Doctors Pierre Johnson, 37, Max Madhere, 37, and Joe Semien, 40, met roughly two decades ago inside of the library at Xavier University of Louisiana during their undergraduate studies. They formed a bond that helped propel them from college, through medical school and residency to the top of their respective fields.
Johnson and Joe Semien are both board-certified obstetrician-gynecologists while Madhere is a board-certified cardiothoracic anesthesiologist.
The doctors recently released a book, “Pulse of Perseverance,” about their struggle, which they said is also a blueprint for African Americans, particularly males, who may be facing odds similar to the ones they confronted while growing up.
They sat for a recent phone interview ahead of their upcoming appearance in the Chicago area.
On March 16, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., they’ll be at Bureau Bar, 75 E. 16th St., for a meet and greet mixer and book signing. On March 17, 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., they’ll be at Afriware Books, 1701 1st Ave. (Suite 503) in Maywood, for a book signing. On March 18, 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., they’ll be at Trinity United Church of Christ, 400 W. 95th St., for a panel discussion and book signing.
AWN: When I heard about you guys, I automatically thought about Drs. Sampson Davis, Rameck Hunt and George Jenkins — three black men who pushed each other to become doctors. They eventually wrote a series of books on their experiences.
MM: Out of the three of us, Pierre read their book [The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream]. Joe and I never read it, but we’ve always had a deep interest in the progression of our people. We’re still under the gun and society still doesn’t view us in a positive light.
JS: By all means, we pay homage to those guys. We’ve talked with them. But [the paucity of stories of black men in the medical field] shows how far we need to go.
PJ: The Pact came out in 2002. I was inspired by it when I read it, but once we went through our struggle as black men in medicine, we developed our own story. We want this to be a blueprint for how success is achieved and we want to make a movement out of this. We want to do something that’s much larger than our book.
AWN: How did you guys meet?
MM: When I got to Xavier, I failed my first exam. It kind of crushed my confidence a little bit, but at the same time, I wasn’t going to let that defeat me. I doubled down my efforts. I kept seeing Pierre in the library. We’d already met each other in the dorms and had exchanged pleasantries. He’s from Chicago and I’m from New York City, so we’d joke about sports teams and things like that.
But it wasn’t until he saw me in the library that we broke the ice a bit. He asked me if I ever went to my dorm and I said, only to brush my teeth and shower. That was about it. We opened up from there. When I saw Pierre, I saw the look a person who was driven and who was in the same fight I was in. We knew we were behind, but that we’d do whatever it took to succeed.
PJ: Meeting Max and Joe was divine intervention. I say that because at the time, I was the most depressed I’ve ever been in my life. As a kid I was focused and always successful, but at Xavier, I wasn’t prepared for the curriculum. I didn’t know what a periodic table was. I had seen one, but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know about atoms, neutrons and protons. I didn’t have AP classes. So when I got to college, I was starting from a rudimentary level. That was really, really, really hard — trying to teach myself to learn what everybody else had at least some basic knowledge of.
I was also supposed to play basketball, but my body wasn’t prepared for the rigors of that, either. I was at the point where I just didn’t know what to do. I’d be in my room crying. The more I’d study, the worse things would get. I felt alone.
The first conversation we had about the grind and our goals felt completely organic. It was like looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing someone who matches your goals, your drive, your passion and your refusal to fail. We were like, ‘If we’re bound together, there’s no way we can fail.’ And no sooner after me and Max came together, we saw Joe, who had the same look we had.
JS: When I met Max and Pierre, I had gotten to the point that I knew I had to refocus my mind. While I was refocusing my mind on my education, I met them. They had the same goal orientation I had. As a result, we bonded and held each other accountable.
AWN: As the New York Times pointed out in a 2015 article that told part of Pierre Johnson’s story, Xavier “consistently produces more black students who apply to and then graduate from medical school than any other than any other institution in the country.” Is that part of what made you guys want to apply there?
(All three said that the school’s reputation for sending blacks to medical school factored into their decisions to apply).
MM: I was blessed to have an older brother who went to Xavier first. When he came home after his first semester I saw a change in him. It provided a structure for him. He’d come home and talk about his experiences in New Orleans and the people he was meeting. That gave me extra motivation.
In addition, when we were kids, we’d watch “A Different World,” which made college seem so cool. When my brother came home and described Xavier, I was reminded of that TV show.
