Dr. Keith Black is one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons. He is the chair of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. His additional titles include professor of Neurosurgery, the Ruth and Lawrence Harvey Chair in Neuroscience, and director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute.
Black has received numerous awards and honors and is a Time Magazine Hero of Medicine recipient. Simply stated, he is brilliant… a prodigy…the brother is bad to the bone and worthy of our collective ‘we see you’ accolades.
There’s the adage that says we should give people their flowers while they are living, and this piece seeks to do just that. Dr. Black’s story is one that must be told.
Dr. Keith Black, son of Robert and Lillian Black, was born to parents who understood early on that Black and his younger brother, Robert Jr., deserved the best educational opportunities that they could provide for them.
His parents, both educators in the deep south (Alabama) moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when Black was 10 years of age to ensure that his educational curiosities and passions were nurtured. At 17, Black showed early flashes of brilliance when he published his first scientific paper winning the national Westinghouse Science Talent Search competition.
Under the tutelage of Frederick Cross and Richard Jones, inventors of the Cross-Jones artificial heart valve, Black, a high school student, would learn to perform transplant surgeries and heart valve replacements on laboratory dogs.
He would enroll at the University of Michigan, receiving his undergraduate degree and completing medical school in six short years.
According to Dr. Black, the road to neurosurgery is arduous. It is fraught with naysayers, especially for people of color ‘are you sure you are smart enough to do that?’ And lest we forget, neurosurgery is the crème de la crème of medicine, a field so specialized that it requires years of training after completing four years of medical school.
Dear readers, it is not for the faint of heart. It is a profession you must know in your knower (as my grandmother would say) you want to pursue. Besides his surgical brilliance, there are many reasons the L.A. Watts Times decided to profile Dr. Black.
He is a scientist at heart, a dedicated family man, respected by most, a doctor who gives of himself to the community, and has sage advice that young people should hear. The L.A. Sentinel had the honor of speaking with Dr. Black.
L.A. Sentinel: Your parents seemed to encourage your passion for science early in life. Can you talk about what it meant to you to have that kind of encouragement as a young person?
Dr. Keith Black: I think the impact of having my parent’s vision and support was essential for my success. I would not be where I am today without that. The greatest blessing that any child can have is two supportive parents. And I was particularly blessed because both my parents were educators. They understood the value of education, and my father was a scholar of different strategies for raising children.
He dreamed that every generation would do better and be better than the prior generation despite the obstacles and hurdles they might face. The “King Richard” movie reminded me of my father and mother. They were focused on putting things in place that would enable my brother and me to succeed.
I describe my father as the ultimate educator. He put both his sons in an environment that allowed us to be exposed to different things and have opportunities to see things. He watched us carefully and looked at how we responded and interacted with different environments. And he looked for things that we resonated with, and he nurtured those things.
For example, when he saw early on that I had a passion for science as I searched different streams in our neighborhood looking for tadpoles, he cultivated that interest. When he saw that I was on the back porch dissecting a frog that I had caught, he went to the slaughterhouse and bought me a cow’s heart that I could dissect. He encouraged that.
And since he knew I had a love and passion for science, he got me a chemistry set when I was young. And when I blew up the kitchen with that chemistry set, I didn’t get in trouble. [Laughter]
There are many headwinds particularly against children that come from non-privileged backgrounds that impact their ability to thrive. These children must have a lot of tailwinds to push them through and that’s what my parents provided for me. They not only provided me with support, but also with tools to navigate those tough headwinds that every Black child encounters.
LAS: As you pursued internships and fellowships in neurosurgery, can you discuss how racism impacted your journey and how you navigated those biases?
KB: It would have been completely naïve to believe that everyone was on a level playing field. As an African American, what I always say is that if you’re in a boxing match, and it’s a close call, you’re not going to get the benefit of the doubt, you’re not going to win on a decision. That decision is most likely going to go against you. You’ve got to win with a knockout.
That was my philosophy that I grew up with. My parents always instilled in me that I had to be better than the person standing beside me to at least get the same opportunities. And I had to be better by a significant margin. It’s not fair, but I accepted that circumstance. I always knew that I had to be better.
