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Living on a Vision and a Prayer

Headshot of Caylon Pettis wearing a black jacket, blue shirt and pink bow tie.

MD/MPH Candidate Caylon Pettis documents his journey through medical school.

For Caylon Pettis, attending medical school was a spiritual calling – one his best friend had dreamt, and for which his grandmother had prayed.

“As a struggling student, medical education was the furthest thing from my mind,” Pettis said. “But they said, ‘We saw it – you can, and you will, become a doctor.’”

No one had ever approached Pettis before with the idea of becoming a physician.

“I had no direction, no guidance, no framework,” he said. “I just had to do it, face my failures, take stock of my deficits, and try again differently each time.”

Today, Pettis is in his final year at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine, earning both his MD and a Master of Public Health.

National Medical Fellowships helped him achieve his success, he said.

“NMF’s foundational programs gave me many opportunities to research and learn more about issues that are personal to me,” Pettis said, citing his desire to create positive change in the communities he serves with preventive health initiatives, diversified clinical research, and health care equity and advocacy.

“It’s imperative that I’m as vested as possible in the organization because of how integral it has become to my life.”

Pettis worked as a pharmacy technician while earning his Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and molecular biology from Rhodes College in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

His friend, however, pushed a different directive on Pettis for three years.

“He called and said, ‘I dreamt we became doctors, so what we should do is start a practice in the hood to help Black people get better,’” Pettis said.

After further encouragement from his Black male physician, Pettis approached his college advisor with the idea, but was told to apply elsewhere. He then sought advice from his grandmother, a former educator who had been one of the first Black teachers to integrate schools in Memphis.

“She said she prayed on it, and the Lord said I’d get into medical school if I just applied,” Pettis said. “And I thought, angrily, why shouldn’t I be able to?”

There had been no increase in the percent of male Black physicians over the past 80 years, so when Pettis applied – and was accepted – he began working toward becoming one of the 2% of Black psychiatrists in the U.S.

“I wanted to look more deeply into how Black Americans express their emotions, what resources are available to them to process trauma in healthy ways, and why the rates of suicide and gun violence in our communities are always higher.”

Pettis said this was further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest and increased racism following the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020.

“When everyone else was closing programs, NMF created safe and productive ways – often virtual – to keep their programs running,” Pettis said. “With the Primary Care Leadership Program, I got to experience firsthand the greatest stress test of the health care system in recent history.”

As Pettis worked toward decreasing barriers for Black patients to colorectal screening and tobacco cessation programs in federally qualified health centers, he also was introduced to substance use disorder care and community clinics designed to assist the unhoused with withdrawal symptoms.

“We have to provide support and the correct resources for people before it’s too late,” he said. “Because it’s not just addiction they’re struggling with, but also the trauma they’ve experienced, their socioeconomic status, and their place within their communities and environments at large.

“You have to approach such issues with the most humanistic of lenses.”

Pettis continued to study the correlation between trauma, addiction, and chronic pain during his second year in the United Health Foundation/NMF Diverse Medical Scholars Program.

“Many of those suffering from substance use disorders were at first simply patients looking for pain relief,” he said.

Finally, Pettis sought to get to the root of behavioral issues in his first and third year of the program, which is set to conclude in January.

“How do various adverse childhood experiences (ACE) affect both physical and behavioral outcomes, including brain development, cardiovascular health, attention spans, decision-making, learning abilities, attendance, conduct, and resilience?”

“Can we try to protect children and adolescents from further detrimental incidents by working with the education sector to screen and identify students who might benefit from additional resources or healthier coping mechanisms?

“And what interventions may help prevent substance use disorders or suicidal ideations due to past or current trauma?”

Meeting people who can help guide you makes all the difference, Pettis said, which is why he’s volunteered with the I Am Able organization in Chicago since his first year in medical school, assisting fellow minority students navigate the path from pre-med to physician.

Pettis said he wouldn’t be where he was today without the power of mentorship and proudly serves as treasurer of the NMF Young Leaders Council.

“When you come from under-resourced communities, you don’t have the relationships, education, or financial stability that have helped prepare your classmates. None of my dreams and aspirations would’ve been realized without the community I found within National Medical Fellowships.”

When he’s not applying to residencies in psychiatry or engaging with NMF alumni via his work with the Young Leaders Council, Pettis often speaks on behalf of organizations such as Black Men in Medicine, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the National Medical Association.

“I speak about the existing barriers to medical careers, including academic disparities in K-12 education, financial strain within first-generation households, racial inequities in health care, and the lack of mentorship available to help students of color successfully matriculate into medical school,” he said.

Pettis said he’ll continue to prioritize mentorship as his career in behavioral medicine progresses.

“When the Lord speaks to us, I want others to have the ability and confidence to try something new. While I can’t make things happen for you, I can make it easier for you to accomplish what you never dreamed you could.”