Overcoming Obstacles en Route to Med School

As a young child living near SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Renee Fleming would ask her mother who the people she saw going in and out of the hospital were. When she learned they were doctors, and that their job was to help people by keeping them healthy, she set her sights on becoming a physician so that she could help people too.

Now a third-year medical student at Downstate Medical College of Medicine, Fleming is well on her way to achieving her dream. But it wasn’t easy for her to get this far.

“I heard a lot of no, no, no, you’re not going to make it,” said Fleming.

She faced doubts from counselors at her underperforming junior high and high school (her junior high school has since closed) and saw many peers get pregnant, get in trouble, or drop out. But Fleming stayed on the path to her dream with the help of a pipeline program designed to increase diversity in health professions, where students are taught anatomy and physiology, learn about health disparities, and take research and study skills classes.

But when Fleming went away to college, she faced more obstacles, including being shamed by her math professor for struggling with concepts she wasn’t taught in high school. But she persisted and passed, and after transferring to CUNY’s Medgar Evers College, she found mentors who understood and helped her succeed.

After graduating and completing a prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) post-baccalaureate research program, Fleming was accepted to medical school at SUNY Downstate, where she is completing clinical rotations. While she’s still deciding between a few specialties, she knows she wants to practice in Brooklyn, serving the diverse community she grew up in.

It’s important to have doctors who can understand a patient’s background to connect with them on a personal level, said Fleming, and she sees the difference when she interacts with patients who are from the West Indies like her parents. She wishes there were more students of Caribbean and African-American origin attending American medical schools, and believes there should be more encouragement and support for students from underserved backgrounds at the undergraduate and lower grade levels in order to overcome obstacles.

“Growing up, there is so much discouragement and negativity – and no one is telling you that you can become a doctor,” said Fleming. “People don’t realize that with URMs (Underrepresented Minorities in Medicine), what we lack in test scores we make up in persistence.”