Wayne Frederick

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 3

According to family lore, Wayne Frederick decided to become a doctor when he was just three years old! Diagnosed at birth with sickle cell anemia, an incurable genetic blood disorder that predominantly strikes people of sub-Saharan African descent, he was frequently hospitalized, sometimes four to six times a year, throughout his youth. As his grandmother recounted it, the toddler was riding his tricycle around the porch of the family’s house one day when he overheard her discussing his condition with neighbours. He questioned her about it, and, after some explanation, he declared, “Then I will become a doctor and find a cure for it!”

While he did indeed go on to pursue medicine, intending to find a cure for his own ailment, he shifted his focus during a post-doctoral fellowship to surgical oncology. Over 100 types of cancers afflict millions of people of all ages every year. However, as advances in research, particularly into the more common cancers, continues to bring greater understanding around prevention and more effective treatment and cures, many of these deaths can be avoided. Over 30% of cancers can be prevented by healthy lifestyle or by immunization; others can now be detected earlier and arrested. Frederick wanted to be among those striving to confront these statistics and reduce the incidence of cancer, especially among blacks and other minority groups, and to cut mortality rates associated in particular with gastrointestinal cancer – an area of cancer treatment he further specialized in and which can be daunting since GI cancers have one of the lowest cure rates.

Frederick never allowed the lifelong debilitating effects of sickle cell to stop him from achieving his dreams and goals. Today, he is an in-demand surgical oncologist, a hospital administrator as well as Howard University’s Provost, Chief Academic Officer and Director of the Howard University Cancer Center. In these roles, he has responsibility for Howard University Hospital, Colleges of Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Nursing and Allied Health, and several specialty institutes and centres.

Wayne Alix Ian Frederick was born in 1971 in Diamond Vale, Trinidad, the eldest of three boys. His father was a policeman who died just before Wayne turned three. Despite a youth impacted by illness, Frederick considers his childhood to have been a rich one where he was surrounded by a deeply nurturing family and first-rate teachers at Diego Martin Government Primary School who, as he puts it, “were proof that ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ They were some of the most dedicated people I have ever known. They were not just my teachers, interested in me only within the confines of the four walls of the classroom, but rather teachers who were invested in every area of my life.”

The impact of the disorder often meant that he was not able to participate in sports as much as he would have liked, or go to  the beach, which seemed to aggravate his symptoms. Instead, he spent most of his free time with books, and reading widely helped give him an edge academically.

He was always certain he would study medicine. His first and most powerful influence was his mother,  a nurse and district health officer, who was dedicated to the many ailing people who at all hours called on her at the family home or called for her to go to them. Her young son was often a fascinated witness at many a grim scene, and it amazed his mother that he never flinched at anything he saw. But for him, the real thrill was seeing patients return with gradually healing wounds. “To see someone transition from ill to healthy again was so fulfilling,” he explains. “You can get a good understanding of medicine in a technical manner, but to see it before you practically…you can’t help but to be drawn to it. And I learned so much from observing my mother’s sense of service to others, and her work ethic and bedside manner.”

Wayne entered St. Mary’s College at age 10 and, having skipped Form 3, finished his A levels at age 16. His entry into Howard came about when his best friend, Shaka Hislop, who had enrolled at the university the year before, convinced him to apply as well, largely because of Howard’s Sickle Cell Center. Frederick filled out an application and Hislop paid the application fee. Frederick did not apply to any other institution. His mother was persuaded that he should attend Howard because the former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Eric Williams, had ties to the university, having served on its political science faculty, and also because of the Sickle Cell Center. She paid for the first year – $5,005 USD. Frederick earned scholarships for the remaining years.

At age 22, he graduated with a combined Bachelor of Science in Zoology and M.D., and then went on to do his surgical residency at the University’s Department of Surgery. This was followed by a post-doctoral research fellowship and a surgical oncology fellowship at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. It was during a surgery rotation that Frederick met renowned surgical oncologist, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., who has inspired and mentored him. After holding several positions at the University of Texas and the University of Connecticut Health Center, Dr. Frederick returned to Howard University in 2006. He was appointed as an associate professor in the Department of Surgery. From 2006-2011, he served in leading positions,  including Associate Director of Clinical Research, Clinical Director, Division Chief of General Surgery, and Associate Dean for Clinical Strategy and Operations. Since 2011, he has been a professor with tenure in the Department of Surgery, and in 2012, he was appointed as Provost and Chief Academic Officer of Howard University.

