; you can be a doctor.’ They said girls should do well in social studies, but boys should do well in science and math, and become doctors.
LM: Where’d you go to college, Dr. Pone?
DP: I did my first year at Howard, but then I transferred to a college up in Long Island called C.W. Post, which is now part of Long Island University, and actually pledged Alpha Phi Alpha.
LM: You pledged, too? Neat! Listen, I’m a Kappa. You get all that Panhellenic love. A Phi A!
DP: At C.W. Post I got a B.A. degree in chemistry and did one in physics and math. I took a class in social science, and that was the best course I ever took in school. It was called “The Psychology of Women,” and it was about women’s history, the women’s movement, their struggles. That was valuable because my first professor in medical school was a woman, Dr. Harrah. She taught us cell biology and histology.
After I graduated from Post, I went right to medical school. Let me tell you a story about that: I was rejected from Meharry Medical College.
LM: You were rejected? Why?
DP: 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 from Meharry.
LM: Now, did your dad go to Meharry?
DP: Yes, sir. 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. Now, did you consider applying to any other schools, or was Meharry where you wanted to be?
DP: I got into Howard, I got into Stony Brook, and then Meharry. 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. 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?
DP: 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. 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 on like that, because I was a superstar.
But the whole thing about medical school was, I had depression. A doctor should have diagnosed bipolar disorder and prescribed medication for it. Instead, they gave me a sleeping pill for insomnia and not medication for bipolar disorder nor a prescription for depression.
Back then, students didn’t get checked for mental illness. In the ‘70s, psychiatry was not respected yet. If you were depressed in medical school, it wasn’t something you could express. I needed to sit down with my mental health professional, because in my case, medications were different. I have cerebral palsy, bipolar disorder, clinical depression and I need all different types of medications for all these things. Would a Black man ever admit that? No. But that medication is required for me.
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.
DP: 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: Absolutely. So, thinking about that and the challenges you must have faced, that’s a lot to carry. Who did you talk to?
DP: I went to the hospital and saw the psychiatrist.
LM: Got it. And after Meharry, what was your experience like in residency?
DP: I received my medical degree from Meharry Medical College in 1981, and then went into residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R). 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.’ 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. 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?
DP: Aside from the chairman, it was 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 had 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 it was really key to make sure we screened them for depression. And because of my experiences, I’m going to listen to patients. I’m going to try to engage. I knew doctors needed to listen to their patients, and it is so little extra work. Physicians need to just do that 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.
DP: He cried because he suffered in life. And he knew he could tell me. Why? He’s disabled, he’s Black. He grew up in a system that said, ‘Man up, no more of that.’ As physicians, when we see any patient, we have to listen.
LM: Right. So, Dr. Pone, you were able to carve out an amazing career despite significant challenges. And I guess the question is: why? Why did you persevere so hard?
DP: One word: war. Dad was in World War II, and because of that, he raised me to be a hard worker.
LM: It sounds like your dad was amazing.
DP: He was a great man. He loved being a doctor, and he loved myself and my siblings no matter what. When he died, there were people lined up for three blocks for the funeral.
LM: Wow. So, Dr. Pone, what is the next challenge for you? What other impact are you looking to make in your walk and in your lifetime?
DP: I’d like for someone to make a movie of my life.
LM: That’s awesome. Your story is unbelievable, and I’ve just started to scratch the surface. So, as we wrap up our conversation, is there any message you want to leave to aspiring medical students?
DP: 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 the newest gaps in your knowledge.