by Matt Skoufalos
“You have a better chance of being me than you do of being Ben Carson,” said Edward McKay. “To be a neurosurgeon, you have a better chance of being me than him.”
But when you’re McKay, a surgical technician in the pediatric OR at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, you still get to work alongside Ben Carson for the better part of a decade. McKay considers Carson a mentor, maintains personal connections with him, even from the Presidential campaign trail, and has benefited from his guidance.
For a teenager who pushed through a childhood that included the realities of the illegal drug trade, gang violence, and family hardships just to make it through high school, McKay considers himself statistically unlikely to have reached the position he’s achieved in medicine himself. Growing up in the Latrobe projects of East Baltimore, where his family still resides, many of McKay’s friends didn’t finish the ninth grade, let alone earn a professional degree.
“I was the only one from my group that finished school,” he said. “Standing outside on the corner every day, that wasn’t for me. If I didn’t get a job here, I was almost in the streets. This job helped me out a lot.”
At 18, McKay practically willed himself into his foot-in-the-door job at Hopkins, a position in the hospital environmental services department. By 19, he had moved into his own apartment, and was able to support himself comfortably. Then McKay became a father, and the budget became a bit tighter. He wanted to move up at Hopkins, either through his union position or additional schooling. But every time he approached the human resources department, there were opportunities neither for scholarships nor advancement. Then one day, as he was emptying the emergency-room garbage, McKay met a man who changed his life.
“Here at Hopkins, you see a lot of people walking around in suits, and the only time they approach you is when you do something wrong,” he said. “He asked me [whether I’d thought] about school, and I said, ‘I’ve been inquiring about it, but everybody kept slamming the door in my face.’ ”
That man was Kenneth Grant, Vice-President of General Services and Supply Chain Management at Johns Hopkins. Grant recommended McKay for a surgical technician certificate program the hospital offers in partnership with Baltimore City Community College. Through it, McKay could work part-time at his current position — while simultaneously being a full-time student — and still collect full-time wages. The arrangement kept him from having to choose his education or his career.
“I was looking for a way out, and I couldn’t find one, and I kept hearing about how Hopkins would send you to school,” McKay said. “I don’t think I ever really asked [Grant] ‘Why me?’ but it was a blessing.”
The door had been opened for McKay, but walking through it was only the beginning. In addition to work and school, he juggled time with his two-year-old daughter. Without a car, McKay had two long bus trips to school daily for a year-and-a-half. He recollects the certificate program as “one of the hardest things I ever did.
“I had to learn the instruments for the OR, sterile technique, book reports, presentations, my daughter, and I had to come to work,” McKay said. “It was pretty stressful. [But] there was no Plan B. There was no going back to housekeeping. I could not pass up this opportunity.”
Compounding the intensity of his experience, McKay’s challenges were alien to both his friends, many of whom had not finished high school, and his coworkers, all of whom had post-secondary education under their belts.
“I never ever thought about going to college because the only people I knew who went to college were people on TV with football and basketball scholarships,” McKay said. “If you’re lucky to go to high school, you get a job. I work in an OR where everybody went to a college or a university.”
But through it all, McKay kept his daughter – and the size of his opportunity – at the center of his focus.
“I did not want her to go through anything that I went through at all,” he said. “My mother worked, up to a point, and then drugs distracted her; same thing with my father. I had a great childhood as far as gifts, my mother provided me with everything, but that doesn’t mean that the other stuff didn’t happen.”
Nyree McKay is 13 now, embarking on her own high school career, and Carson is on the Presidential campaign trail. Edward McKay is still working at Hopkins in the operating room, and he’s leveraging the opportunity of his success for all that he can. His remarkable rise was chronicled in an in-house documentary series on employee diversity at Hopkins, and McKay has taken that well-deserved notoriety and channeled it into outreach to other children from East Baltimore as well as in advocating for surgical technicians in general.
“All you hear about are nurses and doctors, but the surgical tech plays a prominent role in the operating room,” McKay said. “A lot of us feel underappreciated at times because we feel like we don’t get our just due for what we do. I work side by side with the surgeon. If blood gets on him, it gets on me. I’m right there at the field.”
McKay’s biographical video has been viewed more than 12,000 times on YouTube (https://youtu.be/J-Bi3F9Nj20), and has become part of the Hopkins orientation process. He’s gotten correspondence from people in Ghana, Colombia, Australia, Germany, England, who tell him how inspirational they’ve found his story. All the while, McKay has gone on to assist surgeons like Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa and George Jallo – and still he views it as only an entry point to the next, bigger thing.
“I’m happy but I’m not satisfied,” McKay said. “I want to take it further.”
“They let me in the door with that video,” he said. “Now, I’ve got to kick down the door and take it one step further.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: President Barack Obama wrote McKay after this story ran in OR Today magazine.