Russell Ledet, a medical student at Tulane University, stands outside Baton Rouge General Medical Center. Ledet formerly worked as a security guard at the hospital.
CNN  — 

Russell Ledet didn’t think going to college was in the cards for him because of how much it was going to cost.

After Ledet eventually made his way to higher education by way of the US Navy, he worked at a Louisiana hospital as a security guard. Now, he’s returned to that same hospital working on the front lines as a medical student during the coronavirus pandemic.

Raised by a single mom, Ledet told CNN his family was on food stamps in a poor, crime-plagued neighborhood of Lakes Charles, Louisiana.

“When it came down to the idea of college, it was never an option,” he said. “It was like only rich people do that. The only thing I knew how to do to get out of the neighborhood I was in was to go to the military.”

Thanks to years of schooling, mentors along the way, perseverance and spousal support, Ledet is two years away from adding MD to his name.

Working on the front lines during the pandemic is bit scary but also a privilege, Ledet said – a privilege he isn’t taking lightly.

“I say it’s a privilege because I think at any opportunity you are given to care for people, you never take it for granted,” he said. “It’s a bit scary because I have children and a partner to go home to. I signed up for this though, so I’ll do my part with pride and dignity.”

Returning to the hospital as a medical student

When he was 18, Ledet joined the United States Navy Ceremonial Guard in Washington, DC. After two years of service, Ledet moved back to Louisiana to attend Southern University and A&M College.

He went on to get a Ph.D in molecular oncology and tumor immunology from New York University and now he’s working on his MD and MBA through a dual program at Tulane University, graduating in May 2022.

“It’s like a playground for me now that I understand and realize I can do all of these things,” he said. “Nobody ever told me it was OK or that I was capable.”

In college Ledet set out to pursue a social work degree so he could return to the neighborhood where he grew up and give back to his community. That plan changed when he memorized the periodic table of elements during a chemistry class and his professor took notice and convinced him to pursue medicine – so he took a chance on himself and changed his major.

While enrolled in school, Ledet landed a security guard job at Baton Rouge General Medical Center. During his shifts, Ledet said he would study organic chemistry note cards in his down time and ask other doctors for the opportunity to shadow them.

“They’d be like, ‘man you’re a security guard, you can’t ever be a doctor,’” he said.

All that asking paid off when Dr. Patrick Greiffenstein, a surgery resident at the time, let Ledet shadow him without hesitation.

“Majority of doctors were male and White,” Ledet said. “In my lifetime growing up, I didn’t meet too many White guys who were nice to me, it’s just a rare thing. You gotta think about it, I grew up in the Deep South, a lot of the White guys were mean to me, they’d call me a n***er, or a little boy so it was hard to approach these people to help you.”

Ledet said he just finished his surgery rotation and is beginning his pediatric rotation at Baton Rouge General Medical Center.

“It’s been surreal to go back and work in the same operating room I once escorted Dr. Greiffenstein to as a security guard,” he said.

A man with many titles

On top of being a husband, veteran, dad, medical student and business school student, Ledet adds mentor to that list.

Ledet is the president and manager of 15 White Coats, a group of Black medical students from Tulane University that formed in 2019 on the heels of a visit to Whitney Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana.

The Tulane students hoped their group photo would make a difference for all Black students.

During the trip, 14 students joined Ledet to pose for a photo in front of the former slave quarters in an effort to show how far African Americans have come.

The students, who wore their white coats for the occasion, hoped to put photos in schools across the country to inspire future generations.

Ledet said he’s proud that over the years 15 White Coats has been able to evolve and give out scholarship money for other deserving medical students.

“Half of the issue is people are in a corner saying, ‘woe is me’ and they aren’t reaching out for any help,” Ledet said.

“If you reach out to 10 people, one of them will reach back out to you. Not everybody will, but someone will.”

“Our big plans are to start a high school in New Orleans,” he said. “And then we want to find a big donor to pay for an entire incoming class of medical students around the country that are from marginalized communities.”

As for his own personal goals, Ledet said he wants to be a “triple boarder, which is someone who’s board certified in pediatrics, general psychiatry, and child and adolescent psychiatry.”