“The body of work is incomplete,” says retired doctor and medical executive Rayburn Lewis, MD ’78, Res. ’80, Chief Res. ’83, when asked how he feels about receiving the 2023 Ragen Volunteer Service Award.

Named after philanthropists Brooks and Susie Ragen, the award acknowledges length and breadth of service — from a volunteer, faculty or staff member — that advances the mission of UW Medicine.

Appreciative of the acknowledgement, he’s not ready to be celebrated for his many contributions to UW Medicine, because he’s not finished yet.

Instead, Lewis prefers to refocus the spotlight on the ongoing work of pushing for racial justice and increasing the number of people of color attending and completing medical school.

“The most important work I am doing now is supporting a group of medical students, Seeds of BAMM,” he says. “Their work is not universally admired in the UW School of Medicine. They remind me of my peer group half-a-century ago — it’s not the role of the young to plod moderately towards progress.”

He imagines himself and other “elders” as being rocks in a mountain stream crossing; the hiker may get her boots wet, but will cross safely. He supports the students who are calling out the barriers to their success and the success of their colleagues while fearlessly exposing anti-Blackness.

“Though this small group of students does not speak for nor represent all Black students, their message resonates for BIPOC students here and elsewhere. Their voices have been direct, unrelenting and unapologetic, bringing light, creating heat,” Lewis says. “It’s not without discomfort and setbacks in both directions. The result, however, has been progress in the School. I want these students to know they are not alone, and even those who may disagree with their methods have and will continue to benefit from the content of their message.”

Though this small group of students does not speak for nor represent all Black students, their message resonates for BIPOC students here and elsewhere. Their voices have been direct, unrelenting and unapologetic, bringing light, creating heat.

Understanding students’ lived experience

As Lewis talks about his career, he smiles at the fact that now that he’s retired, he’s only had to wear a tie a handful of times in the past years. He’s clearly enjoying the time with family and friends and getting out in the mountains he loves. Even though he is reveling in his post professional “work,” his entire career was fueled by a constant optimism, and a genuine interest in the good work that others did. “Only rarely have my friends, family, or professional colleagues seen me in a dark mood,” he says, going on to share a long list of people who’ve supported him along the way.

His mother, Virginia Kelly Lewis, is included in that list. A med-surg nurse who became a hospital administrator, she convinced him to apply to medical school. “I was going to apply to nursing school,” he says. “My mother said, ‘That’s admirable, son, and you’re also going to apply to medical school.’ My mom raised the family by herself after my father died at a young age.”

He references a book he is reading: The Privileged Poor, by Anthony Abraham Jack. Released in 2020, the book explains how higher education fails some students. “The book is instructive for anyone who interacts with BIPOC students,” he says.

He wasn’t immune to the life events that seriously affect the success of BIPOC students. As an example, he says that he flunked his second rotation during his junior year of medical school after having to return home for a life-threatening family emergency.

“Much more than a distraction, this was a barrier to my success,” he says. “The senior resident at the time was stunned, but supportive, that I would have to deal with the circumstances surrounding that event. For many students, it could be any number of issues; your family could be evicted, or someone may call and need money. There are hidden issues that BIPOC students have. Not all are poor — some are sons and daughters of upper-middle-class or professionals — but if you look at the numbers, that’s the life situation burden many carry.”

Lewis’ ongoing work with the UW School of Medicine seeks to remove additional hardships. “Black, Brown, Indigenous and other people of color often enter medical school with a lifetime of challenges,” he says. “Finance should not be an additional barrier to success.”

Growing a more supportive framework

In addition to students pushing for change, Lewis points to the critical work of the UW Office of Healthcare Equity, led by Paula Houston, chief equity officer, and Bessie Young, MD ‘87, Res. ‘90, vice dean of equity, diversity and inclusion and medical director.

“Let’s acknowledge them for the highly professional, effective and challenging work they’ve done in carrying the legacy of my peer, the late Dr. Pat Dawson, in the pursuit of their mission and vision,” he says.

Lewis still actively partners with Houston, Young and others as an extension of his career as a physician, healthcare executive and professional and community leader. He chaired the UW Medicine Education Development Council and education campaign that raised over $100 million for MD scholarship support and medical student programs. In addition, his advocacy to address the physician shortage in underserved urban and rural communities doubled the number of endowed scholarships available to students and increased the value of the scholarship endowment by 300%.

Looking ahead, Lewis is excited by developing opportunities for more direct financial support for BIPOC students entering, and graduating from, the school.

When asked what advice he has for today’s student activists, Lewis shares, “Keep your eye on the prize. Not making it to ‘MD’ invalidates all the good work you may have done to change the culture of the medical school. A lifetime of providing services to our underserved populations is the reason we are here. And for this cohort specifically, you will become leaders in medicine; as you become department chairs, medical directors, and health care executives, develop the skills to change organizations from the inside out.”

Lewis also understands his role as a champion in this work. “It’s the job of the ‘Elders,’ as we are called, to provide a buffer, act as advocates for and advise the students on their pathway.”

By Alice Skipton