AWN: You all returned to Xavier in February for a dialogue with the school’s longtime president, Norman Francis. How was that experience?
JS: I was on cloud nine, because I was home. To get that love and support from Xavier was priceless. I’m very grateful. They understood the vision and wanted to be part of our vision. They still want to be part of our vision.
MM: Having returned almost 20 years later and touring the campus, going back into that library where it all started — it was an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia.
That place really catapulted us and put us in a position to not only reach higher, but also to do what we’re trying to do now — which is reach back as we climb. Xavier understands our mission, they understand who we are, where we come from and what we’re trying to do.
PJ: It was the ultimate sense of accomplishment and it brought everything full circle. Having kids come up to us for advice helped us to realize that we accomplished something that is meaningful.
AWN: What is it about Xavier that made your experiences there so remarkable?
JS: The reason why Xavier put out so many doctors is because the faculty has a lot of love for you. They care about your success and they put things in place to make sure that you succeed. The amount of support we were given at Xavier was tremendous.
MM: A lot of HBCUs get a really bad rap. You even hear from blacks who will say, ‘I’ll never send my kids to a black school.’ But there’s something to be said for when a black child, who comes from these inner cities where we come from, sees models and examples of success in people who look like them. Representation actually matters.
At Xavier, there was this sense of community. The entire campus was full of these young, motivated African Americans doing great things. And you didn’t get the feeling, at least in the department of sciences, that it was a competition.
If you were struggling, there were so many avenues for you to get help, from teachers and classmates, that you were never on your own if you didn’t want to be. That was invaluable, not only for myself but for my brothers.
If they aren’t ready, a lot of young minorities, black men especially, are swallowed up by these dominant institutions. They’re trying to figure out their way and no one cares — that can be crushing.
The black schools I came from built up a sense of confidence in me before the rest of the world tried to tell me that I’m not good enough.
Some of our most brilliant, talented kids, particularly our men, will find themselves in environments with people who will look at them like they don’t belong there and will try to put them in situations to knock down their confidence or to completely take it away.
If you’re not prepared for those situations, you can be swallowed whole. So, black institutions still have a role to build up our own sense of self-worth.
PJ: Max had the fortune of going to HBCUs his whole career. I went from a nurturing environment at Xavier to being the only black student in my medical class and I was able to witness how the breakdown happens. Without Xavier, I don’t know if I’d have known that I was good enough.
In medical school, they expect people to fail. They tell you from day one that there are people in this room who will fail. When I went to medical school, it was like, ‘You’re doing bad, that’s it.’ That moment will come at some point for every black professional at some level.
I got through medical school with my brothers. Max, Joe and myself were on the phone many nights. It was a counseling section. When I started to doubt myself, they were there to lift me up and hold me down.
AWN: Can you all explain the purpose of the book?
MM: The book plays a multitude of roles. One is for our own community to know that black men walking around are physicians — they’re in your families and they’re your nephews and sons. We wanted to show the world how relatable we are. There’s one of us in every family. We want to show families in our communities that these are the things your boys are going through and this is what you have to prepare them for.
And for the world at large, we want to show that this is who we are and we’re human. As black men, our humanity is in question. We want to show the world that we can attain the highest levels of achievement. We want to redefine the negative portrayal of black men, period.
PJ: In our day-to-day lives,nobody believes we’re successful. We can go into a patient’s room right now and they’ll look at us like we’re janitors. If I had a dollar for every time I heard, ‘You don’t look like a doctor …’ There’s a perception in society that doctors can’t look like us.
MM: It’s not just white people, it’s our own people. They’ll ask us, ‘Why do you wear that or why do you have Jordans on right now?’ We want to destroy that first and that takes work. People want us to look like Ben Carson. We’re not Ben Carson.
JS: And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not us. I’m going to express my culture. I am who I am. For too long, society has told us that our culture is wrong. Just because I want to wear a hoodie or my brother has tattoos doesn’t mean we don’t have the same brain that other doctors have. You can’t judge things like that, you have to see things from within.
MM: I can spit a Drake verse one minute and tell you how to do a robotic hysterectomy in the very next. If you can switch it on and off. Nobody can really judge you, as long as you have the intellect to back it up.
JS: If you put us in any setting, we’re going to make it work. In the hospital, we’ll put on a white coat, while doing business we’ll put on a suit — but when talking to kids and inspiring people, we’ll show them that we’re just like them. But sometimes, I’ll have Jordans on with my scrubs while lecturing.