The Best Things In Life Are Free

By Christopher Woods

I am a Senior Clinical Data Analyst at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which basically means I build databases for doctors. Sometime last year I was assigned to build a heart and lung transplant protocol for Dr. Sean Agbor-Enoh. The most rewarding part of my job is talking with the physicians about their protocol, and show them the study build. It’s the only interaction I get with actual people outside of the office where I sit every day. However, not all physicians are equally invested in this process, and many have let their nurses field the study build questions. Others are opposed to the process and would rather not cooperate at all, but they’re being forced to, so they will do the bare minimum. Needless to say I didn’t know what to expect from Dr. Agbor-Enoh (or Dr. Sean as I call him now).

When he first walked into our initial meeting I was delighted to see that he was African and black. (That might have been evident to some of you by his name, but you honestly never know who is going to walk into these meetings based on a name). He introduced himself with a huge smile and remained totally invested in the study build process from that point on. In return I wanted to impress him and make sure that I did my very best on his protocol. I always want to do a great job for every physician, but I cannot lie and say that I didn't have extra pride working for another black man.

His protocol was the most complicated study I’ve ever had to build to date. It is also a multi-center study, meaning that patients will be seen at various hospitals in the area. For that reason he wanted to take me to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to meet his colleagues that helped him write the protocol and show them the forms to ensure that we were building them correctly.

As I worked with him I was very impressed by how thorough he was. He would check and double-check everything we did, almost to the point where it was annoying. But he would express to me that he wanted to make sure that if we were going to do it, he wanted it done right because people would be watching. He didn't have to clarify what he meant because he knew I understood exactly what he meant. This is why he wanted to take me to Johns Hopkins.

He picked me up from the Clinical Center at the NIH in his small, slightly messy luxury vehicle. I don't remember now what kind, but it was nice, and he drove it very fast. When he picked me up and we got going toward Baltimore he noticed that I was humming along to the Enya song that was playing. "You know this?" he asked surprised. I did indeed. As we rode along he told me about med school in Cameroon, and his wife and children whom he was very proud of. He told me that his wife was much smarter than he was, and he was excited about getting their family together to throw her a huge party to celebrate her finishing pharmacy school. This was impressive.

He called his children using his Bluetooth to check on them, and I heard how he talked with them. He asked them how they were doing with their school work, and whether they had done their chores. He was stern with them, but not too hard. It was obvious he loved his children very much, and they loved and respected him in return. They asked him when he would be coming home, and he explained to me that he was on call, so he was on duty around the clock and couldn't go home for the time being.

He lives in Baltimore, and a hot topic in the news was the tragic death of Freddie Gray in police custody. We talked about that, and about how sad he was that he had to have a conversation with his son about how to avoid police. His son is 12, the same age as Tamir Rice, who was shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio. Like all the black fathers I know, he was concerned that his son could be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I told him that I was impressed with how thorough he had been during the process, and commented that I have the utmost respect for Africans that immigrate to the United States because they seem to be more appreciative of education and the opportunities available to us in this country. He smiled and warned me that as many Africans that I may meet that are doing well, there are just as many that aren't. He noted that I was the first African American that he had the chance to meet and work with in his professional life because in all his schooling he was the only African male. His colleagues are mainly white men or other immigrants of color. He told me that I didn't fit any of the stereotypes that he had been taught about African Americans. Furthermore, he told me that we had to be representatives whether we wanted to or not because people are watching us and making decisions upon whether or not to give another shot to people that look like us.

By that time we were at Johns Hopkins, and we had to do what we were there to do. I met his colleagues, all of which were either white men or other non-American ethnicities. There weren't any other blacks... or Americans for that matter. What I noticed was that they all shared a mutual respect because this protocol was intended to help improve the life of their patients, and there could be no cut corners. I became proud by association.

On the way back we discussed the changes that needed to be made to the forms and the timeline for their completion. We listened to more Enya and Andrea Bocelli. After that he took me to Wendy's. I got chicken nuggets. He got a salad. He dropped me back off at the NIH, and I went about my way forever changed.

My mom always used to tell me that my brother and younger cousins looked up to me, and that it was my job to set a good example for the rest of them. She would always say to me whenever I left the house, “Remember who you belong to.” This has always been in the back of my mind, but as I got older I must have forgotten. Dr. Sean helped me remember. No matter what type of skills, degrees or certificates we may accumulate, what speaks the most is our character. That will precede us, and it will also be our legacy.


Photo Credit: Lee Chapman