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First Black Men in Medicine graduate returns for residency at VCU

Aspiring gastroenterologist credits the program with opening doors to career in medicine.

Two men stand in a medical hallway smiling. One is wearing a doctor's white coat. Siddiq Elmahdi, who was part of the Black Men in Medicine program as an undergraduate, credits his mentor Henry Lewis III for "helping me get to where I am today." (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By James Shea
When Siddiq Elmahdi made his first rounds as a medical resident last summer, he reflected on his long journey to get here.
He started out as an undergraduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University and pursued medical school at another institution. It now feels like a homecoming, being back in Richmond as a first-year post-graduate training at VCU Health.
A key reason for his success was a pioneering program at VCU to increase the number of Black male medical doctors.
“VCU was very supportive of my journey,” he said.
Leaning into medicine
Growing up in Northern Virginia as the son of Sudanese immigrants, Elmahdi entered VCU as a biology major. Personal experiences drew him toward medicine around 2016.
“I started to think more about medicine during my second year because a lot of people in my family were getting sick,” Elmahdi said. “I was seeing the impact that medicine was having on them. My dad had bypass surgery. I saw him recover and get back on his feet.”
At the same time, Henry W. Lewis III, senior residency program coordinator at VCU Health, was starting the Black Men in Medicine program, designed to bring more Black men into the medical profession. What inspired Lewis’ effort was a publication from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) entitled “Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine,” which revealed that the number of Black men in medical school had not increased in generations.
The report noted that in 2014, Black men accounted for a total of 1,337 applicants and 515 enrolled students at medical schools. That proportionally low number had dipped from 1970. At the same time, the AAMC reported in 2019 that 830 Black men under 34 years old were practicing medicine in the U.S., compared to 12,125 white men of the same age.
The publication noted one of the areas where Black men needed more assistance was through mentorship.
“Black men often have a lack of trust and have a hard time seeking guidance,” Lewis said.
That led Lewis to create Black Men in Medicine at VCU. The student-run organization is designed to improve fellowship and camaraderie within Black male undergraduate students who are considering a career in medicine. The young men gather for various events and bond. They listen to presentations from Black medical students and network with successful Black physicians.
“The study really showed that this is a national issue,” Lewis said. “At the time, I really reflected and thought, ‘there has to be something that we can do at VCU to help this national problem.”
To form the group, Lewis sent out an email to a list of Black, male undergraduate students at VCU and who had shown an interest in medicine. The email encouraged everyone to get together and form a mentorship program. Elmahdi’s friend suggested he join, becoming one of the founding members of VCU’s Black Men in Medicine.
He is also the first member of the organization to graduate from medical school.  Fourteen students who were part of the group have since entered medical school. Four others who Lewis has worked with, but were not part of the group, have also enrolled.
Elmahdi says he would not be providing care to patients at VCU if it were not for Black Men in Medicine and Lewis’ guidance.
Providing mentorship to underrepresented students
Navigating the complexities to prepare for medical school isn’t easy to do alone.
Lewis saw potential in Elmahdi early on and encouraged him to pursue a career in medicine.
“He was eager to receive help,” Lewis said. “One of the main issues I would say with men in general, and Black men in particular, in a professional setting is we don’t always ask for help. That was one of the reasons I started the group. I was an advisor, but I didn’t get a lot of Black male students who came to seek my help.”
Lewis connected the young undergraduate student with Phillip Duncan, M.D., a Richmond cardiologist who had recently joined VCU Health. Duncan hired Elmahdi as a medical assistant, where he learned how to take vital signs and record health data. Duncan was impressed with Elmahdi, saying he has a great combination of concentration and compassion.
“He is extremely bright,” Duncan said. “At the same time, he was extremely humble and very, very personable. The patients liked him because of his manner. He is gentle but focused.”
Working with Duncan was a real turning point, Elmahdi says. He was around another Black physician and saw that he enjoyed working in medicine.
“It got me some great exposure and some great connections.” Elmahdi said.
At the same time, Elmahdi built up relationships through Black Men in Medicine. The group was helping Black students understand the challenge of applying for medical school. Elmahdi said it was nice to have a space to talk about what it’s like being the only Black person in a pre-med class.
“The point of the group was to have people who have similar interests and similar backgrounds and similar day-to-day lives and struggles,” Elmahdi said. “We came together to talk about these things.”
The path away from Richmond leads student back to VCU
Elmahdi graduated from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences with a B.S. in Biology and a B.S. in Psychology in 2017 and entered the one-year Premedical Graduate Health Sciences Certificate program from the VCU School of Medicine, graduating in 2018. With a letter of recommendation from Duncan in hand, Elmahdi applied to medical programs at VCU School of Medicine and several other schools. In the end, Eastern Virginia Medical School was the only school that accepted him. While he was disappointed VCU did not accept him, he was excited to continue his education at EVMS.
In the end, Elmahdi believes it was the right choice. At EVMS, he connected with a whole new set of people and was exposed to areas of the medical profession that broadened his outlook.
He began to explore the possibility of a career in the field of gastroenterology, which is a specialization in disorders and diseases that affect the digestive system.
While his dad had suffered a heart attack, his mother suffered from digestive issues and saw a gastroenterologist, also known as a GI doctor. The doctor helped her address the challenges that she faced, and Elmahdi thought he could do the same.
Elmahdi had also leaned into his mother in other ways during his medical school journey. His mother is a doctor and he had often asked her for advice about being a doctor.
“I have the privilege of being able to talk to her about it,” he said. “I wasn’t going in completely blind.”
When Elmahdi neared graduation from medical school, VCU was on his radar when he began applying for residency programs. After sending applications to about two dozen schools, he eventually learned that he was accepted to VCU. Since last June, he has been doing rotations at VCU Health and other medical facilities around Richmond.
“If I had gotten into VCU for medical school, I would have gone here,” Elmahdi said “That is why I came back for residency. I love it here, but I am very glad that I ended up in Norfolk, because I met some great people.”
Reflecting on growth and gratitude
It has been amazing for Duncan and Lewis to see Elmahdi grow and thrive over the years, transforming from a young college student with a vague sense about going to medical school to providing care to patients back where his journey started.
“For him to be a Black man to match with internal medicine at VCU and be a part of a program that helped him get there is an amazing VCU story,” Lewis said.
Duncan has seen Elmahdi around the campus and has watched him work. He knows that his former mentee will be a good doctor.
Lewis said Elmahdi is able to build a strong rapport with many patients. As a Black doctor, the patients see someone who "looks like them."
“I wasn’t surprised he wanted to come back,” Lewis said. “He’s had a lot of mentors and experiences here. I was excited that he wanted to come back.”
Elmahdi credits the doors of medical school being open to him with the support of Lewis and Black Men in Medicine.
“I give Henry all the credit in the world for helping me get to where I am today,” he said. “He [and Black Men in Medicine] played a huge part.”

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