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It was always a dream that Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU) would reach new heights. Simply put, the time is right for change across America, in particular at CDU.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, community outreach became the utmost focal point for the university. It was the most tangible way for CDU to cement its place as a community-oriented university in the Black community, through thought leadership in addressing social determinants to health in Los Angeles and across the nation.

“Our vaccination strategy for the general population in California has been a big success,” began Dr. David M. Carlisle, CDU’s CEO and president. “But now we’re seeing those numbers come up.

“We’ve really become two populations. Those who are vaccinated and those who are unvaccinated and those who are unvaccinated are bearing the brunt of COVID-19. The pain, the suffering, the morbidity and the mortality is increasingly confined to the unvaccinated population.”

Carlisle said if you are unvaccinated it is not a question of when you will get COVID-19 but how bad it will be when you do contract the coronavirus.

CDU has received several grants, nearly totaling $70 million during the pandemic, which will fund exponential growth at the school’s campus in Willowbrook. Carlisle said funding began pouring in after former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg invested $6.5 million to reduce the debt burden of graduates from CDU’s medical school.

Meanwhile, earlier this summer, Carlisle said with the help of Assemblymember Mike Gipson (64th District) and State Sen. Steve Bradford (35th District), Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new fiscal budget set aside $50 million dollars to construct a new state-of-the-art building on CDU’s campus to house the university’s new four-year MD program.

Most recently, the university has received $12 million dollars from the federal government’s CARES Act relief fund program to ultimately increase the number of Black health professionals.

“I think all of these are in recognition of the significant role that CDU has been recognized as playing in terms of training the healthcare professional leaders and workers that we need in our society. Individuals coming from the South Los Angeles population… individuals who will then serve (their own communities in South LA),” Carlisle shared.

“I’m tremendously excited by the economic potential that these dollars bring to South Los Angeles. In the case of the state funding, that’s $50 million dollars that will be injected into South Los Angeles. Construction jobs, employment in the medical school. That’s all money that we’re happy to bring to our community.”

Evolution of a dream

Founded in 1966, CDU is nationally recognized as one of the only Historical Black College and Universities (HBCU) specializing in medical education.

“It’s a dream that’s been deferred,” said Sylvia Drew Ivie, the special assistant to the president for community affairs, who is the youngest daughter of the school’s namesake. “To really realize a whole breadth of possibilities of the university. We have never gotten this level of financial support or this level of recognition, nationally, state-wide and locally that we’re now enjoying.”

CDU is named after Dr. Charles R. Drew, a distinguished African-American physician who was a pioneer in medicine in the early and mid-20th century. Drew’s work on blood banking and blood plasma storage and transfusion, coupled with his ability to overcome racism, placed him as a distinguished surgeon and the chair of surgery at Howard University. Although Drew died in 1950, his legacy of working to eliminate health disparities in all communities is especially relevant today.

“It’s really been so heartening to see it and experience it,” Drew Ivie added. “So many wonderful people have been part of the dream. To realize the dream you have to engineer the growth of the university and that’s what Dr. Carlisle has been doing. Visualize and then implement the structure of what it takes to be a strong, working university serving underserved communities.”

Drew Ivie knows her father would be proud of what CDU has become in 2021 and where the university is headed in the near and long-term future.

“I know that he would be so thrilled because he loved teaching. He loved training his residents for service in underserved communities. He loved demonstrating our capacity to achieve excellence,” Drew Ivie continued. “If you are dedicated to that knowledge of what we bring to the table, our passion, our intelligence, our hard endeavors… you need the platform to bring all that talent together and that’s what he was trying to do at Howard University and that’s what we’re trying to do at CDU.

“We’re really building on the wealth of our own communities. The talent that we have and providing the platform for them to show what they know how to do, what they can learn how to do and where their hearts are in service for communities that have been so long neglected.”

Circulating talent within the community

When CDU’s new medical programs are built out, it will have a direct impact in South LA. It will mean additional local Black doctors and nurses, which Carlisle hopes will holistically improve the level of care many currently receive in Black and Brown communities.

“This is why the state has made the decision to invest in CDU. It’s not just numbers. It’s a return on investment,” Carlisle said. “This is a direct economic injection into South Los Angeles.”

Currently, the school has 28 medical students. New funding will create the neccesary physical space for 60 additional students, which Carlisle said will have a profound impact on medical education in the state of California.

CDU is looking to increase the potential number of African-American medical students by almost 30 percent in the State of California. Additionally, the number of Latinx medical students is also expected to increase by almost 20 percent in California because of CDU’s rising capacity to teach more students.

“It’s not just increasing those numbers. Our typical medical students are the first of their families to go to medical school. The first members of their families to go to college,” Carlisle explained. “They’re often students from the very community that we serve, South Los Angeles and communities like it around the state.”

Carlisle said the only goal of most students at CDU is to return to the communities that they grew up in and to make those communities healthier.

“That’s why they want to become doctors,” Carlisle said. “We’re going to be furthering the accomplishment of that goal and the impact is we will have more doctors who’ve grown up in the communities that we’re talking about, coming back to those communities.

“It will have a transformative effect on the presence of health professionals in under-resourced communities.”

CDU has set an ambitious timeline. The university expects to matriculate medical students into the new program in September 2023. The new building to house the program will be available shortly after that date.

The first graduates of the expanded program are expected in 2027.

“The clock is already ticking on us,” Carlisle said, adding that CDU leaders would not have it any other way.

Fifty-five years in the making

“It’s always been the dream that we would get to this point,” Drew Ivie said. “We never wanted to be as modest as we were at the outset. We knew what the need was at the very beginning but to get the support that we are garnering today is in part due to our leadership but also in part due to the fact that we’ve been such a visible actor in the COVID situation.

“Nationally, COVID has laid bare the deficit of care for underserved communities, which hurts everyone,” she added. “It’s really been a transformative period for the nation and for us as an institution to say what can we do to build more care in and to have more people available to want to provide care in these underserved communities. It’s an irony really that COVID has brought the ability and capacity to respond to the need. We’ve been ready… emotionally and intellectually ready for many many decades but we weren’t financially able, and now we’re financially able and administratively able to take this next step.”

CDU is in the midst of expanding all programs, including the goal of having 1,000 undergraduate students within the next five years, up exponentially from 200 undergraduate students currently enrolled.

“A new building of this type is a proud affirmation of our belief in the community that we serve. It is a statement that we are here for South LA,” Carlisle shared. “It is a symbol of our commitment to the community we serve and we want to make sure that we are delivering as much as we can on the formative promise that we’ve made to our community 55 years ago.

“This is an investment in the community that created our university, recognizing that through the improvement of the health of the community that we’re going to improve the healthcare metrics for the entire country.”