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A Letter to Young Black Man: No Dream is Wasted

Dr. Russell J. Ledet
MD, PhD, MBA
Indiana

No soul had to forewarn me of the inevitable trials I was about to face, because their shadows had been my constant companions. I grew up watching my mother battle the daily ordeals life presented her, each struggle a harsh lesson in the tumultuous nature of existence. And yet, in spite of these hardships, the hardest battle I fought was with a relentless question that echoed in the hollows of my heart, “Am I enough?” This doubt sprouted within me every day, unbidden and unrelenting. I won’t sugarcoat the truth and say this question dissolves into the ether. No. It merely softens with every achievement, and is gradually replaced by the soothing balm of self-assuredness.

If you’re questioning the connection between this narrative and dreams, let me illuminate it for you. It was through the vehicle of dreams that I began to believe in my own worth. Dreams were my conduit to an alternate universe, one where the terrestrial troubles felt distant and insignificant. Sometimes, this universe existed in the hidden corners of our world; at others, it was an untamed realm thriving only in the labyrinth of my mind. Dreams became my escape, my sanctuary amidst the onslaught of life’s varied challenges. My journey isn’t a universal blueprint for overcoming adversity, but it offers a starting point, a candle in the gloom.

Here’s an insight into my odyssey, a chronicle of using dreams as a scaffold to construct my reality.

My mother, a certified nurse’s aide, spent long hours at local nursing homes in our hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana, to provide for my baby sister and me. Her efforts were supplemented by my grandmother and the trickle of child support payments. She was brilliant – not in the conventional, academic sense, but in her knack for spinning straw into gold. Spotting my love for reading early on, she couldn’t afford to buy books, but she found a way. She brought home discarded books from the nursing home, and these mismatched, eclectic texts were my passage to distant lands: the verdant valleys of Nepal, the icy wilderness of Antarctica, the sun-drenched island of Madagascar. These books were my spaceship, helping me transcend the harshness of reality when it became too burdensome.

The launchpad for my spaceship was a humble, blue plastic chair on the front porch of our home. This was my sanctuary, my dreaming place. Here, I envisioned an alternate universe where my parents were still together, where the simple necessities of life weren’t luxury, where my shoes weren’t frayed at the edges. My mind built castles in the air, transforming the dumpster we scavenged for dinner into a playpen overflowing with bright balls at McDonald’s. I fantasized about what life would look like if my mother had a partner who appreciated her fully. My dreams transported me to the lush rainforests of South America, the breathtaking Northern Lights of New Zealand, even the precise geographical coordinates of the North Pole. These dreams were not mere idle fantasies. They were the architects of my adult reality, the nursery of my aspirations.

Let me illustrate this.

As my high school years drew to a close, I knew that staying in my hometown would be akin to clipping my own wings. My uncle had given me this advice. Seeing the United States Navy as my ticket to exploring the world I had only dreamed about, I enlisted at 18. During that time, I met Mallory Alise. I dreamt of a lasting bond with her and worked tirelessly to turn her into my eternal partner. Before I left for boot camp, I implored her to be my forever companion. Now, 16 years later, we still chuckle about my plea in a Wendy’s restaurant.

In retrospect, every detail of my life was meticulously sculpted by my dreams. Poverty, as I wrote in my residency personal statement, did a number on me. Despite my achievements, I constantly questioned my abilities. I was trapped in a debilitating loop of wondering, “Can I do that?” instead of confidently asserting, “I can do that if I want to.” I had to learn to give myself permission to dream, to rise above the hopelessness of my circumstances and not wait for a savior.

We often dismiss dreams as irrelevant, mere figments of our imagination with no grounding in reality. I couldn’t disagree more. Allowing myself to dream amidst the bleakness of my reality fueled my ambition. Leaving active duty in the Navy, I dreamt of graduating from college. While working as a hospital security guard, I dreamt of becoming a doctor. On getting married, I dreamt of being a loving husband and present father. Following my uncle’s battle with cancer, I dreamt of becoming a cancer scientist.

Now, I’m a proud US Navy veteran, a Southern University-trained college graduate, a NYU-trained cancer scientist published in Nature, and a Tulane-trained physician. I’m also a happily married man and a proud father of two beautiful girls. All this, I believe, is a testament to the power of dreams, even in the face of impoverishment.

My latest dream is to become a comprehensive physician for young people, blending pediatrics and child and adolescent psychiatry. Even though I can’t predict the outcome, I’m doing everything in my power to fulfill this dream, and by training in Triple Board residency where I focus on pediatrics, adult psychiatry, and child and adolescent psychiatry, I’m honoring it.

Now for the lesson. 

Every journey is unique, and not every young Black boy will experience the poverty I faced. But elements of my story might resonate, and the takeaway from this letter is simple: Never stop dreaming. Dreams are the blueprint of where you want to go in life, and they’re your most powerful ally.

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