From Fixing Cars to Saving Lives, an MD Mechanic on a Mission

Ryan Syrek, MA


September 24, 2019

How did your family respond?

Oh, my wife was super-supportive. She knew all of the troubles that I had gone through in business. Being a small businessman, you work long hours, you're constantly putting the profit back into the business, and it's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. My wife understood all those struggles. She understood that I wanted to go in a different direction. She grew up in a similar circumstance as I had. She didn't question it at all. She's been my biggest supporter.

My younger kids weren't even born yet! But my older ones were excited. They were like, "Yeah, Dad, this is great." I remember my daughter cheering, "Daddy's going to be a doctor someday!" It was so far removed that I was like, "Calm down, kid, things may not pan out..."

There were definitely some challenges for you.

It was mostly getting over the fear of possibly not being able to support my family financially. I had meager savings for all the years that I worked. There was just that fear of running out of money, running out of support. Because there is nobody else for me to ask for help. There's just no extra money. There's no uncle for me to go ask. If I failed at doing this, the consequences could be huge, as far as still owing school loans, not having a profession, and having to do something to try and get by.

I actually had a $120,000 scholarship to go into primary care, but I had to give that back after choosing emergency medicine. It turned into a loan instead. So I owe that on top of my student loans.

Beyond taking on financial challenges in your 40s with a family, you've mentioned that you have found a real lack of representation.

There's just such underrepresentation when you walk into a hospital. There's not many medical professionals from underprivileged societies, people who came from these harsh environments. For children or young folks, or even adults or older folks who are patients there, they might not understand the opportunities that are available to them.

My ambition in medicine is to be an example that you can come from a disadvantaged place, a place where there is poor education, and through hard work and ingenuity have opportunities available. I don't like the idea of people giving up on themselves because they just can't see a path to what they dreamed about.

You look at things that I experienced during the crack epidemic in my neighborhood, where it largely affected people who were poor and underrepresented. There wasn't that much push, that much drive, to stem the effects of that. From a child's point of view, it seemed like there was just a binary choice between locking them up and letting them suffer.

Then you look at this opioid epidemic that has affected affluent communities and people from all walks of life. There we see a more appropriate response: Money is put toward treatment, and it's not criminalized. We treat people now at the hospital for opioid use and then discharge them. There's no police there.

When I was growing up, if you had cocaine in your system and you were pregnant, upon delivery, they had laws where they were allowed to take your baby from you because you were seen as an unfit parent. That's been turned around because of awareness. Only people from underprivileged communities can express these problems.

When we see these things going on, when we see these inequalities, when we see people suffering needlessly because there is disinvestment among the community, we can alert people to that. Not that we can change everything, but at least we have the knowledge to put forth to say, "Hey, this isn't right." Health has much more to do with factors other than how fast you make it to a hospital. It has so much more to do with where you live, the resources that are available to you, and the environment that you grow up in.

I've seen you talking in various interviews about how your background as a car mechanic has helped you communicate with patients, but it sounds like your community and upbringing in general have had a major influence.

It definitely gives me empathy. I remember when I was volunteering in a local Cleveland hospital, there was a young mother. She was homeless. She had three young children with her. They were trying to find a place for her to go that night. It was like midnight, and one of these kids was balled up in a chair. The kid was the same age as my youngest at the time. They were just trying to stay warm. You can see the look of fear on these kids' faces, and you wonder what kind of life these kids are going to have. But then also I wonder, what kind of life has this mother had to have her children in this situation? I mean, her life had to have been equally bad.

For me, just having that empathy...I'm going to go to bat for everybody I deal with. Whether they come from affluent society, whether they are down and out, or whether they have some kind of addictive problem. I'm going to go to bat for them as often as I can. Because those people need to have a voice as well. That's just one of the things that I feel like my upbringing in an underprivileged society gives me: knowledge of the things that happen in the inner city. It's not that you're a bad person. Everybody has the capacity to be something.


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