DMU student breaks barriers to medical careers

Ruffin Tchakounte, a fourth-year student in Des Moines University’s osteopathic medical program, is working to change the fact that while Black people make up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise only about 5 percent of active physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. As co-president of DMU’s Student National Medical Association (SNMA), he created a mentorship program between DMU medical and health sciences students and youth served by Genesis Youth Foundation, a central Iowa nonprofit dedicated to helping refugee families level the playing field through a variety of after-school, weekend and summer athletics, arts and academics. 

Ruffin, who earned a master’s degree in anatomy at DMU before enrolling in the D.O. program, also was instrumental in DMU’s creation in 2019 of its Boys Reaching for Opportunities in Science (B.R.O.S.) program, and he was the keynote speaker for the program that year. B.R.O.S. was created in response to statistics regarding the high likelihood of disengagement that minority males can experience early in school if they are not exposed to creative learning opportunities.

Participants in DMU’s first annual Boys Reaching for Opportunities in Science (BROS) event learned about various human organs, among other activities.

Held on a Saturday morning in March, B.R.O.S. allowed nearly 200 central Iowa boys in grades 2-6 to experience activities, led by DMU students, including scrubbing into a sterile unit in the surgery lab; handling and learning about real human organs; making castings of their own feet; exploring the body with ultrasound; practicing basic first aid skills; learning how to tape ankles; participating in balance activities; peering through microscopes; and interacting with medical mannequins in a simulated emergency room, among other activities. (B.R.O.S. was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but DMU intends to host it annually.)

“Mentoring youth has always been one of my biggest desires, because we know that a lack of minorities in medicine is directly linked to the fact that younger kids at the grade-school level do not have information on the steps to take to pursue a career as a physician,” he says.

While Ruffin has had a positive impact on hundreds of central Iowa youth, he may have directly changed the life of Revay Stewart, a recent college graduate who was working as a scribe at a local hospital where Ruffin was doing an emergency medicine rotation. Revay shared with Ruffin his interest in pursuing a medical degree to become a pediatric emergency medicine physician. However, he couldn’t apply to take the MCAT because his undergraduate alma mater wouldn’t release his official transcripts until he paid off his $12,000 in tuition debt.

Ruffin sprung into action. He worked with Revay and Richard Salas, Ph.D., DMU’s chief diversity officer, to create a GoFundMe account and then rallied others to support it. The fund raised more than $15,000 in just a few days. Local station KCCI TV8 aired a feature about the effort on June 4.

Dr. Richard Salas, Revay Stewart and Ruffin Tchakounte

“I was speechless,” Revay told KCCI reporter Tommie Clark. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know if this was wrong, like if this was an error.”

While Ruffin was happy to assist his new friend, even more important to him is opening doors to medical careers for Revay and other people of color.

“In five, six years, he’s going to be serving in the community that he came from,” he told KCCI, “and for people that look like him to see him serving them is invaluable.”

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