Medicine Without Walls

Tyeese Gaines, DO
MMEP, Class of 1999
A lot of the people I wanted to treat weren’t making it to the office. They were coming into the ER. So I thought, if I want to take care of this population, I need to be where they are.

Tyeese Gaines didn’t set out to be an ER physician.

She figured she’d be a community doctor in the inner city, treating parents and children and delivering babies. She envisioned her office walls filled with pictures of her young patients.

But as she progressed through medical school, Gaines saw that many of the people she wanted to care for weren’t making it to a doctor’s office. “They were coming into the ER,” she says. “So I thought, if I want to take care of this population, I need to be where they are.”

There were detours on the way, including a leave from medical school to get a master’s degree in journalism. Working in news was so enjoyable that she questioned whether she’d go back. “Medicine is tough,” she says. “You need a certain level of inner strength, and there’s not a lot of room for doubts.”

Gaines resolved her dilemma by combining her two loves: in addition to being a practicing ER physician, she’s the health editor for theGrio.com and appears as a health expert on MSNBC.

For Dr. Ty, as she’s known, “where they are” is no longer just the ER. It’s the whole world.

Popsicle Sticks and Tape

Gaines always knew she wanted to be a doctor, had known it since she was a child putting makeshift splints on her mother’s fingers.

“I remember being fascinated in general by the body and how it worked,” she says. “I used Popsicle sticks and tape to splint people. I don’t know where I got the notion to do it; it was like the game I played.”

Another childhood memory reflects her ambition: When she was 5 years old, her father, a post office worker, underwent shoulder and chest surgery to remove cancer; Gaines says the surgery was not performed properly. “I remember going to visit him and saying, ‘Daddy, if I was your doctor, I wouldn’t have messed it up.’”

While her desire to become a doctor was set in her mind, her path was not necessarily so firm. She wanted to do much more, and several times she got sidetracked.

“When I talk to my mentees,” she says, “I tell them that as far back as I can remember I wanted to be a doctor, but my road was very squiggly. I started out on the path and I ended on the path, but in between there is a bunch of squiggles.” The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP, now SMDEP) helped prepare her for the medical part of the journey.

MMEP had been in existence for a decade when Gaines decided to send in her paper application for a spot at the Chicago site. At the time, it was a consortium of four medical schools—the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Rush Medical College of Rush University, and Loyola Stritch School of Medicine.

“It was awesome,” she says. “Here I am with 90 kids who want to do what I want to do, all coming together with this fire and passion and excitement to learn what we can about being a doctor. It was such an amazing experience to be surrounded with that type of energy.”

Gaines, then a rising junior at Boston’s Northeastern University, had chucked the idea of a major in physical therapy and chosen biology for premed. By the time she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in African American studies and a minor in biology, she had taken all the prerequisite classes to attend medical school. She took the MCAT a month after attending MMEP and went straight into Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Right Place, Right Time

Before completing her Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree, though, Gaines returned to Northeastern University to get a master’s degree in journalism. In the interim, medicine took a backseat.

“It’s a lifelong commitment, and you have to absolutely love it,” she says, recalling the rigors of trying to become a doctor. “I won’t say that I didn’t love it, but it gets tough along the way.”

“While you’re going through it,” she adds, “you hit a moment when you’re tired. You’re questioning whether this is what you want to do, whether you want to give up that much time.”

Medicine is a lifelong commitment, and you have to absolutely love it.

Her solution gives her the best of both vocations. As a doctor, Gaines is affiliated with three hospitals in New Jersey and is a clinical instructor in the department of emergency medicine at the Yale School of Medicine. For theGrio.com, a news and opinion website geared toward African Americans, she plans the site’s health coverage and writes and edits stories. Her health expertise frequently lands her on MSNBC and the greater New York metropolitan area’s NBC affiliate.

It all makes for a very busy schedule, which inspired her to write a guide—The Get A Life Campaign—on how women can make time for themselves. But does she?

“I’m getting better at it,” she says. “Trying to be as organized as possible is the key. People always ask me, ‘You work at all these hospitals. How do you keep it straight?’ I’m strict about my calendar. I keep it up-to-date. I have it on my phone. I have it on the Internet. I have it on paper. I always know where I’m supposed to be, which hospital, what time—what state—and I always show up at the right place at the right time.”

Constellation of Events

MMEP was the right place at the right time for Gaines, too. The program, she says, took her to a city she now visits at least once a year, put her together with students who became friends, and, through another participant, introduced her to the Student National Medical Association. She rose through the ranks of the organization, which focuses on minority medical students, to become board chairman in 2006.

She has some good memories from the program—one in particular that she laughs about now.

“We had to ride this hot yellow bus in Chicago in the summer, and we were dressed up and we would be dying,” she says of their ride on school buses to the various consortium sites. “We’d be in Chicago rush-hour traffic with no air conditioning in 100-degree weather. It’s funny to me now, but back then we were miserable. Folks would just be sweating. It was crazy.

“But we had so much fun in the program. They had so many downtime trips. We would go to the different restaurants, tour Chicago together. We were kids! We were anywhere from freshmen to seniors in college. It was just amazing.”

MMEP provided her with mentors and shadowing experiences, taught her how her learning style affected her study skills, and primed her through the coursework and test preparation to take the MCAT just weeks after she left the program.

“I came back different, and I don’t mean that in a dramatic way,” Gaines says. “There was something about the constellation of events—the people and the mentorship and being exposed to medicine. I had never been exposed to anything like that.”