Dr. Dale Okorodudu appears to be a perfectly ordinary guy: He has a mortgage, a wife and three young children whom he carts around in a black Kia Sorento.
The Carrollton resident is a pulmonary and critical care physician who specializes in treating lung ailments. But on his time off, Okorodudu juggles running a nonprofit, organizing national summits and — most recently — planning a feature-length documentary film.
Not so ordinary, after all.
Okorodudu’s activities are devoted to the singular goal of driving up the number of young black men in the field of medicine.
“When somebody closes their eyes and thinks about a black male, they think about either an athlete, a musician, or somebody in prison,” says Okorodudu. “We want to add black men in white coats to that stereotype.”
Nearly five decades after the civil rights movement, black men account for only 2.9% of applicants to U.S. medical schools, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC. The statistic’s damaging consequences are many: worse outcomes for black patients, mistrust between patients and doctors, and the implicit message that black men don’t belong in the clinic.
So implicit, in fact, that one of Okorodudu’s patients — himself a black man — thought that the bespectacled, soft-spoken man at his bedside was hospital transportation staff, not his physician.
“I think he was embarrassed, a little bit,” says Okorodudu.
It’s a telling symptom of the pernicious narrative forced upon the black community. “The American dream is that you can become whatever you want in society,” says Okorodudu. “But unfortunately, the American dream isn’t told to black boys.”
At a recent local storytelling event, Okorodudu, who grew up outside of Houston, talked about the experiences that shaped him as an aspiring medical student. There was the unsolicited judgment from a perfect stranger on an airplane, the racial epithets hurled by professors, not to mention the patient who doubted his professional abilities — all because of the color of his skin.
“Insecurity. Powerlessness. Feeling unwanted,” Okorodudu said at the event. “When you’re trying to get into a field that’s as difficult as the medical field, these are barriers that make it very hard to be successful.”
So Okorodudu is spreading a different message through his website, Black Men in White Coats. The site is a one-stop resource portal that has supported hundreds of young black students through a mentorship program, stories highlighting the career paths of successful health professionals and information about career-building opportunities.
“We aim to inspire and give people hope,” says Okorodudu. “Black Men in White Coats is there to say, ‘You can be a doctor.’”
For Okorodudu, hope came in the form of mentor figures and advocates he met along the way. To start: his family. “My parents are not medical doctors, but they are Nigerian immigrants” with high expectations, he says. As the youngest child, he watched his older siblings exceed their parents’ high academic standards with advanced degrees in computer science, medicine and law.
When Okorodudu set off for college at the University of Missouri, he was guided by emeritus associate professor of pathology Dr. Ellis Ingram. Motivated by his own medical school experience in a post-Jim Crow South, Ingram would host early weekend morning meetings for minority students applying to medical school.
“If they’re staying up partying all night, they didn’t come,” Ingram says, “but Dale was one of those students who would show up.”
Okorodudu not only showed up, but also made a mental note to pay it forward. After completing medical school at Missouri, he moved to Duke University for his medical residency training. There, he started his own mentorship program.
“I thought: There are so many kids who I should be able to easily mentor who are still in Missouri,” he says.
He reached into his network and started an impromptu mentorship program that paired younger students with seasoned medical workers through monthly discussions and activities.
But there was still more to do. In 2013, Okorodudu came across an AAMC report stating that the percentage of black men applying to medical school in 2011 was actually lower than in 2002.
“The study emphasized that we had to reach more people,” he says. “And the best way I knew how was to put out a video.” So he did. By May 2013, his fledgling mentorship program had evolved into Black Men in White Coats, a combination of in-person advising and virtual inspiration through videos.
Okorodudu’s videos have reached even those studying the issue, including Dr. Marc Nivet, executive vice president for institutional advancement at UT Southwestern Medical Center and former chief diversity officer for AAMC. Nivet was impressed by Okorodudu’s efforts, as well as his unique perspective.
“There are a lot of passionate people about a lot of issues, so it takes somebody to have the aptitude and the attitude to be successful,” says Nivet. What sets Okorodudu apart is that “he realizes and appreciates that as he’s climbing, he has to lift others.”
After finishing his residency, Okorodudu returned to Texas, where he sees patients out of the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center. In addition, he performs administrative duties and directs a program for underrepresented minorities in medicine at the UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Meanwhile, Black Men in White Coats has grown to include a podcast and summit whose inaugural meeting in February — Black History Month — drew over 1,800 registrants.
The mentorship that Okorodudu received during his professional journey gave him the confidence to excel and dream big. So big, in fact, that nobody questions his latest endeavor, a Kickstarter campaign to fund a Black Men in White Coats documentary. The campaign was promoted on NBC’s Today show and has raised over 70% of its $100,000 goal. The campaign ends July 26.
“Whatever he says, he’s going to do it!” laughs his wife, Dr. Janai Okorodudu, who practices family medicine. In college, “the first thing he told me was that he’d get a 4.0 GPA as a pre-med,” she says. But, “after he got a 4.0, I stopped doubting him.”
According to his family, Dale Okorodudu was single-minded from the start. On a recent Monday evening, he was at the Plano Sports Authority coaching the basketball team that includes his older son and nephew. Watching from the sidelines was his brother, computer scientist Tony Okorodudu, who recalled a young Dale’s obsession with joining the NBA.
“There was a point in time when my parents banned Dale from mentioning the word ‘basketball,’” said Tony, “because he talked about it so much in elementary school.”
Okorodudu’s boyhood dreams have morphed into a familiar focus and determination. Just before half-time, Janai had to tone down his enthusiastic coaching. “Calm down!” she called from the bleachers. “You’re going to get ejected!”
It’s all part of Okorodudu’s hopes for his 8-year-old son. “I want to build up his confidence,” he says. “And I want that confidence on the court to translate into the rest of his life.”
And will Okorodudu ever take it easy, either on or off the court? Hopefully, he says. “It’s one of those things where you want to put yourself out of a job,” he says. “If our efforts aren’t needed in five, 10 years, that’d be amazing.”
(Article written by Irena Fischer-Hwang)