Early April is a great time to be in Washington, D.C. It is during this time of the year that the cherry blossoms that line the tidal basin around the monuments reach their peak bloom and remind us of the gift of friendship between Japan and the United States. In April of 1968, the atmosphere that filled the streets of the district was anything but friendly. Residents learned of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at 8 in the evening on April 4th, and by 10 o’clock, they had taken to the streets. Racial tensions were high as shops along “black Broadway” on U Street in the Northwest sector of the city were looted. A few blocks away towering over the smoke that rose from these shops stood Freedman’s Hospital, a structure that was later renamed Howard University Hospital. Howard University was founded in 1867, two years after the end of the American Civil War. The university and hospital were created through a charter signed by President Andrew Johnson in response to the shortage of black physicians available to serve the many newly freed African Americans in the nation. From its inception, Howard University was dedicated to educating minorities, namely African Americans and women, and today remains one of the most prominent historically black universities in the country, producing more black doctorate recipients than any other university. For these reasons, Howard University has always been a beacon of hope for the African American community, both in the District of Columbia and nationally. Many people have come through the doors of Howard University Hospital and left their mark, forever changing the landscape of African American medicine on both sides of the white coat. Among such individuals is Dr. Robert A. Copeland, Jr.
Thirteen years before the riots of 1968, on December 13th in Philadelphia, Robert “Bobby” A. Copeland, Jr. was born. This was the same year that Pearl A. Watson, MD, a graduate of Howard University College of Medicine and ophthalmology residency program, became the first African American woman to be certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology. Bobby grew up in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania and was a graduate of Germantown High School. After high school he went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. During his first week as an undergraduate there in 1973, he was playing basketball and injured his right eye. He was promptly taken to nearby Meharry Medical College where he was treated and his interest in medicine and ophthalmology was sparked. Half a century earlier, in 1910, the Flexner Report was published examining the state of medical education in the United States. As a result of the report, many schools did not meet the standards for formalized training and the number of medical schools that served and educated primarily African American physicians fell from seven to just two: Howard University College of Medicine and Meharry Medical College. Between 1910 and 1970, these two institutions were essentially the sole source of black doctors in the United States and, in fact, it was not until 1966 that all medical schools were open to black students. It was around this time that Bobby applied to medical schools and was fortunate to get accepted to several. Despite his acceptance to and early affinity for Meharry Medical College, he ultimately chose to study at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. His decision allowed him to be closer to home and to potentially open up a spot at Meharry for another budding young African American physician who perhaps did not get accepted elsewhere. This gesture was just one of many during his lifetime that Bobby did without a second thought to increase representation of African Americans in the medical profession.
In 1982, after completing medical school at Temple University, Dr. Copeland came to Howard University Hospital to train in ophthalmology. He subsequently pursued fellowships in Cornea and External Diseases at Kresge Eye Institute of Wayne State University and Uveitis and Immunology at the Proctor Foundation of the University of California, San Francisco and then returned to Howard University as faculty. Starting in 1993 he served as Chief of the Division of Ophthalmology within the Department of Surgery. During his early years as a resident and faculty at Howard, Dr. Copeland had the opportunity to train and work with many prominent African American ophthalmologists, including Claude L. Cowan, Sr., MD, Roger P. Mason, Sr., MD, and David Pendergrast, MD.
Dr. Roger P. Mason, Sr. graduated from Howard University College of Medicine in 1978 and joined the faculty in the Division of Ophthalmology in 1983. During his time as faculty at Howard, Dr. Mason served as Director of Glaucoma Services and performed pioneering research in glaucoma in African Americans through work in both Washington, D.C. and St. Lucia, West Indies. In 1994, three years after Dr. Mason’s untimely passing, Dr. Copeland started the annual Roger P. Mason, Sr., MD, Glaucoma Symposium and lecture series at Howard University Hospital to honor his legacy and commitment to advancing our understanding of glaucoma in minority populations, who are often affected earlier and more severely with this eye disease.
Dr. Copeland’s heart for issues that disproportionately affect African Americans and minorities led to his increased involvement in organizations that focused on these issues. From 1994 to 1997, he served as the Ophthalmology Section Chair of the National Medical Association (NMA) as well as Advisory Board Member of the Journal of the NMA. The mission of the NMA is to “advance the art and science of medicine for people of African descent through education, advocacy, and health policy to promote health and wellness, eliminate health disparities, and sustain physician viability”. Dr. Copeland encouraged his colleagues and residents to participate in the NMA, and particularly in the annual Rabb-Venebal Excellence in Research Program, a program at which Howard University medical students and ophthalmology residents continue to strongly represent year after year.
