December 15, 2020

Washington People: Eric W. Carson, MD

Increasing diversity, mentorship in medicine are key goals for orthopedic surgeon.

While growing up in Boston’s inner city, Eric Carson didn’t think African Americans, like himself, could become physicians. Not only did he become a physician, he chose to work in orthopedics, and is working towards changing the face of the specialty.

Carson, one of four children raised by a single mother, was bused along with his siblings to more affluent, predominantly white suburbs for elementary and high school. To fill their free time, his mother enrolled them in a variety of activities run by nonprofit organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

“My mother is a hero from the perspective that she kept us all busy,” said Carson, now a professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “And the beauty of it all is that her sacrifices paid off for all four of her kids.” He and his siblings all have graduate degrees and successful careers.

As a youth, Carson became an avid athlete, playing high school and college football, running track and becoming a member of a ski team. “I excelled in football at Tufts University, enough to receive invites to professional football training camps for the fledgling United States Football League (USFL),” said Carson. But instead of pursuing his football prospects, he decided to attend the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago for medical school.

From there, getting into orthopedics proved challenging. After Carson aced his Step 1 licensing exam, his adviser discouraged his interest in orthopedics, a highly competitive specialty with few underrepresented minorities in its ranks, particularly at the time. But with encouragement from a friendly resident he knew, Carson found a new mentor and surprised his class when he matched into orthopedics at Harvard University, back in his hometown.

Haunting experience
During his residency in Boston, Carson was walking down the street early one morning, on his way to rounds at the hospital. Suddenly, Boston Police officers appeared, wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him and pointed a gun at his head, he recalls. They had been looking for a Black suspect in the recent murder of a pregnant woman. The victim’s husband had blamed the crime on a “Black man” with a physical description similar to Carson’s. The husband later admitted to killing his wife and then died by suicide. But the incident continues to haunt Carson to this day.

The episode is a reminder to Carson to not let his guard down, especially in light of the killings by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people. He has made a point of stressing to his son, a Black man in his 20s, to always remain vigilant. Carson has been very open about his experiences, sharing them widely, particularly within the medical community.

The Road to Leadership
The incident in many ways changed Carson, but he was careful to not let it stop his momentum. Carson continued his medical training in Boston, focusing on sports medicine. During this time he served as a trusted medical provider for professional athletes, including NFL players and US Olympians.

While training in Boston, he and his wife also prepared for the birth of their second child. The young family was struggling to get by on a resident’s salary. He had always admired two of his uncles for their decisions to join the military. So he decided to join as a reservist with the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

Carson went on to be deployed three times, and by the time Carson left the military, he had been promoted from Captain to Lieutenant Colonel. “It was a great experience,” he said. “But it was time to move on to other things.”

He began pursuit of an important personal goal: recruiting underrepresented minorities into the field of orthopedic surgery. “We all want to be around people who look like us, who talk like us, who can understand us,” said Carson. 

The Road to St. Louis
Carson’s move to St. Louis stemmed, in part, from a lasting friendship with Regis O’Keefe, MD, PhD, the Fred C. Reynolds Professor and head of Washington University’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. The two met during Carson’s residency at MGH, where O’Keefe was a fellow under Henry Mankin, MD, a renowned tumor surgeon who trained generations of orthopedic leaders.

Like Carson, O’Keefe was raised by a single mother in a poor neighborhood, though O’Keefe grew up in Pittsburgh. The two doctors quickly formed a friendship, bonding over a shared goal of increasing recruitment of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and underrepresented minorities in their field. They stayed in touch after their training days, and when a job at Washington University opened up in 2019, Carson contacted O’Keefe, who was eager to hire him.

“Dr. Carson has a unique awareness of how other people are doing, where they may be struggling, and when and how, in a really thoughtful way, to be there for them and help them through issues,” said O’Keefe. “And when you have individuals like that, it creates a culture of caring.”

Carson joined the faculty and also was named chief of orthopedic surgery at John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis — a role he said is greatly influenced by his military background.
“My service definitely gives me the opportunity to understand veterans and really be sympathetic and empathetic to a unique group of patients,” he said.

O’Keefe said he wanted to expand the orthopedic training program at the VA and that Carson has brought renewed energy and vision to that endeavor. “With his leadership, it is now a highlight for our trainees to rotate through the VA, work with Dr. Carson and get a sense of accomplishment for helping the veteran population,” says O’Keefe.

Prior to coming to Washington University, Carson said he hadn’t really thought of himself as a leader. Now he is not only directing orthopedic care at the VA, he is leading the way for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive environment in his department and throughout the medical school.

“For me,” he said, “what it comes down to is making a difference in people’s lives.”

Read Dr. Carson’s full profile in the Washington University School of Medicine newsroom.

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