February 24, 2021

Bailey uses teaching background to guide his medical education

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Justin Bailey article resizeSometimes you find your calling, and other times it finds you.

For Justin Bailey, both happened.                                  

While he was pursuing undergraduate studies at Birmingham-Southern College, Bailey, a fourth-year medical student, found his interest in education and working with kids in the Birmingham Regional Development Empowerment Center, a summer camp providing tutoring and other academic enrichment for Birmingham middle school students.

“I enjoyed that so much, I think the students connected with me,” Bailey said. “So after I graduated from college, the program let me stay on full time, giving me a class during the school year and actually had actual middle school students, and the responsibility of coming up with lesson plans and the curriculum. They partnered me with a faculty mentor to help guide me along, but everything else was considered your classroom.

“And I did that for about three and a half years,” Bailey added of his teaching science and math.

He got much joy and professional fulfillment seeing his students thrive, mature and reach academic goals, but started seeing trends with some students that no matter what tactics and work he did in the classroom, they had factors outside school that affected them in myriad ways, including their academic work.

“One big thing that kept coming up was like socioeconomic status and healthcare—either in access to see a doctor or ability to afford it,” he said, adding that some students’ parents had multiple jobs, leaving students to help watch younger siblings, which added another barrier to seeing their doctor regularly.

“At that turning point, when I was trying to figure out my next step, I just remember being very frustrated that I only saw kids from sixth grade to eighth grade. Whatever happened to them in their lives before then I had no impact, and then whatever happened after that I had no impact on as well,” he said. “I was really trying to figure out things where I can have more that reach. I wanted to do something to where I could use my interests in teaching, science and math to be able to reach these kids.”

“So then I made the switch after about three years, thinking maybe I should try the medicine,” he said. “Maybe I should try something where I can see them from birth to college and have a lot more impact in their lives, and have a further reach.”

He decided to go to UAB to take post-baccalaureate courses and work to get into medical school.

“I never really stopped”

Even though Justin’s about to graduate from medical school in a few short weeks, he would tell you that yes, he’s in a different environment, but he never really stopped teaching.

I use every opportunity to do it, whether that's with local students or in community outreach in general,” he said.

Bailey, 30, has taken opportunities throughout his time in medical school to volunteer time for health education initiatives, like talking healthy eating and how bodies work to children at the YMCA, teaching high school students about coronary artery disease through Camp Cardiac, and helping adults learn more about their health through disease screenings.

“I always love when I'm able to take some complex medical jargon or disease process, and break it down into a level to where a fifth grader or a kindergartener can understand,” he said. “I’ve found that’s a skill that actually helped me in med school, because if I can do that, then I really understand the concept myself. If I'm just using all the textbook words, then I'm really just regurgitating facts, but if I can break it down, so my patients understand, then I really know it.”

He added that this skill will help him in his career and residency as a pediatrician because he can talk directly to his patients (along with their parents and his attendings) about diseases and treatments to help them manage their health.

Leadership and mentorship

Bailey said he’s had strong relationships and mentorship throughout his life and in his medical career at UAB that have cemented his pursuit of pediatrics and of medicine.

Growing up in the Trussville area with his parents and younger brother, Bailey recalls the relationship he had with his pediatrician Vincent Carnaggio, M.D.

“One reason medicine really came on the radar because I really loved my pediatrician growing up. He was always easy to talk to, and he didn’t just talk to my mom, he talked to me too. And you know, even though medicine wasn't on my mind back then when I was little, I still remembered him and how much impact he had on my life from birth to my first memories to college.

“And that was what prompted me at the turning point in my career to say, hey, let's go and try medicine,” he said. “Remembering that doctor-patient relationship made me I feel like that would be the best way I could have the broadest positive impact on a child’s life.”

In learning more through his medical education at UAB, he learned from one of his mentors, Samantha Hill, M.D., MPH, instructor in the Division of Adolescent Medicine, that he can not only be an advocate for an individual child as their doctor, but for children across the state as a physician leader by digging deeper into social inequities and working to change policies to address systemic issues.

“Dr. Hill is one person who really lit the fire in me that you know, as a pediatrician, you can do those things, you can not only be an advocate for your patient in the room, but you can be an advocate for children all over the state of Alabama,” he said. “She empowered me to strive to do the same thing and to focus on prevention as much as treatment.”

This year, Bailey was selected as one of 10 students receiving the Paul W. Burleson, M.D. Scholarship, a philanthropic gift which covered the cost of attendance for his fourth year. He said receiving the scholarship was an opportunity that meant a lot to him and his family.

I was honestly surprised and extremely ecstatic to get this scholarship,” he said. “It goes so far to support my education. I’m 30, medicine is technically a second career for me and I had a life in between.”

Bailey and his wife, who is a student at the Birmingham School of Law, have a one-year-old daughter.

“I’m so thankful to the Burleson Foundation and their support because it really stretches that extra mile for me,” he said. “It not only changes my educational outreach, but also eliminates the vast majority of the sacrifice my wife and my child have to make while I’m in medical school.”

While he doesn’t yet know where he’s matched for residency, Bailey says he certain he wants to return to Alabama to practice after he’s finished training.

“I've always said no matter what happened to me in residency or after or subsequent training, Alabama is ultimately where I want to be long term,” he said. “There were so many people—including teachers from elementary school to college, to Dr. Hill and others at UAB— who have invested in me. If I didn't have that investment, I don't know where I would be in life. I want to be able to be that person for the kids like me growing up here.”