Feb. 13, 2023 – It’s not often that a high school brawl with gang members sets you down a path to becoming a Harvard-trained doctor. But that’s exactly how Alister Martin’s life unfolded.
Alister Martin, MD, had initially planned to follow in his stepfather’s footsteps, managing the drug store in Neptune, NJ, township where he was raised. But a fight changed his prospects.
In retrospect, he should have seen the whole thing coming. That night at the party, his best friend was attacked by a gang member from a nearby high school. Martin was not in a gang but he jumped into the fray to defend his friend.
“I wanted to save the day, but that’s not what happened,” he says. “There were just too many of them.”
When his mother rushed to the hospital, he was so bruised and bloody that she couldn’t recognize him at first. Ever since he was a baby, she had done her best to shield him from the neighborhood where gang violence was a regular disruption. But it hadn’t worked.
“My high school had a zero-tolerance policy for gang violence,” Martin says, “so even though I wasn’t in a gang, I was kicked out.”
Now expelled from high school, his mother wanted him out of town, fearing gang retaliation, or that Martin might seek vengeance on the boy who had brutally beaten him. So, the biology teacher and single mom who worked numerous jobs to keep them afloat, came up with a plan to get him far away from any temptations.
Martin had loved tennis since middle school, when his eighth-grade math teacher, Billie Weise, also a tennis pro, got him a job as a court sweeper at an upscale tennis club nearby. He knew nothing then about tennis but would come to fall in love with the sport. To get her son out of town, Martin’s mother took out loans for $30,000 and sent him to a Florida tennis training camp.
After 6 months of training, Martin, who earned a GED degree while attending the camp, was offered a scholarship to play tennis at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. The transition to college was tough, however. He was nervous and felt out of place. “I could have died that first day. It became so obvious how poorly my high school education had prepared me for this.”
But the unease he felt was also motivating in a way. Worried about failure, “he locked himself in a room with another student and they studied day and night,” recallsKamal Khan, director of the Office for Diversity and Academic Success at Rutgers. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
And Martin displayed other attributes that would draw others to him – and later prove important in his career as a doctor. His ability to display empathy and interact with students and teachers separated him from his peers, Khan says. “There’re a lot of really smart students out there,” he says, “but not many who understand people like Martin.”
After graduating, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. He’d wanted to be a doctor since he was 10 years old after his mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. He remembers overhearing a conversation she was having with a family friend about where he would go if she died.
“That’s when I knew it was serious,” he says.
Doctors saved her life and it’s something he’ll never forget. But it wasn’t until his time at Rutgers that he finally had the confidence to think he could succeed in medical school.
Martin went on to attend Harvard Medical School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government as well as serving as chief resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was also a fellow at the White House in the Office of the Vice President and today, he’s an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
He is most at home in the emergency room at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he works as an emergency medical specialist. For him, the ER is the first line of defense for meeting the community’s health needs. Growing up in Neptune, the ER “was where poor folks got their care,” he says. His mom worked two jobs and when she got off work at 8 p.m. there was no pediatrician open. “When I was sick as a kid we always went to the emergency room,” he says.
While at Harvard, he also pursued a degree from the Kennedy School of Government, because of the huge role he feels that politics play in our health care system and especially in bringing care to impoverished communities. And since then he’s taken numerous steps to bridge the gap.
Addiction, for example, became an important issue for Martin, ever since a patient he encountered in his first week as an internist. She was a mom of two who had recently gotten surgery because she broke her ankle falling down the stairs at her child’s daycare, he says. Prescribed oxycodone, she feared she was becoming addicted and needed help. But at the time, there was nothing the ER could do.
“I remember that look in her eyes when we had to turn her away,” he says.
Martin has worked to change protocol at his hospital and others throughout the nation so they can be better set up to treat opioid addiction. He’s the founder of GetWaivered, an organization that trains doctors throughout the country to use evidenced based medicine to manage opioid addiction. In the U.S. doctors need what’s called a DEA X waiver to be able to prescribe buprenorphine to opioid addicted patients. That means that currently only about 1% of all emergency room doctors nationwide have the waiver and without it, it’s impossible to help patients when they need it the most.
Shuhan He, MD, an internist with Martin at Massachusetts General Hospital who also works on the GetWaivered program, says Martin has a particular trait that helps him be successful.
“He’s a doer and when he sees a problem, he’s gonna try and fix it.”