By Robert Ast '08
“Growing up in Brooklyn, I wasn’t tracked to become a physician,” Trevor Dixon ’99PBPM notes. “This was during the drug epidemic in the late ’80s/early ’90s. About 90 percent of my friends from those days are either locked up or dead, and these were bright kids.”
Born in Jamaica and raised in East Flatbush, he credits a neighborhood mentor, a music store owner named Witty, with helping him to avoid a similar fate. “He said, ‘You don’t really belong here. I see more in you,’” Dixon recalls.
He went on to earn an associate’s degree in chemistry from New York Technical College and then a bachelor’s degree in ultrasound technology from SUNY Downstate, all while working full time, first at a bakery and then at Consolidated Edison. When he was nearing graduation, another mentor, the late Professor Jacqueline Jakway, encouraged him to apply to the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program.
“She saw my enthusiasm about wanting to learn more,” he says. “She said, ‘I know you’ve been in Brooklyn your whole life, but maybe it’s time to get out of Brooklyn. There’s a wonderful program at Columbia, and the students who come out of it seem to do well in medical school.’”
Dixon applied to the program and was accepted, attending classes at night while working as an ultrasound technician at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. Columbia proved to be a different academic experience, from the large introductory classes with few African-American students to the intensive coursework and competitive atmosphere.
"I’m grateful for the opportunity Columbia provided. I’m humbled by this whole journey more than anything else.”
- Dr. Trevor Dixon '99PBPM
“It was a culture shock,” he says. “It was hard, but it helped me to see who I was and where I came from; you don’t really know where you come from until you go somewhere different.”
Dixon quickly adjusted, making some close friendships and, through his Postbac advisor, finding a mentor in Dr. Gerald Thomson, a professor and senior ssociate dean at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, who helped him prepare for the medical school application process. He earned his MD at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and, drawing upon his previous experience, began to specialize in emergency ultrasound medicine. Known primarily for its use in sonograms, ultrasound technology has “become the principal diagnostic tool used by trauma surgeons on unstable patients,” Dixon says.
Given the importance of mentorship in his own life and career, it is no surprise that Dixon has gravitated toward professional opportunities that allow him to serve as a teacher and mentor, with stints at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, the University of Missouri, and now Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where he currently serves as the director of emergency ultrasound.
“No matter where I go, that’s the job I choose to take,” he says. “It’s not about chasing the money; it’s about being in an academic center where I can teach residents and medical students.”
He has also embarked upon a comprehensive initiative to improve health care in Jamaica, first on his own and then through the JAHJAH Foundation (Jamaicans Abroad Helping Jamaicans At Home), which he founded and now chairs. “My mother died in 2005, and I felt that I wanted to give back to Jamaica as a tribute,” he said.
Initially he traveled to Jamaica and worked with Kingston Public Hospital to train its staff on ultrasound technology, and then, in 2011, created the foundation to formalize and expand his efforts. The foundation’s two primary areas of focus reflect Dixon’s priorities: bringing together healthcare professionals from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Jamaica for conferences on ultrasound medicine and pediatric cancer and promoting access to medical services and education. On the latter front, much of JAHJAH’s work strives to partner with the community and celebrate Jamaican culture—even down to its name, a nod to the Rastafarian term for God, “Jah”—from mounting healthcare clinics at dancehall parties to enlisting the support of reggae legends Beenie Man and Bounty Killer.
“It’s so natural for me to do this work with the JAHJAH Foundation,” Dixon says. “In Brooklyn, music is how I kept in contact with my culture, especially reggae music, which speaks about suffering and fighting against oppression.”
In broadening his experience, the Postbac Program helped set Dixon on his path to activism and a career in medicine.
“One of the things that pushed me to be a physician was the underrepresentation of African-Americans,” Dixon says. “I thought that it would be important for patients to see someone who looks like them, and now when I’m in the hospital, I see how the patients look at me, and even if they don’t say it, I can sense the pride they feel. It’s humbling.
“The odds were against me—well, nothing’s really against you, you’re just supposed to stay in your lane, so to speak. I’m grateful for the opportunity Columbia provided. I’m humbled by this whole journey more than anything else.”