My Big Break
12:41 pm
Sun April 27, 2014

Without Life-Saving Pact, This Doctor Would Have Been The Patient

Originally published on Sun April 27, 2014 6:23 pm

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Dr. Sampson Davis is an emergency medicine physician in his hometown of Newark, N.J. He grew up in a rough neighborhood. As a kid, he excelled in school but didn't always stay out of trouble.

"Just to walk down the street, I would see drug dealers, I would see people stealing cars, I would see prostitution, I would see people using drugs," Davis says. "That was my surrounding."

At 17 years old, Davis and three friends committed a robbery. They called themselves the Robin Hoods of the community, targeting neighborhood drug dealers, stealing their money and giving back to the poor.

"When the robbery took place, we jumped out of the car and walked up to them and patted them down, taking things out of their pocket," he says.

Out of the corner of his eye, Davis noticed a car pull up.

"Within seconds, sirens everywhere, cop cars everywhere," Davis says.

He and his friends were caught and sent to juvenile hall.

"I spent the summer between my junior year and senior year in juvenile detention," he says.

Had he been a few months older, Davis would've had a felony charge and would've been tried as an adult.

"I'm quite certain I would've been given years in jail," he says.

Davis says being locked up was eye-opening.

"In a cold room with a thin sheet, I realized that if I didn't change my life around and stay more on the academics, that I would die on the streets," he says. "And that was my big break."

He returned to school his senior year and made a pact with two of his high school friends: They were going to become doctors.

"We made this promise that we were going to figure it out," he says. "Being the first one in my family to go to college, I didn't know I had to fill out a college application, and I had to take the bus to my own college interview."

They made it to Seton Hall University in New Jersey and went on to medical school.

"Two of us became physicians, one became a dentist," Davis says. "We all are practicing doctors in New Jersey and New York."

Davis returned home to Newark to practice emergency medicine at the same hospital where he was born. It's there that he saw the name of a patient, Don Moses, who was admitted to the ER the previous night.

"I closed my eyes and thought, 'Don Moses, I know a Don Moses,' " Davis says.

Suddenly, it hit him.

"This was the Don Moses I did the robbery with years ago," he says.

Davis sprinted down the hall and began seeing the familiar faces of Moses' family.

"He had been shot multiple times, and he had died," Davis says. "If I had decided to stay down that same road, I would've been dead. I probably would've been lying right next to Don, who lost his life on the streets.

"To be back in Newark as the same physical being but with a different mental perspective, I feel like I went through these things in life, I'd never wish them on anyone, but certainly if I can make it, anyone can make it."

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Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt. Now, for the latest installment of our series My Big Break, about triumphs big and small. Dr. Sampson Davis is an emergency medicine physician in his hometown of Newark, N.J. He grew up in a rough neighborhood. As a kid, he excelled in school but didn't always stay out of trouble.

DR. SAMPSON DAVIS: Just to walk down the street, I would see drug dealers, I would see people stealing cars, I would see prostitution, I would see people using drugs, and that was my surrounding. That was my backdrop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: When I was 17-and-a-half, committed a robbery with a group of guys from the streets. And so dumb to think about it but we called ourselves the Robin Hood of the community. We were going to rob drug dealers and give back to the poor. When the robbery took place, we jumped out of car and walked up to them and sort of patting them down and taking things out of their pocket we noticed - I noticed another car pulled up to the scene. And literally within seconds there were sirens everywhere, cop cars everywhere. One of the guys that I was with, he's running past me and you could see he'd look at me in my direction and I could see the fear in his face and, you know, what was I thinking as he was being chased by the police and was caught.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: So all four of us was taken off to jail. And then I remember I spent the summer between my junior year and senior year in juvenile detention. With the crime that I committed, had I been considered an adult, which was age 18, then I would've had a felony charge. And I'm quite certain I would've been given years in jail.

And so when I was sitting there in that room and having moments to myself and in a cold room with a thin sheet, and I realized that if I didn't change my life around and stay focused more on the academics that I would die on the streets. And that was my big break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: When I returned to high school my senior year, that's when I made the pact on my two friends. And we made this pact that we were going to become doctors. We made this promise that we were going to figure it out. Being the first one in my family to go to college, I didn't know that I had to fill out a college application and I had to take the bus to go to my own college interview.

We made it to Seton Hall University and went on to medical school. And two of us became physicians, one became a dentist, but we all are practicing doctors in New Jersey and New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: And I was fortunate to come back home to my hometown of Newark, New Jersey and practice emergency medicine in the same hospital that I was born in. Sitting in morning report with the rest of the doctors and I'm looking at the board, and the board is made up of a medley of different names of patients who came in the night before who were shot, stabbed, car accidents, bar fights, you name it. And so I see the name Don Moses across the board and I closed my eyes and think like, what are the - Don Moses, I know a Don Moses. And this is the Don Moses I did the crime with, the robbery with years ago. So I sprint down the hallway, hit the button on the wall, the double doors swing open. And as I approached the room I start to see familiar faces. And low and behold it was his family. He had been shot multiple times and he had died.

Literally, I had just chills throughout my body because it hit me. If I had decided to still stay down that same road, I would have been dead. I probably would've been lying right next to Don who lost his life on the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: To be back in Newark as the same physical being but with a different mental perspective, I feel like I went through these things in life - I never wished them on anyone, but certainly enough, if I can make it, anyone can make it.

WESTERVELT: Dr. Sampson Davis, physician and author of "Living and Dying in Brick City." We want to hear about your big break. Send us an email, MyBigBreak@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.