SPECIAL EDITION: Vanderbilt mourns Levi Watkins Jr.

Remembrance: Kevin Johnson, M.D., chair of Biomedical Informatics

I have a very fond remembrance of something Levi did for me that arguably was emblematic of the role he played for many of us.

It is the day of my interview for medical school. I am already feeling anxious, because I was told by people at my college that no one from there ever got into Hopkins! My interview lasts a total of 10 minutes. It begins with one question offered up by a very fidgety gentleman who was a professor of neurology. He asks, "tell me about your pet octopus." It turns out that has a child I kept an octopus in captivity for a long time, which was an unusual event. I was very proud of this; it was prominent in my personal statement. Anyway, I answer the question, which takes approximately five minutes. After I finish my answer, the interviewer says thank you to me and wishes me well.

As I walk out, tears begin to well up in my eyes. I have never failed anything as badly as I must've failed this interview, because he clearly had nothing else to say to me. Not knowing what else to do, I continue with what I have promised, which is to call Dr. Watkins to debrief him on my interview.

It takes about 15 minutes for Dr. Watkins to find me in the admissions area. By this point, all of my tears have dried up, and I have resolved myself to prepare better for Penn’s medical school interview the following week.

I spend 2 minutes explaining what happened to Dr. Watkins, and the tears begin to make a repeat appearance! He says to me, “Hold on, let me check, but my guess is that it will all be fine." In five minutes, he's back with a big smile on his face. To paraphrase what he said, it was that the interview stopped because the interviewer thought I was a future star and had nothing else to ask!

In this moment, as in many others to come, he was the consummate mentor. He was a tremendous force — one who literally made it possible for many of us to become successful doctors, in addition to saving millions of lives and advising tens of thousands of students and adults interested in the health sciences. He was tenacious, yet considered; passionate, but purposeful; and a man combining the art of humility with the ferocity of a fire-breathing dragon about matters of equality and justice.