Representing the Black community

Dr. Charles Gibson is one of only a few Black trauma surgeons in the country.
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Dr. Charles Gibson is an acute care surgeon at Spectrum Health. Photo by Michael Buck

Long before he donned his scrubs as a trauma surgeon at Spectrum Health, Dr. Charles Gibson knew he wanted to be a doctor. Born and raised in Fayetteville, Georgia, a young Gibson was determined to pursue a career in medicine — so much so that his grandmother called him “Dr. Gibson,” even as a child.

“She would say it mostly as a joke, but also kind of ‘speaking things into the future,’ as she would say lovingly,” Gibson said. “I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a physician. My aunt was a pediatrician out in Inglewood, California, for over 35 years before she passed away, and I wanted to be a pediatrician just like her.”

Aiming high and working hard have been constants in Gibson’s life since he was little. His parents encouraged him to do better than his best and pursue excellence at every opportunity.

“My mom used to always tell me, ‘You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as much in this world,’” he said. “If I brought home B’s, that wasn’t good enough. She’d say, ‘You want to be a doctor, and doctors don’t make B’s, doctors make A’s,’” he continued. “She would really light that fire under me. My dad also instilled an extreme work ethic in me from a very young age.”

After completing his undergrad at Xavier University, Gibson set out on the path to pediatrics at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. Little did he know, his career was headed for a 180.

“I like to say trauma chose me,” he said. “I went into med school with the intention of becoming a pediatrician. The way they do the rotations, you spend eight weeks in various areas of medicine, and I did surgery first, and I absolutely loved it — particularly trauma surgery. I was miserable on every other rotation, and I just missed being in the operating room.”

“I like the system work of trauma and how you take people at their worst and find a way to get them back to their loved ones. It’s very rewarding work.”
Dr. Charles Gibson

The emergency room can be an overwhelming, intense place. For Gibson, it’s an opportunity to take on new challenges and think on his feet, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m an acute care surgeon, and that means I wear several different hats under the umbrella of general surgery,” he said. “I’m a trauma surgeon, emergency general surgeon, critical care doctor and also a burn surgeon. I like the system work of trauma and how you take people at their worst and find a way to get them back to their loved ones. It’s very rewarding work.”

While Gibson is passionate about treating patients, his work is not always easy, and not for the reasons you might think. There is very little representation in medicine, which can be difficult.

“When I was applying for residencies, one of the hardest things was seeing how few programs had people that even remotely looked like me in surgery or otherwise,” he said. “We make up about 13% of the population and about 5% or less of Black people are physicians, in spite of the fact that we are a large contingent of the population. It’s just harder to see somebody who looks like you, that has that shared cultural experience to know what you’re going through.”

On top of that, he experiences discrimination and racism, all while trying to save lives.

“People make side comments here and there, like, ‘I didn’t know Black people worked that hard,’” Gibson said. “That’s stuff people say to me in the operating room while I’m working as a resident. I’ve met with patients that aren’t used to seeing people of color, and they’ve literally asked, ‘Do I have to have a Black doctor?’ You have to try to compartmentalize in the moment and realize that your job is not to love your patients all the time; it’s just to help them.”

Despite these challenges, Gibson perseveres in his work, his love for the craft outweighing the scrutiny he faces on the job.

“The system gets used to not seeing people of color in higher-level positions, so when you achieve something, they don’t think you earned it a lot of the time,” he said. “I don’t want special treatment. I don’t want anybody bending over backward to hand me anything,” he continued. “Just don’t go out of your way to make my life hard. I just want to work hard and do a good job and take care of people.”

Though being a doctor can be tough in more ways than one, helping people is what makes it all worthwhile for Gibson.

“If there is something that we can do to help people in their darkest hour — I like being a part of that,” he said. “It’s just such an amazing thing. That passion is what has you stand two hours at the end of your shift to hold a family member’s hand to let them know things are going to be OK or that they’re not going to be OK and that you’re here for them,” he said. “That passion for people is what makes treating the whole person ultimately worth it.”

This story can be found in the February 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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