Although his outreach to minorities extended to a national and international platform, the core of his work started in his own backyard, right in Washington, D.C. In 1998, the same year that he performed the first LASIK eye surgery at Howard University Hospital, Dr. Copeland became a member of Shiloh Baptist Church, just a few blocks away from Howard. Years later he would become a deacon at this church. Through his involvement in the church, Dr. Copeland found a new avenue to reach out and educate the community about eye disease and eye care. Dr. Copeland routinely recruited his residents to help conduct eye screenings and health fairs at Shiloh Baptist Church as well as in the greater Washington, D.C. area, where roughly 50% of the population is African American. Working in the heart of the nation’s capital, he actively advocated for the needs of his patients and the field of ophthalmology. Every spring he would join hundreds of ophthalmologists through the American Academy of Ophthalmology and lobby on Capitol Hill. He met with legislative representatives to discuss issues that affected the practice and scope of ophthalmology, always keeping service to his patients at the forefront of the discussion.
In his role as Chief of the Division of Ophthalmology, he campaigned to make ophthalmology a stand-alone department. Dr. Copeland tirelessly endeavored to meet all of the departmental status requisites and laid out solid plans for his vision of the department. His proposal went before Chair Colin Powell and the rest of the Howard University Board of Trustees, and on January 22, 2000, the Division of Ophthalmology was successfully ratified to departmental status. This elevation brought with it a new level of respect and recognition within the hospital and the community. At the time of its inception, Dr. Copeland was appointed as the inaugural Department of Ophthalmology Chairman, a position that he held for the duration of his career.
Perhaps his greatest contribution, however, to the future of ophthalmology and minority physicians was his involvement in the resident training program at Howard. From the time he came on as faculty in the Division of Ophthalmology, he trained over eighty residents and countless medical students, most of whom were African American or under-represented minorities in medicine. This number is even more impressive considering that at the turn of the century in 2002, of the over 17,000 ophthalmologists in the United States, less than 300 were African American. With each graduating class, another batch of ophthalmologists entered the workforce across the country and world with a similar heart to serve and advocate for issues that affect minority patients. Each graduate has gone on to demonstrate the potential of his investment, pushing boundaries and breaking glass ceilings in his or her respective corner of ophthalmology.
During my third year of medical school at Howard University, when I was still undecided about what I wanted to pursue for residency, I stopped by the Department of Ophthalmology at the recommendation of a friend. Dr. Copeland was the first person who I encountered in the clinic. He was showing one of the residents an unusual finding on a patient and when the resident hesitated to respond when asked about the diagnosis, Dr. Copeland turned to her and said, “Trust your training and get the job done,” followed by a calming, full-bellied laugh. Over the next five years as I went from medical student to resident to friend and colleague, I would become very familiar with that phrase and that laugh.
On Monday, April 11, 2016, at 7 o’clock sharp in the morning, Dr. Copeland began his weekly hour-long cornea lecture. For that hour, Dr. Copeland was strictly focused on getting through the lecture material and preparing his residents for the complicated corneal diagnoses that they would encounter in clinic and on their exams. As soon as the hour was over, however, the atmosphere of the room lightened up. This particular day, at the conclusion of lecture he turned to me and asked, “How was the basketball game last night?” Dr. Copeland was a long time season ticket holder for the Washington Wizards basketball team and he frequently shared his tickets with his residents. The night before he had given his tickets to my family. I showed him pictures from the game and we laughed about how my daughter was more interested in the free bobblehead they gave out than the actual game. We then started our usual clinic and as we cared for our patients throughout the day, Dr. Copeland would point out interesting exam findings or management pearls. This day was like so many others working with him. He was just as genuinely invested in our training to be astute clinician physicians as he was interested in our well-being, our families and our lives outside of the hospital. That day in clinic would unfortunately be his last, as he unexpectedly passed that evening, in the company of his loving wife and children.
Shortly after his passing, a couple of his residents were in a taxicab on the way to an ophthalmology advocacy event in downtown Washington, D.C. As they were discussing the impact of his loss while in transit, the taxi driver chimed in that Dr. Copeland was her physician and that she, too, was saddened by his unexpected departure. Dr. Copeland crossed paths with and positively impacted so many different people, and indeed his passing left a huge mark on the community and the field of ophthalmology. He was a champion for minority access to healthcare and eye care, and an advocate for his patients at a local, national and international level, but he was first and foremost a servant leader, and this was reflected in his many roles as chairman, father, husband, deacon, and teacher. Through his family, the countless patient lives that he touched, the department that he created and the many residents whom he trained, his legacy lives on daily.
Early April is a great time to be in Washington, D.C. It is during this time of the year that the cherry blossoms that line the tidal basin around the monuments reach their peak bloom and remind us of the gift of friendship. In April of 2016, the halls of the eye clinic at Howard University Hospital fell silent at the loss of an incomparable friendship. Every April I will remember the blessing of that friendship: a friendship that taught me to fight for the things that matter to me and my patients, to go to the places that scare me, to strive to be “worthy to serve the suffering,” and to trust my training and get the job done.