Of all the items that K.D. Weeks keeps in his wallet, a business card holds special significance. The paper is smudged; the edges look worn. Dr. Weeks keeps it where he can find it right away.
When he shows the card to people, he explains why it’s so important. Twenty-three years ago, he met a young athlete who had enrolled at Davidson College with dreams of becoming a doctor – but between basketball and chemistry, the student was struggling to stay on track. The college asked Dr. Weeks, a Davidson graduate, to give some guidance.
The two met every Monday for months. After the student graduated in 1991, they lost track of each other.
Years later, Dr. Weeks opened a Christmas note, and a crisp, cream-colored business card fell from the envelope. It came from the student – now a doctor and professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University.
A Good Role Model
Dr. Weeks tells that story on a recent morning in his office, before an afternoon filled with patients.
“It just goes to show what can happen when you take a little time with someone,” he says, slipping the card back in his wallet.
In Charlotte, Dr. Weeks is a cardiologist, sleep specialist and researcher with Novant Health-Presbyterian Sleep Health Center. He earned his M.D. from Duke University Medical School, and went on to serve in the U.S. Army at Walter Reed Army Center. As a Trustee of The Duke Endowment, he chairs the Committee on Health Care.
Despite a hectic schedule, he takes students under his wing each school year to give them hands-on experience in the career he loves. By now, he has mentored hundreds.
“He catches them at a critical time when they’re really questioning whether they want – or can – be a doctor,” says Jerry Putnam, a biology professor who directs the Davidson College pre-med program. “He gives them the inspiration they need to catch fire.”
At Davidson, Dr. Weeks helped develop the Physician Mentor Program, which now includes about two dozen Charlotte-area physicians. Students get a real-life perspective, along with advice on medical schools, applications and internships.
This year at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte, he participated in the inaugural Tour for Diversity in Medicine, a grassroots initiative founded by former medical school students.
In the past few years, he also has started working with students from Duke University and Wake Forest.
Mentees join him on rounds, consult on research and learn what it’s like to live life as a doctor.
“Dr. Weeks is a good role model,” says Eric Fang, now a student at the medical school established by Duke University and the National University of Singapore. “When I was at Presbyterian Hospital (in Charlotte), he guided my medical training. He let me see patients with him… and arranged for me to shadow other doctors in cardiology and sleep medicine. Now that I’m in Singapore, we keep in constant communication via email.”
Leap of Faith
One of Dr. Weeks’ goals is to keep the right kind of people coming in to medicine for the right reasons.
“It takes a great leap of faith to apply to med school,” he says. “You’re getting ready to go into arrested development – to disappear into hard work and emerge at 28 or 29 years old. For many young people, becoming a doctor is a long-held dream. But it’s important to ask the hard question: Is this really the right thing for me?”
Most experts agree: The United States is facing a shortage of physicians. According to one new report, estimates show at least 52,000 more family doctors will be needed by 2025. Our growing – and aging – population is the main reason. But studies also point to the Affordable Care Act, which will expand health insurance coverage to an additional 38 million Americans.
“This is a national problem across the board, and it is going to get much worse,” the director of medical affairs for the Association of American Medical Colleges told the Boston Globe. “We have an aging population and a whole lot of doctors retiring. We need to increase the pipeline of new doctors.”
Mitchell Miller, a Davidson graduate, hopes to start medical school in August 2013. Now a lab technician for a hematology and oncology group, he worked with Dr. Weeks for six months.
“You hear lots of stories about people going to medical school and then finding out that it isn’t what they were expecting,” he says. “But I’ve been able to get in there and see for myself – and truly realize it’s my passion.”
Chang Su, a Davidson junior, joins Dr. Weeks most Wednesdays at his office near UNC Charlotte.
“He tells his patients, ‘She wants to become a doctor in the future. Would you mind if she stays in the room so I can explain what I do?’ And most patients are OK with that,” she says.
The experience has been invaluable.
“You can do well in biology and chemistry,” she says. “But there are some things you can only learn from a great doctor who already has it all figured out.”