Illustrated portrait of Cleavon Gilman
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Courage drives emergency room physician Cleavon Gilman. Born into poverty in Long Branch, New Jersey, he escaped its rough streets by enlisting in the Navy. He was soon treating battle-wounded soldiers as a corpsman in Iraq. Then he faced a new conflict back at home – COVID exploded while he was chief resident at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

“It was like I was in a war zone again,” recalls Gilman, an alumnus of UCSF’s PRIME-US program for students committed to working in underserved urban communities. The virus killed three of his Manhattan colleagues and his cousin, and he saw patients die every day. Diagnosed with PTSD after his Iraq tour, Gilman felt its symptoms returning. “I’ve always known I was a strong person, and I’ve been able to get through this,” he says.

A lifelong stutterer, he had discovered at age 12, while attending rap star LL Cool J’s summer camp, that his malady vanished when he rhymed to a beat. So as a resident, he asked himself, “How can I marry these two – music and medicine?” He made rap videos to raise awareness on topics ranging from tachycardia (high heart rate) and bradycardia (low heart rate) to immigration, gun violence, and burnout, as well as one on COVID whose lyrics go “Worst case scenario/There’s some things you gotta know/This is not your common cold/Affects adults, not just the old.”

In 2020, Gilman won the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine’s Innovative Educator award and was the keynote speaker at the National Stuttering Association’s annual conference. Those honors followed on the heels of his 2019 selection by the Emergency Medicine Residents’ Association as a “45 Under 45” young influencer.

Overcoming his speech disability helped give Gilman the determination to be a public-health advocate in other media. To share word of COVID’s dangers, after his 12-hour shifts he poured his heart into Facebook, his personal website, and Twitter (where he soon had 175,000 followers).

But going public had consequences. After leaving Manhattan, he took a position as an ER doctor at a Yuma, Arizona, hospital, where he clashed with the management. After he tweeted that the ICU was overwhelmed, to inform people about COVID’s impact, the hospital fired him. Weeks later, they said the matter was “a misunderstanding” and rehired him.

“I felt I was one of the first people to speak up about the virus,” he reflects. “I was just being honest with people, saying, ‘Hey, there’re no ICU beds, y’all. This is a real thing.’ You get backlash. It’s like, well, you know, there’s always a cost, right?” Gilman, who also received online death threats because of his posts, now works in the emergency department at another hospital.

Looking back, he credits his Navy service with sparking his desire to become a doctor. His odyssey began in New Jersey when police saw him walking down the street carrying license plates and questioned him. (The plates were his.) “I was sitting there, and over by a junkyard was this billboard that said ‘Join the Navy. See the World.’ I was, like, ‘Man, I gotta get out. This is ridiculous. There’s no future here for me.’” In Iraq, for the first time he met doctors, physician assistants, and nurses of color. “They planted a seed. You start seeing people who look like you in those positions, and you think it’s a possibility,” he says.

Later, at Southwestern College in San Diego County and UC Berkeley, Gilman buckled down big-time. “I was on campus 12 hours a day. I deployed,” he told the online publication STAT, explaining that he took all his meals and a gallon of water with him when he left his apartment for school every morning.

“I came from poverty,” he says, “and I’ve worked hard to get to where I am. I’m always trying to be the best person I can be. There’s a quote from Gandhi on my phone: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ That’s how I live my life.”

Follow Cleavon Gilman on Twitter @Cleavon_MD

– George Spencer for UCSF Magazine

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