Eric Carson, MD

Increasing diversity and mentorship are key goals for Carson

Eric Carson, MD

Growing up in the inner city of Boston, MA, Eric Carson didn’t even think African Americans, like himself, could become physicians. Defying the odds, given his background, not only did he become a physician, but he chose to work in orthopedics, a specialty that often has a reputation for lacking diversity.

One of four children raised by a single mom, Carson and his siblings were all bused to more affluent, predominantly white suburbs for elementary and high school. To fill their free time, his mother enrolled them in a variety of activities run by non-profit organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

“My mother is a hero from the perspective that she kept us all busy,” said Carson. “And the beauty of it all is that her sacrifices paid off for all four of her kids.” He and his siblings all have graduate degrees and successful careers.

From football to ballet

Carson, associate professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, became an avid athlete, playing high school and college football, running track, becoming a member of the ski team and even joining the Boston Ballet. Declining the opportunity to play professional football, Carson instead made his way to the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, IL, for medical school.

Getting into orthopedics was challenging for Carson. After acing his Step 1 licensing exam, his advisor discouraged his interest in orthopedics, a highly competitive specialty with few individuals underrepresented in medicine (URMs), particularly at the time. With some encouragement from a friendly resident he knew, Carson found a new mentor and surprised his predominantly midwestern-bound class when he matched into orthopedics at Harvard University, back in his hometown of Boston.

From Harvard to the Giants

“The most exciting thing about going to Harvard was that I had a chance to work with my mother,” said Carson. She was a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), one of the hospitals where Carson worked while at Harvard.

With such an interest in athletics, Carson continued his training with a fellowship in sports medicine/shoulder at Cornell University’s Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, NY. During this time, he assisted in the orthopedic care of the New York Giants NFL team. He has subsequently worked with athletes at each institution he has joined, even becoming one of the physicians for the U.S. Olympic rowing team.

“Like trauma on steroids”

While training in Boston, with one baby at home and another on the way, Carson was struggling to get by on the low salary residents at the time received. He had always admired two of his favorite uncles, who were in the military. So he decided to join as a reservist.

In the 17 years after he completed his medical training, Carson was deployed three times: Once to Colorado Springs, CO, to fill in for surgeons who were being deployed overseas in Operation Desert Storm; then to Germany’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the largest U.S. military hospital outside the continental United States; and finally to Kosovo in Eastern Europe, where he worked in the middle of a war zone.

Operating all day almost every day, Carson said the experience of performing surgery on soldiers wounded in battle was “eye-opening,” like “trauma on steroids.”

By the time Carson left the military, he was an officer. “It was a great experience,” he said. “But it was time to move on to other things.”

Landing in St. Louis

Throughout his deployments, Carson held faculty positions at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, and Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans, LA, and then the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA.

At Virginia, he pursued an important personal goal: Recruiting URMs into the orthopaedic surgery residency program.

“We all want to be around people that look like us, that talk like us, that can understand us,” said Carson. His efforts contributed to raising the program’s URMs enrollment to 30 percent.

Carson’s move to St. Louis was thanks in part to a lasting friendship with Regis O’Keefe, MD, PhD, head of Washington University’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. The two met during Carson’s residency at MGH, where O’Keefe was a fellow and shared a goal of increasing URMs in their field. They stayed in touch after their training days, and when a job at Washington University opened up in 2019, Carson contacted O’Keefe, who was eager to hire him. Carson joined the faculty as an associate professor.

He also was named chief of Orthopaedic Surgery at John Cochran Veterans Hospital in St. Louis — a role that he said is greatly influenced by his military background.

“My service definitely gives me the opportunity to understand veterans and really be sympathetic and empathetic to a unique group of patients,” said Carson.

“I lacked a mentor. I then became a mentor.”

Because of Carson’s strained relationship with his mentor in medical school, he has made a point of mentoring others who may be struggling like he did.

“I lacked a mentor. I then became a mentor,” said Carson. Two of the top resident recruits for Washington University’s Orthopaedic Surgery program last year were students Carson mentored. And many of the students and trainees he’s mentored have gone on to become mentors themselves, he said.

“Being around people who are like you creates a safe environment,” added Carson. So it is not unusual for him to reach out to students or residents he hears may be struggling to offer help and support.

He has also continued his commitment to URM recruiting — even helping to recruit URM faculty to other parts of the university, such as the School of Law and Olin Business School.

Prior to coming to Washington University, Carson said, he hadn’t really thought of himself as a leader. Now he is not only directing orthopedic care at the VA, he is also leading the way for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive environment in his department and throughout the medical school. What it ultimately comes down to for him: Making a difference in people’s lives.

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