Lifting Up the Next Generation With a New Family Award
Dr. Nathalie May Is Investing in the Future
By Elisa Ludwig
Having mentored and educated medical students and residents for more than two decades, Nathalie May, MD, observed that minority medical students are rarely recognized during award ceremonies. The associate professor in the Department of Medicine at Drexel hopes to change that with the announcement of the May Family Award, a new honor for underserved and underrepresented students graduating from Drexel University College of Medicine.
May’s desire to level the playing field for emerging physicians of color is a highly personal one. She was raised by her grandmother in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as her parents, both physicians, came to work in the United States. When May was a preteen, her beloved grandmother was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. Witnessing her grandmother’s suffering and the lack of available treatments in Haiti at the time, May decided at age 12 to become a doctor and ensure others had better access to care. In 1981, her grandmother passed away, and May and her sister joined their parents in the U.S., where she finished her secondary education at the United Nations International School in New York. She then attended Princeton University, graduating in 1993, before getting her medical degree and completing her internal medicine internship and residency at the University of Pennsylvania.
May launched her career as a clinical educator and primary care doctor at Drexel in 2000. She landed at Drexel, she says, precisely because it would allow her to care for patients in an academic setting. Hailing from — and later marrying into — a family of physicians, May values the importance of lifelong learning and helping other doctors stay on top of new and emerging best practices. Teaching interns, residents and students has been a meaningful experience, as has her role as associate director of the Internal Medicine Residency program.
“One of the most rewarding things is seeing the growth — that look in someone’s eyes when they suddenly make connections and understand a concept, and then seeing them continue to evolve as they go on to teach others,” she says. “Medicine is always progressing. Being able to stay on top of the latest innovations is important, as is understanding how to explain those innovations and the history behind them to others.”
May’s hard work and penchant for paying it forward has not gone unnoticed. She has served as the vice chief of the Division of Internal Medicine and sat on numerous Drexel committees, and she has frequently been named a “Top Doctor” by Philadelphia magazine and Castle Connolly. In 2019, May was surprised and delighted to win the WMC/MCP Phyllis Marciano, MD, WMC ‘60, Woman in Medicine Award, which came with a cash prize.
“I was not expecting it at all, and I knew instantly that I wanted to extend that good fortune to help students emerging in their own careers.”
At that point, May worked with Seema Baranwal, MD, associate dean of student affairs, to establish the Dr. Nathalie May Phyllis Marciano Jr. Award, intended as a two-year prize for underserved students who demonstrate outstanding leadership. The awards committee selected recipients for 2021 and 2022.
During last spring’s graduation ceremony, as May administered the Physician’s Pledge to graduating students, the two planned award cycles had come to an end. She realized, though, that she had more to give and her work honoring and supporting new doctors was just beginning. To have a greater impact she enlisted the help of her sister-in-law, Dorothy May, MD, MCP ’96, to explore the possibility of establishing a new award fund.
“I have deep respect for my sister-in-law and her contribution to the patient population and medical residency education in Philadelphia,” says Dorothy May. “I also believe in supporting initiatives that promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the education of medical professionals like physicians.”
They also approached Dorothy May’s mother (Nathalie May’s mother-in-law), Edith May, to ask her if she was interested in participating. “My father-in-law was also a physician,” Nathalie May says. “Unfortunately, in 2010, he passed away. But my mother-in-law’s always been very generous, and I knew she would also be on board with helping to support an award.”
Together, the three family members established the May Family Award for Excellence in Clinical Medicine Rotations — specifically, for underserved students who have shown dedication to leadership and service, and modeled these qualities to others during their work at Drexel.
“It also honors students who we think have been teaching those below them and shown their leadership in that respect as well,” May says. The 10-year award includes a cash prize. Students are selected by the awards committee, with a focus on those who have required more financial assistance. In addition to inspiring students to work hard for a coveted recognition, the money is a crucial boost during what for many is a financially challenging time, facing down accrued medical school debt during the leaner times of internship and residency. May recalls her own experience having to borrow money for education and then having to budget significantly to make it last.
“My parents, for various reasons, had gone back to Haiti at that time. So I didn’t have family to help financially, and I had a huge debt load finishing medical school,” she says. “As we know, the money that residents and interns earn is not that significant. But more importantly, you’re not going to get your first paycheck until two weeks into the internship and you have to find a place to live in the meantime. For some people, that may mean taking more loans to pay the first and last month’s rent or whatever deposit you have to pay. This cash prize is a little something that could help some students in those early days of getting started and take the pressure off.”
May’s second big hope is that, by establishing the award with her family’s name, others in the Drexel community will be prompted to consider doing the same.
“It’s not a huge award, but it helps to get students recognized for doing great work,” she says. “Anyone who is in a position to create an award can do their part to lift up the next generation of doctors, and that is something I think all of us would like to see.”
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