Mention the name “Will R. Ross” and plentiful well-deserved accolades will flow.
Dr. Ross, MD, MPH is an Alumni Endowed Professor of Medicine, Nephrology, and Associate Dean for Diversity at Washington University School of Medicine. His reputation as a kidney specialist, a developer of long-term health equity programs locally, nationally, and globally is legendary.
Ross has served as Director of Washington University’s Hemodialysis unit and then Vice President of Medical Affairs at the former St. Louis Regional Medical Center. He has helped open free medical clinics for uninsured patients and is the founding member of the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, a magnet health professions high school in St. Louis.
This is just a snapshot of Ross’ considerable accomplishments. But, when listed in total Dr. Ross says he’s still not satisfied.
“No, I am not satisfied when tens of thousands or millions of people go to bed hungry,” Ross explained. “I cannot be satisfied when people are dying from preventable diseases, when whole communities in Ethiopia or in Haiti are jeopardized, when we have epidemics of hunger and violence on a global level. There will always be a need and I hope to do more.”
Ross is an inspiration to all the people he works for and all those he works with.
“Will has long been a moral compass for us here at Washington University,” Executive Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs and Dean of the School of Medicine David H. Perlmutter said. “We are an institution driven by science: he has found his voice as our clear-eyed conscience when it comes to the human element of public health.”
That need to do more, to give back was seeded in Ross as a child growing up in one of the roughest, most violent parts of Memphis Tennessee. Ross and his siblings were raised in a climate that often crushes young lives and dreams. He never knew his father and his mother suffered from a debilitating bipolar affective disorder. The children survived entirely on government assistance and had to fend for themselves throughout their young lives.
Ross remembers accompanying his older sister to John Gaskin Hospital’s emergency room to get treatment for another sister who suffered from severe asthma. At the age of six he wondered why it took doctors so long to comfort his sister.
“She’s sitting there wheezing and coughing and it seemed like forever for someone to take care of her,” Ross recalled.
For Ross, it was obvious the doctors had the skills to treat his sister but in his young mind, he reasoned that they lacked compassion to help a child who didn’t share their hue. Sitting frantically in that emergency room, young Ross made a career decision.
“I said to myself, ‘you know what, I’m going to be a doctor to do a better job,” Ross recalled. “I just felt that I was going to be that physician who really cared.”
The seed was planted but the odds were against him. The Ross Family had to navigate poverty, and violence, including gang violence. At the age of 12, while playing with a friend, the boys saw a teenager chased by another group of teens. When they caught him, they shot the teen, point blank in the head. Ross and his friend stood there, stunned as the culprits ran off. Ross, however, went to the wounded teenager.
“The guy was still moaning; he was still alive. What was I going to do?” Ross remembered. “No one should have to die alone,” Ross said sadly. “So, I just laid my hand on him; it was the only thing I knew to do as a child; I just couldn’t leave him.”
Ross held onto his desire to become a doctor. He managed to excel in school while trying to avoid the pitfalls of poverty, gangs, and violence in South Memphis.
“We lived in a tough and gritty part of town where weakness was not tolerated,” Ross said, recanting the atmosphere of his youth.
“You had to stand up for yourself,'' Ross said, elaborating on the creed of the streets. “Growing up, rule number one was: ‘You never run from a fight.’ You take your licks, throw whatever punch you can and hope for a quick fight. But you never, ever run.”
Fortunately, a counselor at his school was paying attention to the burgeoning 14-year-old student’s life. She knew of his mother’s illness and the family’s struggles. She also knew Ross was a brilliant student. After scoring high on a PSAT test, the counselor introduced Ross to a visiting volunteer counselor. That person just happened to be Francine Hooks, the wife of the late prominent lawyer and NAACP icon, Reverend Benjamin L. Hooks.
The Hooks introduced Ross to a local, prominent, and wealthy Jewish couple, Albert and Shirley Wexner. The couple sent young Ross to a summer program at a boarding school in New Hampshire. That experience impacted Ross profoundly.
“It was the first time I had gotten away from Memphis and the first time I could sit in non-segregated classrooms and compete with students of high influence,” Ross said. “That’s where I learned I could compete on their level. It gave me tremendous confidence that I was not inferior.”
The Wexners were active in the civil rights movement and insisted Ross share their passions.
“They didn’t just expose me, they basically indoctrinated me,” Ross said, recalling the Wexner’s influence. “I would go to these meetings, and they would hand me all these books-heavy on philosophy and literature-and I was expected to come back and talk about what I read, what I learned and what was happening in civil rights.”
Ross said the Wexner's contributions to his cultural and social education came at a cost.
“I was told that they weren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts,” Ross explained. “They said they were making an investment in me and told me explicitly that I was expected to pay it back through my contributions to society.”
Upon graduation from high school, Ross wanted to attend an Ivy League college like the kids he met in New Hampshire. When he informed the Wexners, they, again obliged.
Ross was awarded a full scholarship to Yale University. The Wexner’s supplied funds for clothes, books, and other essentials. He majored in biology. After graduating from Yale, Ross, who thought he’d attend Berkley or Stanford, responded to an invitation to interview at Washington University in St. Louis. He was offered another full scholarship at the university’s medical school and Ross completed his medical residency at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and returned to Washington University under a fellowship to specialize in kidney and organ transplant work.
A colleague convinced Ross to consider a career in public health, which he said, “Changed the trajectory of my life.” After serving six years as Director of Washington University School of Medicine’s Hemodialysis unit he became Vice President of Medical Affairs at the former St. Louis Regional Hospital on Delmar Blvd. Ross became a vocal advocate of public health in 1996 as city leaders worked to close the hospital.
“I just spoke out on the need to have that type of hospital in the community with people who knew, worked and cared for the community,” Ross explained. “I felt you couldn’t just shift all that to another facility and maintain that culture.”
The hospital was, however, shuttered. Ross made another significant career move based on the advice of a mentor, William Peck, MD a Professor of Medicine at Washington University, who asked Ross to head up a minority student recruitment effort at the university.
Ross’ life and career philosophies were shaped by the civil rights era and Martin Luther King’s philosophy and activism.
“I learned that I should always look to build coalitions. I didn’t see an enemy in white people. I saw an effective, destructive policy of white supremacy. If I could convince enough white people to understand that we could build this coalition then, hopefully, that would undermine any system of oppression.”
Ross has indeed fulfilled his pledge to the Wexners. He’s received innumerable awards and acknowledgments for his work. His dedication to changing organ donation systems to benefit Black recipients is invaluable. He’s worked with health, civic and political leaders to develop a 25-year plan to address the health needs of the less fortunate. Ross has been instrumental in creating community engagement policies and programs, including the St. Louis American’s weekly, “Your Health Matters” public information section.
It's tempting to draw a divine parallel from Ross’ childhood experiences; seeking treatment for his sister, aiding a dying teenager, being nurtured by a wealthy couple who insisted he learn about civil rights and giving back, to his amazing trajectory in the medical and civic fields.
But Ross will have none of that. He simply defines himself as a “secular humanist.”
“I believe all of us are placed on this earth to do the greatest good,” Ross explained. “When I go to bed at night, I ask myself ‘Have I done the greatest good?’ If I can’t answer that question affirmatively then I need to step up my game a little bit.
“I’m trying my best to heal and not just one individual, but heal people on a local, national and global level. That’s my calling.”
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