By Steve Blanchard - November 13, 2023
Melton, 65, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma on Christmas Day 2020 after multiple doctor visits failed to offer an exact diagnosis. He had been told he had cancer, but he didn’t know what type.
Not only did Moffitt help him to finally identify his cancer, but his interactions with Blue and the doctor’s team changed everything about his cancer journey, Melton said.
“The first time I laid eyes on Dr. Blue, he put me in my room (at Moffitt) and changed my life,” Melton said. “I can’t even really put it into words, but I know that God laid a hand on Dr. Blue’s heart to make sure I got the care I needed.”
Melton, who is Black, said that having a doctor who represents his own community was a huge comfort in making him feel at peace with his diagnosis and helping him build trust in the medical team taking care of him.
For the first time, he said, he felt like he could be very direct with his medical team.
“I asked Dr. Blue to tell me like it was. I asked him if he ever thought I would walk out of that room and that I didn’t want him to sugarcoat anything,” he said. “He told me, ‘Yes, you will be able to walk out.’ And I did!”
Recruiting for Representation
Diversity, as the saying goes, is strength. And that’s one powerful tool in Moffitt’s mission to prevent and cure cancer.
That’s why Odion Binitie, MD, an orthopedic oncologist in Moffitt’s Sarcoma Department, works so hard to encourage Black and African American medical professionals to pursue a career at the cancer center. While his work has a long way to go, there have been strides in seeing more people of color in the cancer center’s hallways.
“There is no magic number or an overall goal, per se,” Binitie said of the ongoing recruitment efforts. “But we want to have our patients see themselves in our faculty. So the more African American and Black faculty members, the better. The more Asian, Pacific Islander, Muslim — every underrepresented group that we can hire, the better.”
That representation made all the difference for Melton. Whenever he visits Moffitt, Melton looks forward to seeing Blue, even if he doesn’t have a direct consultation with the doctor.
“Even if I’m on campus for just bloodwork, I keep an eye out and hope that I get to interact with Dr. Blue,” Melton said. “I don’t pass by him without having a conversation, even if it’s just for four or five minutes. I am going to say hello and thank God and thank him on what has been accomplished to keep me alive.”
Blue emphasizes the importance of representation and interactions like these.
“I want to show people from my community that there are people from where they are who have made it to a successful adulthood,” Blue said. “I also recognize the impact it has when a patient sees themselves in the medical team treating them, when they see a doctor who looks like them.”
A native of St. Petersburg, Blue knew early on that he wanted a career in medicine. His first job in the field was at a nursing home as a 16-year-old. Today he is an assistant member in Moffitt’s Department of Malignant Hematology.
“I wanted to do something to make a difference, and for me, oncology is the best way to do that,” he said. “In this role, you must empathize and be personable. You’re seeing someone at the most vulnerable part of their life. Everyone fears cancer — it doesn’t matter their profession, their ethnicity or their race.”
Slow and Steady Growth
Blue and Binitie are both active in recruiting faculty and staff to Moffitt. In 2018, Binitie helped launch the Faculty Diversity in Oncology Program (FDOP), a faculty member engagement network that encourages a diverse group of Moffitt team members to collaborate and recruit from their own communities.
The reason for the group is simple — a more diverse faculty results in better patient outcomes.
“We know that patients do better when their physicians look like them,” Binitie said. “Departments and programs across the cancer center have reached out to FDOP to participate in interviews and meet candidates while on-site or virtually via Zoom.”
That outreach is working. Steadily, Moffitt’s diverse population of faculty and staff is rising.
Currently, there are 24 Black or African American faculty members employed at Moffitt. While that number may not seem like a lot, it shows a steady increase in diverse employment. When the FDOP formed, Moffitt had 15 Black or African American faculty members. This growth encourages doctors like Binitie and Blue to continue recruiting and inviting interested candidates to apply for positions throughout the cancer center.
“People I have been involved with in recruiting have been pleased to get to talk to another Black or African American faculty member to share experiences,” Binitie said. “They are pleased to know that they are coming to a place where there is a community among the faculty.”
As Blue points out, “there are tons of people out there” who want to work for organizations that are welcoming and have a place for them. That’s why Blue is always sharing his story with youth and young professionals who are at the beginning of their medical careers.
“I never saw a Black doctor growing up,” Blue said. “I saw my first Black doctor when I was in college. That’s why I give talks whenever I can. I’ve spoken in churches and at parks in St. Petersburg. Kids are very visual, and they see sports stars and entertainers all the time, so they see those careers as options to succeed. There’s nothing wrong with that, but my goal is to say, ‘Hey, I’m here. I was literally where you were 10 years ago. Now I’m a doctor. You can do this, too.’”
Binitie said that Blue is not alone in his experience. Many young minorities don’t see their community represented in the medical field. Ongoing recruitment and mentorship programs are the best way to change that, he said.
But it must be a collaborative effort across multiple programs and departments.
Broadening the Reach
Many professionals, especially in the medical field, reach out to their own communities when it comes to recruitment. No matter their background, they will likely have most of their connections in their own community, whether it be in their neighborhoods, churches or their social circles.
“At Moffitt, our goal is to hire the best and the brightest, regardless of ethnicity and race,” he said. “But with an intentional desire to improve the diversity of our faculty, we have to reach out to others who don’t just fit our profile.”
Binitie said he and the FDOP encourage colleagues from all backgrounds to use their networks and to connect with others to broaden the recruitment field.
“If there is a white man recruiting, he should consider reaching out to his Asian female colleague to see if she may have some candidates in mind,” Binitie said. “That woman, who is a minority and has had her own journey to get to where she is, has an understanding that a lot of people get jobs through mentorships, sponsors and networking. We should utilize those connections all the time.”
Other members of Moffitt’s faculty are regularly working to expand Moffitt’s diverse workforce. Diversity, equity and inclusion subcommittees have formed throughout the cancer center with representation from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. These subcommittees focus on helping residents and fellows seek out mentorships and guidance, as well as help with recruitment.
‘He Feels My Pain’
Melton, who lives in Fort Pierce and travels regularly to Moffitt for treatment and consultations with Blue, said he sees his doctor as a main pillar in his support network.
“There are so many people on TV that use the terminology, ‘I feel your pain,’” Melton said. “I know that Dr. Blue really does feel my pain. I see reports on TV often talking about how Black patients tend to do better and live longer when they have a Black doctor. I’m proof of that.”
Melton said that by the end of the year he will undergo a stem cell transplant at Moffitt, which will hopefully put him on the path to remission. He said he trusts Blue and the team of providers at Moffitt and would not want to go anywhere else for his treatment.
“I have been in a lot of hospitals, but Moffitt is totally different,” he said. “I don’t know where Timbuktu is, but I told Dr. Blue that I would walk from there to Tampa to see him. That’s how much that man means to me.”
This article originally appeared in Moffitt’s Momentum magazine.