LaMenta Conway has been a physician specializing in internal and pediatric medicine for more than 17 years, but there was nothing inevitable about her current career path.
She enrolled in Rush Medical College when she was 31 years old. At the time, she had three children — all of them under 3 years old. She had the ambition and the desire, but circumstances were forcing her to abandon her dreams.
“As a mother of really young children and a wife, medical school would be an incredible undertaking,” Conway noted. “I wasn’t sure if it could be done. Who goes to medical school with three babies under 3? In my moment of doubt, my mother said, ‘You do … that’s who does it!'”
“It took her three times to get into medical school,” said Conway’s husband, Rev. Jacques Conway, former District 200 school board president and Oak Park police officer, who currently pastors a church in Maywood. “She was the oldest student in her class. It took her so long to become a doctor because she never knew the path to get into medical school. Now she’s saying, ‘Because there’s a path I went through, I’m going to recruit doctors to meet students who have an interest in medicine.’ It’s all about paying it forward.”
The Conways hosted more than two dozen practicing medical doctors at Cheney Mansion in Oak Park on April 7 for a ceremony to mark the inaugural class of mentees participating in Dr. Conway’s new nonprofit, the I Am Abel Foundation.
Dr. Conway, who practices at Elmhurst Hospital and teaches at Loyola Medical School and Hines Veterans Administration Hospital, selected roughly 25 minority high school and college students from the city and suburbs (two from Oak Park and River Forest High School) to participate in the rigorous program. The overwhelming majority of participants are female.
Each student is paired with a practicing doctor and will go through an extensive regimen of premedical school training.
Al Allen, the former OPRF head basketball coach and a current assistant coach of the football team, is on the foundation’s board. His daughter, Kiona Allen, a pediatric cardiologist at Lurie’s Children’s Hospital and an OPRF alumna, is one of the foundation’s physician mentors.
“There are a lot of kids who dream of being a doctor, but they don’t know how to go about doing it,” Al Allen said. “Too many of them decide after college that they want to be a doctor. They need to start worrying about it now.”
Temi Ojo, a first-year medical student whose lifelong ambition is to become a doctor, is a case in point. While she was in college, her pre-med advisor told her she’d be better off becoming a nurse or physician’s assistant because of her mediocre grades.
“She said, ‘I don’t think you can apply to medical school, and don’t think that because you’re African American you’re going to get into med school,'” Ojo said, recalling that conversation.
Ojo added that her grades had slipped because she also held a job while taking classes. It was a recipe for failure, but she didn’t have anyone to tell her not to do it, she said. That changed when she met Conway and two other African American physicians who directed her to some postgraduate courses and gave her the confidence to keep going.
Thanks to Conway’s nonprofit, Monica Powell, an African American student who lives in the Austin community, now has Erika Shavers, a psychiatrist, to do what those physicians did for Ojo. The two met for the first time inside Cheney Mansion.
“I had somebody help me get a foot in the door when I got to medical school, so I’m just here to pass it on,” said Shavers, who specializes in addiction issues.
“I once wanted to be a surgeon, but it’s like maybe I’ll look at something else in the field,” Powell said. “So I’m not sure what my specialization will be right now, but I’m expecting to learn a lot. I know I have to ask a lot of questions. I just want to get the gist of what it takes to be a doctor.”