When I decided I wanted to be a neurosurgeon in medical school and I put on my only suit and tie and went to meet with the chair of neurosurgery at Michigan, I didn’t know that he was a racist and that he didn’t like Black people or women.
So, when he looked at me and said what makes you think you can be a neurosurgeon, you must be smart to be a neurosurgeon, you must be able to think on your feet, I didn’t let his words discourage me. I took that negative energy and let it fuel me to become more prepared.
So, if there is conscious or unconscious bias against you because of your race or gender, you must have the mindset going in that you will outperform. You must demonstrate that you are ready to be in the game and that your head is in the game.
LAS: The percentage of Black doctors who select neurosurgery as their specialty remains low. Your thoughts about that?
KB: It is slowly changing. At Cedars-Sinai, we have 400 applicants for two neurosurgery slots and there is a natural tendency to select those that are like you. African Americans have a lower percentage of getting matched in neurosurgery programs. So, we have created scholars programs at Cedars. We have created the Denzel and Pauletta Washington gifted scholars program where we had 25 scholars to come through the program, five of whom are now neurosurgeons.
We’ve been very successful at getting students prepared, making research and publishing opportunities available, and getting them prepared to compete for neurosurgery slots. I am very proud to say that one of the neurosurgeons on my faculty now – Lindsey Ross – came through our program. Dr. Ross was discouraged, coming out of UCLA, from being a neurosurgeon. They diverted her to general surgery, but we mentored her and now she’s thriving in neurosurgery.
We also have the Ray Charles scholars, the Sony scholars, many who come from HBCUs. We bring them to Cedars, mentor and prepare them to compete, and to successfully secure spots in neurosurgery programs. And this year, of those 400 applicants, we selected two minorities who made it on their own merit.
LAS: In a perfect world, what would you like community groups to do more of to introduce kids to neuroscience, the STEM areas?
KB: I’m bias – I think neurosurgery is the best field on the planet! The STEM fields are the opportunity areas, where the jobs are – science, technology, and math. We must step up as a community and provide support, structure, and opportunities.
We have a program at Cedars called Brainworks. About 3,000 students – 7th, 8th, and 9th graders – come to Cedars and for a day, they get to be a neurosurgeon, but that’s only one time I can touch them. Then they go back into their environment, and we have no touch point for 363 days.
We must create a structure where we have touch points every day. No one group can do this alone. We must partner with high schools, middle schools, universities, technology, and biotech companies to create a network to show kids the opportunities in STEM and the medical field and reiterate the message that these opportunities are exciting, fun, and financially rewarding.
LAS: In terms of health equity, how hopeful are you that lack of access for Black people will one day be a thing of the past?
KB: I am cautiously optimistic. So, we are sitting here in 2022, when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech how many decades ago? I didn’t believe that in 2022, health equity would still be an issue. At least now, we are shinning more light on the problems.
We know that African American have mistrust of the health care system, and there are physicians who don’t realize that they may treat a patient differently because of race, so we’re looking at ways to train and broaden understanding in that area.
At Cedars, every resident, fellow, and physician must undergo unconscious bias training to address those biases. There are many factors to address, and change will not happen overnight, but as we apply more science, more resources, we will make progress.
LAS: How does your faith impact your work as a neurosurgeon?
KB: Being alive is a miracle. I guess the best way I can describe it as a scientist, as a physician, and a neurosurgeon … there is a saying that if you want to understand art, you study the artist. If you’re going to understand God, you study life, and what He has created.
So, when you look at the human brain, you are looking at God’s art. That doesn’t mean I have a particular religion, but you cannot look at the human brain, the process of life, and not be in awe. It’s not random, science is always trying to explain it, but there is still that awe. You have that sense deep down that there is something extraordinary about all of us being here.
LAS: A few fun questions…favorite place in the world?
KB: Amalfi Coast. I love the people, the beauty of the ocean, and the hills.
LAS: Favorite sports team in LA?
KB: The Lakers, but I have them on probation!
LAS: Favorite restaurant?
KB: It’s hard to beat Nobu Malibu for the ambiance …good food…
LAS: Favorite LA beach?
KB: Zuma – it’s just a beautiful beach.
LAS: What would you write on your headstone?
KB: He was a good guy who cared for his children, his family, and friends, and he tried to leave the world a little better than he found it.