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A Favorable Prognosis

A Favorable Prognosis

Xavier’s “hurricane class” of students entering medical schools is even higher than the year before.

By Pearl Stewart

Dr. Keith Amos’ undying support for his undergrad alma mater, Xavier University of Louisiana, took an unusual turn last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Amos remembers becoming emotional as he watched news coverage of desperate students awaiting rescue on the roof of an Xavier dorm. The now-famous photo of the students hoisting signs pleading, “help us” moved Amos to act. Living in Houston while completing a surgical oncology fellowship, he soon found ways to help the evacuees from New Orleans and some of the students at his beloved Xavier.

“After it was announced that people were being evacuated from the [New Orleans] Superdome and brought to the Houston Astrodome, I went to the Astrodome at about 11:00 that night and volunteered,” he says. Amos was one of many physicians conducting impromptu medical screenings and helping evacuees obtain medications that had been lost or destroyed. “We did what we could to help, but what a lot of people needed was somebody to talk to, so I did a lot of listening.”

Amos, who graduated from Harvard Medical School after earning his bachelor’s from Xavier, also served as a mentor and advisor for Xavier students whose plans for applying to medical schools were interrupted by the hurricane. And later, Amos joined other Xavier alumni in Houston in hosting fundraisers at their homes to help the struggling students and faculty.

Meanwhile, the legendary director of Xavier’s pre-med program, Dr. J.W. Carmichael, was struggling both personally and professionally. While trying to manage his own relocation issues, Carmichael worked to keep his scattered pre-med students’ medical school applications on track.

Both Carmichael and Amos were featured in a July 21, 2001, article in Black Issues In Higher Education about the university’s esteemed pre-med program. For six consecutive years, Xavier had sent more Black students to medical school than any other institution in the country.

Xavier, the only Catholic, historically Black university in the country, has extended that record each year. Now, incredibly, after months of uncertainty and disruption, university president Dr. Norman Francis told Diverse that 85 of Xavier’s August graduates have been accepted into medical school, an even higher number than last year, when 73 were accepted.

“From the figures I have seen, we are once again sending more African-American students to medical school than any other institution,” Francis says.

Carmichael, who borders on the eccentric in his enthusiasm and determination to help his students, is credited with holding the program together after Katrina, along with his assistant, QuoVadis Webster. “I don’t see why we’re not all in insane asylums. It was like a third-world country when we came back here,” says Carmichael, who “only” lost the roof on his French Quarter home. “I know I went into a depression, and I’m just coming out of it now, so I can talk about it.”

Depressed or not, while on leave for the past year, Carmichael began a blog containing information about medical school deadlines and applications. He also set up a method through Duke University for Xavier’s pre-med students to submit their applications to various schools online. Because he had cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses for every pre-med student, he was able to maintain contact with all of them even amid the devastation and confusion. Carmichael also assigned mentors, including Amos, to help specific students through the application process.

One of those students was Jessica Butler, who had attended a summer research program at Harvard last year, and had just returned to Xavier for her senior year when Katrina struck. Butler learned that Harvard was accepting some hurricane-displaced students in its undergraduate program, and applied. She was accepted and spent the fall semester at Harvard. When Xavier reopened in January, Butler was back, ready to complete her senior year. Xavier is holding its “second semester” this summer and graduation is scheduled for Aug. 12 instead of in May.

Butler believes the worst of the recovery is in the past. “I believe everyone is over the hurricane and simply getting things ready for graduation and professional school or whatever is next in their lives. Overall, I think everyone is trying to move on the best way they know how.”

When she returned to campus in January, restaurants and stores weren’t open and the atmosphere was “depressing.” But now, she says, “The most difficult thing for me is having to go to school during the summer when I will be starting medical school the week after I graduate.”

Butler, a native of Baton Rouge, La., will attend Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans and plans to practice neonatology in her home state.

According to administration reports, most of her Xavier classmates returned to the university and are on track for graduation this summer. Butler says part of the reason is loyalty, but the other part is practicality. It is difficult to transfer credits, so students may have had to spend another year as an undergraduate if they had chosen to remain at other schools.

In addition to maintaining its pre-med program’s reputation, Xavier has managed to attract most of its previous students back to the campus. Enrollment in fall 2006 is expected to be “right about 3,000,” Francis says, about 700 fewer than the pre-Katrina number. “And after what we have been through, it’s a bit of a miracle.”

That isn’t the only miraculous development at the university since Katrina. The government of Qatar has pledged $17.5 million to Xavier for a variety of purposes, including tuition assistance and the expansion of the College of Pharmacy.

As a result of other contributions, Xavier’s endowment, which was at an all-time high of $55 million before the hurricane, has remained nearly the same. The endowment is now down to $50 million, even after the approximately $15 million the university paid to contractors after the renovation began. Francis says insurance and government claims should help restore funds that had to be used for the recovery efforts.

“We all miscalculated the time it took to get money from FEMA and the federal government,” says Francis, who lost his home and is now living in a New Orleans house owned by his son. However, he says Congress is beginning to move quickly and grants are now available for people to rebuild their homes, and to cover costs that insurance companies have rejected.

As chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Francis has been directly involved in the state’s rebuilding efforts. Getting residents to return to New Orleans and persuading parents in other areas to send incoming freshmen to the city is a difficult task, especially in light of nationally publicized crime sprees and the requested mobilization of the National Guard by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

“I would be dishonest if I said these reports don’t have an impact, but it’s part of what every major city goes through,” Francis says. “It gets great attention, however, when it happens now, while we’re in the fragile position of rebuilding.” Crime, he says, is not widespread, but is related mainly to drug dealing and turf wars in certain parts of the city.

Butler, one month away from graduation, agrees, saying students aren’t affected by the street crimes. “I haven’t heard anybody talking about crime at all,” she says. “We’re focused on finishing the semester.”

Fellow pre-med student Gwenevere Weatherspoon is beginning her senior year at Xavier. She evacuated to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for the fall semester and, like Butler, returned to Xavier in January. She says she is seeing rebirth and hope in the aftermath of the disaster.

“Initially, just thinking about the situation would bring tears to the eyes of my fellow students,” Weatherspoon says. “When we returned to Xavier it was difficult. The campus was still undergoing major renovations and the city was practically empty. Now we have a new sense of unity. Even though we’re tired, we are still content and looking towards the future

“We all decided to return,” she says, “because Xavier is who we are.”

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