Veterans Day is November 11, 2022. Many veterans have blazed the trails as extraordinary changemakers, including Russell Joseph Ledet, MD, PhD, MBA. The United States Navy veteran; disparities advocate; speaker; and co-founder of The 15 White Coats proves that obstacles can be conquered against the odds. Achieving the status of physician-scientist is just one accolade earned by the Louisiana native who was once a security guard at Baton Rouge General Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“From 2004 to late 2013, Russell was a cryptologic technician First Class Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, serving on both active duty and reserve status,” per Dr. Ledet’s LinkedIn profile.
He transitioned from earning his medical degree at Tulane University School of Medicine to Indiana University School of Medicine for a triple board residency program. Ledet is scheduled to complete it in 2027, according to information provided online by Indiana University School of Medicine.
Although Ledet finished medical school requirements in 2022, his beginning in medicine was not a straight path forward.
“I was a security guard from 2009 to 2013. Specifically, September of 2009 to May 23 of 2013 at Baton Rouge General Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” Ledet said.
He added that he was on active duty from 2004 to 2009. From 2009 to 2013, Ledet served in the United States Navy Reserves. While serving, he worked as a security guard simultaneously. After ending active duty, Ledet experienced a pay decrease. He applied to work as a security guard while attending school.
“I was going to Southern University to become a social worker just because I grew up on food stamps, and social workers always helped us out, so it was really the only job I knew,” Ledet said. “But when I got to the hospital, I was really enamored by the white coat and just seeing doctors take care of patients, and I started dreaming.”
He began asking doctors to shadow or intern with them to enable him to learn more.
“99.9% of them were like, ‘No, security guards don’t become doctors,” Ledet said.
But one late night, a surgeon who arrived at the hospital did not know his way around. Ledet escorted him during a walk then asked to shadow him. That man’s name is Dr. Patrick Greiffenstein. He agreed and discovered that Ledet was majoring in chemistry and biology. Ledet had already made the decision to switch his study path when he decided to try to become a doctor.
Ledet ended up earning his Ph.D. in molecular oncology and tumor immunology from New York University. After completing his Ph.D, he finished medical school and business school at the Tulane School of Medicine and Freeman School of Business. He had a vision to lend a hand to others, too. Ledet co-founded The 15 White Coats.
According to the nonprofit’s website, “The 15 White Coats is determined to reinforce positive imagery in learning spaces worldwide. Our iconic photos are used as an avenue to inspire the next generation of diverse doctors, lawyers, dentists, veterinarians, etc.”
It is led by Ledet; Dr. Sydney Labat; Rachel Turner; and Brian Washington. The mission includes developing scholarships; facilitating access to culturally relevant literature; and inspiring and mentoring the youth of tomorrow, per details provided online.
The story behind the organization encompasses a viral photo taken of Tulane School of Medicine medical students in 2019, Tulane News reported.
Ledet said that his daughter visited Whitney Plantation with him and his best friend. While driving back, the then 8-year-old made an insightful comment:
“She told me, ‘Hey, Dad, I finally understand why being a Black doctor in America is such a big deal.’
His daughter further remarked there that was a time when Ledet and her “Uncle Phil” would have been slaves. The young girl continued to comment that they had come a long way. She acknowledged that she was riding in a car with two Black doctors. Ledet returned to the medical school telling some close friends about an idea to take photographs of the Black medical students together to illustrate how far they had come in the world.
Receiving attention led to forming a nonprofit that helps to diversify medicine. Funds raised and donations support Black people to become doctors through scholarships. Photos of The 15 White Coats are placed in classrooms all over the world for free.
Ledet reflected about his impact.
“I think I’m doing what my ancestors would have expected of me,” Ledet said.
Photos of The 15 White Coats can be ordered by visiting https://www.the15whitecoats.org. Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrcxsSWstcU to watch Ledet, the 2022 Tulane Commencement Student Speaker.