In 2006, he fulfilled a career aspiration to work with Leffall by operating on his last surgery. This opportunity was expanded in 2012 when Leffall asked Dr. Frederick to serve as Interim Deputy Provost for Health Sciences.

Frederick has published two dozen peer reviewed manuscripts. He has also served as the principal investigator for major collaborations with the National Cancer Institute, Johns Hopkins University, as well as local and national minority-serving oncology programmes. This included four clinical trials on cancer drugs.

His special interest in the study of cancers among minority populations was sparked initially by his concern about diseases that particularly affect people of sub-Saharan African descent. He wanted to contribute to further understanding of why certain ethnic groups were predisposed to some cancers; the disparities in cancer-care outcomes between African Americans and the wider population; and how rates could be controlled through education and, by extension, early screenings. He is one of the leading voices for early detection and treatment of breast cancer in minority populations. Under his leadership, Howard’s Cancer Center expanded a programme to offer free clinical breast examinations to uninsured patients unable to afford them. In 2006, Dr. Frederick was the recipient of a grant from the Komen for the Cure Foundation as the principal investigator for the Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. Fellowship in Health Disparities, to address disparities in breast cancer. Howard University was the first institution awarded this grant.

Dr. Frederick has approached the practice of medicine by always striving to go beyond treating “test results”, and even further than “the whole person”. He sees health and illness arising not as a result of isolated factors but as a direct consequence of communities, cultures, lifestyles and the way we interact with our particular socio-economic and natural environments.

He has emerged, as Howard University President, Sidney A. Ribeau put it, as “a trusted leader, revered expert in his field and a champion in his community.” Widely admired for his humility, enthusiasm and brilliance as a surgeon, Dr. Frederick is also regarded as a “master teacher” by his colleagues and students. In addition to his undergraduate teaching, he mentors students and residents in research through three fellowship programmes. He has also worked with many professional societies, such as the Texas Gulf Sickle Cell Association, the National Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, the Society of Surgical Oncology, the National Medical Association, and the American Association for Cancer Research.

His achievements have been recognized with numerous awards. He was the 2010 American Caribbean Heritage Award Recipient, and has been honored with the Resident and Faculty Scientific Research Award presented by Howard University, the Department of Surgery Best Teacher Award (as judged by the students) and the Department of Surgery’s Highest Revenue Earner Award.  He was named a “Super Doctor” by The Washington Post and one of America’s Best Physicians by Black Enterprise magazine. Locally, he was honoured in 2000 with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago’s Certificate of Outstanding Achievement in Medicine, and in 2010, he received the prestigious Vanguard Award from the Institute of Caribbean Studies.

Dr. Frederick describes his career as “a journey with not just one fulfilling destination in mind, but rather a complete obsession with the whole journey of life.” So what does a busy surgeon and administrator do when he is away from work? There is at least one particularly fulfilling activity to which he and four friends are dedicated. They have formed an unofficial club which they use as a vehicle to mentor and raise money for disadvantaged high school students.

His self-awareness of the triggers of sickle cell crises has enabled him to adjust to his disease as an adult. He worries that his kids will inevitably have to make decisions about spousal partners and child bearing as a result of the hereditary nature of his disease. They both have the trait. Notwithstanding this, Frederick plays golf and is a soccer fanatic who does not play regularly but lives vicariously through his young son, Wayne A.I. Frederick II, who does.

Frederick certainly encourages young people to pursue scientific careers. In his view, “If you want to be in something that is going to invigorate and excite you, then science is it. The knowledge and technologies are changing so rapidly. Science is a tool that affects humanity in many ways – in every way – not just health care. Moreover, in this era, science is increasingly merging with or informed by the social sciences, humanities and even law, enabling a more complete rather than fragmented impact on the world. Strive also to be good citizens of society, to act with integrity, to be selfless and to stand for social justice. This should permeate everything that you do.”

Wayne Frederick’s rise to such great success is truly a story of perseverance – the story of a boy’s determination to use his own struggles with a challenging illness as a driving force to help others to heal. The disease, which hindered him as a child, was powerless to stem the tremendous dynamism he has had to excel as a surgeon, a university administrator and teacher, and mentor to successive generations of medical students. He hopes his legacy will be his students going on to make even greater contributions to their chosen fields and to the people in the communities they serve.