Emergency medical physician Sampson Davis is giving back to the community where he grew up and fulfilling a pact he made with 2 of his high school friends.
If you ask Sampson Davis, MD, what it was like growing up in Newark, NJ, he will pull no punches in describing it as the 1980s Hunger Games.
“I was always caught in this warped world that I was born into,” Davis recalls. “And as a kid, I didn’t know any different. I didn’t realize that I was living in poverty. I didn’t realize that it was crime riddled with despair and desperation. It was only as I started to get older that I realized that my reality wasn’t everybody’s reality; that the world that I was living in was a warped world, if you will, and that in order for me to not fall into that, I had to find a way to escape.”
Davis did escape, but not in the literal sense. He rose above the fray to graduate from nearby Seton Hall University, obtain his medical degree from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and complete his residency in emergency medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center—the same hospital where he was born.
Today, as a board-certified emergency medical physician at St. Michaels Medical Center in Newark, he’s giving back, and fulfilling a pact he made with 2 of his high school friends.
Davis realized early on that he had to find a balance; that he couldn’t alienate himself and act like he didn’t want to be there, because then he would be attacked and destroyed. But at the same time, he refused to surrender and become another statistic, another number. Life, he says, had more value than that.
“I didn’t really know exactly how I was going to escape and what road I was going to take immediately,” he says. “But I had this ambition, this hunger, this desire inside me that if I just continued to search that something would give; something would happen.
It helped that the importance of education was cemented into his mind at an early age. His mother made it very clear: “You need to focus on school.” He had the same followings as his peers. He loved basketball, he loved football, and he loved the next best song on the radio. But he also knew that his talents didn’t lie in being a performer or being an athlete. Education would be the foundation upon which he needed to build his house.
Becoming a doctor, however, was about the furthest thing from his mind.
In high school, Davis was open to any professional career path that would provide an opportunity. Becoming a doctor was an enigma, a fantasy that he never thought about because he had no concrete image of what a doctor did every day. His focus was simply on doing well in school, and since he was very good in math, he thought about entering the financial world, perhaps becoming an accountant.
And then came the promise.
“I made this promise with my 2 best friends in high school to become a doctor; that we would all become doctors,” Davis says. “If we were going to dream big, beyond our circumstances, then we were going to step outside our reality and aim for the impossible. It was that courageous force, that unity, that allowed me to even think [becoming a doctor] was possible.”
In a moment of honesty and transparency, Davis admits that when he realized how many additional years of schooling awaited him, he wondered what he had gotten himself into. But there was a unique, positive form of peer pressure at work, and something inside him that would not allow him to quit.
“We gave each other that word, as innocent as it sounded and without any contractual papers or slicing each others’ fingers and making this blood pact oath,” he recalls. “We just sat there one day and looked each other in the face and said, ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to figure it out.’ So right then and there it was this moment. I can’t even tell you or express the amount of disappointment each one of us would have had in one another if we would have just quit because of quitting.”
Suffice to say, dealing with that disappointment never became an issue.
In 2000, while still in residency, the 3 friends began giving talks at area schools and businesses. The story of their promise, and pending success, had hit the newspapers, and others wanted to hear from them. And when they began receiving stipends for their speaking engagements, they realized the importance of giving back to other students who might be experiencing the same financial hardships they had.
Together with his colleagues—Rameck Hunt, MD, today a board-certified internist at University Medical Center in Princeton, NJ, and assistant professor of medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; and George Jenkins, today an assistant professor of clinical dentistry at Columbia University—they created The Three Doctors Foundation.
“We do programs throughout the year on mentorship, on leadership, health, and education,” Davis says. “We do a partner peer pressure challenge, because peer pressure was instrumental in who we are and what we became. So we thought that if we can take that same peer pressure, instead of making it negative, make it a force to be positive, to inspire you to something positive within your circle, then we can establish more Three Doctors.”
The doctors have also published several books, including The Pact and The Bond, both of which became New York Times bestsellers. Davis himself recently penned Living and Dying in Brick City, An ER Doctor Returns Home, calling it his attempt to “really talk about healthcare, and the state of healthcare in a way that’s digestible—without getting too analytical or political about it.”
A busy man, Davis still makes time to have moments of reflection. He says the rewards he gets from giving back are indescribable. And, too often, he points out, people miss out on those rewards.
“They are so focused sometimes on making sure that their life is in order, rightly so, that they just don’t understand how fulfilled you are when you give back some of your time and you help others—whether it’s a compliment you pay on an elevator, or you’re spending time with a young person, or going to a senior complex and working with the elderly,” he says. “You know, in one form or another, you really receive a good, warm sensation inside your body when you give back to others.”