July 12, 2021, 2:22 p.m. David Mitchell — Paying $2 for a children’s book at a secondhand store turned out to be an excellent investment for the family of Carl Lambert Jr., M.D.
“My dad would take me to thrift stores, and one of the earliest memories I have is seeing this Charlie Brown anatomy book about the human body — how it works and the different organ systems — and I was just so fascinated,” Lambert said. “And I begged my dad, ‘Can I have it?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, you can have it if you haggle for it.’ So, I had to haggle for this book. But I got it, brought it home and I ate that book up.”
Lambert, now an assistant professor of family medicine at Rush University Medical College, then started teaching what he learned from the Peanuts gang to family, visitors, stuffed animals or whomever might listen.
“I would try to explain to them anatomy and physiology,” he said. “So, my parents would say, ‘This is kind of unique, but we support it.’ So clearly, they saw early my love for the human body, the love to help other people and interest in math and science.”
Lambert got an early introduction to the physicians at Rush because his younger brothers, who have autism, went there to see a pediatric neurologist.
“I was interested in how you can use medicine, knowledge of science and interpersonal skills to help vulnerable populations,” he said. “I learned firsthand that patients with autism and developmental disabilities may sometimes need someone to advocate for them. Sometimes they can’t speak or advocate for themselves. As physicians, we can stand in the gap and do that for them, or with them, with good care and compassion.”
Lambert found his own path to family medicine in an unlikely setting. Forrest Robinson, D.O., of Oak Park, Ill., is a pastor at Lambert’s church and became his mentor between his first and second years in medical school. Lambert shadowed Robinson for two months in his suburban clinic through an AAFP Foundation externship program.
“I was mesmerized by how he integrated love for patients, medicine, students and even his Christian faith,” Lambert said. “He is a doctor who isn’t afraid to pray with patients and talk about that spiritual aspect. He’s holistic, comprehensive, smart and also compassionate in a way that I hadn’t seen a doctor practice before, so being with him was inspirational. I thought, ‘I want to do family medicine, and I want to do it like him.’”
It helped that Lambert found a role model who, like him, is a Black man, a demographic that accounts for less than 3% of the U.S. physician workforce. Robinson, whom Lambert still considers a mentor, officiated Lambert’s wedding.
“He’s also a Black male family physician, and it’s unfortunately so rare to see that,” Lambert said, “that I really just clung to him. It was a blessing to cross paths with him and have that sort of relationship.”
Lambert’s family medicine rotation during his third year confirmed his specialty choice.
“I went through my rotations, and everything was cool and interesting,” he said. “But when I got to my family medicine rotation, it felt right — the relationships you have with your patients and the longitudinal aspect of those relationships; knowing units of families, not just random people, and being on a journey with them and seeing their stories unfold.”
Lambert will be a panelist during a discussion about the future of patient care Sept. 29 during the virtual Family Medicine Experience. Lambert said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed health inequities in U.S. minority populations like the largely Latinx and Black populations that Rush serves.
“We have got to put money and resources into primary care and family medicine so that those patients are better cared for and have the access that they need,” he said.
That includes recruiting more students — including minorities — to primary care careers. Lambert is a mentor for the I Am Abel Foundation, a Chicago program that aims to increase exposure, education and opportunities for underrepresented minorities in math, science, research, medicine and public health. He also is a faculty adviser for Rush chapter of the Student National Medical Association, which provides community and supports the growth and endeavors of minority medical students.
Lambert, who serves on Rush’s admissions executive committee, said that although it is a “privilege” to be a Black male physician, it can also be challenging trying to help those who come after him.
“If you talk to minority faculty members, they will say, ‘I’m on a million task forces and diversity committees, and I’m mentoring medical students and talking to high school students and doing all these things that aren’t even related directly to my job,’” he said. “Although that is noble, much-needed work, it can be really taxing and exhausting. You feel like you have to represent all the time for your people, and there’s little room for mistakes. No matter what you do, there’s always more work to do, and there’s just not enough hours in the day. It’s a unique space to be in, so it’s a privilege, but it’s also just a lot of work and absolutely a sign that things need to change so that we don’t feel all of this pressure to make it happen by ourselves.”
Lambert also directs Rush’s Family Medicine Leadership Program, a four-year curriculum designed to develop clinical and academic leaders in the specialty. A select group of first-year students is admitted each year through a competitive application process. Students are paired with faculty mentors and develop and implement quality improvement or community service projects.
“That’s a way to really put leadership into action and see fruitful change in our communities,” Lambert said. “I think schools are getting hip to the fact that we have such a lack of primary care doctors, and we have to do something about that. We need to create innovative ways to get students interested in primary care and family medicine and to make it less onerous for them. If you can create a pipeline, that’s super helpful.”