NEWARK — Leon Smith has cared for a governor and other VIPs in more than 50 years as a doctor, but he almost never made it through medical school because of the high cost.
The first in his family to attend college, the Newark physician struggled to pay his tuition at Georgetown University in the 1950s. Two siblings sent him their weekly paychecks and he lived on a shoestring budget, using the stove to heat his apartment.
“I worked there for a year, handing out drugs to the prisoners,” Smith said. “One day, an officer came to me and said there was a riot. … Everyone came out bleeding. It was a scene from hell.”
Now a renowned physician and a former chairman of medicine at St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, Smith has established a scholarship to help ease the way for future medical students facing record tuition costs.
This year, 12 students, including two from New Jersey, will receive $168,000 each to study at St. George’s University School of Medicine in Grenada, a private institution that was founded by Americans in 1977 and has had a ongoing partnership with St. Michael’s for nearly three decades.
In return, the recipients pledge to study primary or family care and then practice in an inner-city or medically under-served community for seven years after their residency.
The scholarship, which will cover the full tuition at St. George’s, is the latest effort by Smith, 79, to address the health care shortage in the city, where, in 1965, he set up a free clinic to treat the poor. He has also acted as a personal physician for VIPs like former Gov. Brendan Byrne.
“He’s treated former governors, and he also treats the poor the next day,” said Charles Modica, the chancellor of the Grenada university. “He’s been a wonderful example of what a physician can do.”
Students at St. George’s spend their first two years in Grenada, a Caribbean island, Modica said. They then intern in hospitals around the world, including St. Michael’s.
The deadline for applications is Oct. 15 and candidates must be accepted to St. George’s before being considered for the need-based scholarship, Modica said.
Smith, who lives in Roseland, established the scholarship to tackle two health concerns that are increasingly worrying health experts: higher medical student debt and a lower number of primary care physicians in places like Newark.
Over the last 20 years, the average debt of a medical school graduate has soared from $40,000 to more than $150,000 last year, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Burdened with debt, students in recent decades have turned away from primary care, which pays less than other specialties even though it results in better health for the community, said David Knowlton, president New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute.
“There are way too few primary care doctors in New Jersey,” Knowlton said. “If people don’t get their care from primary care doctors, they go somewhere else; they go to the emergency room. Not only is it more expensive, it’s significantly more expensive and poorer quality.”
A study last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that only 2 percent of 1,200 graduating medical students in the U.S. said they will work in primary care internal medicine, down from 9 percent in a similar survey in 1990.
The need is particularly acute in urban areas, where primary care physicians treat poorer patients.
“It’s almost impossible to make a living in the inner-city for doctors,” Smith said. “Most people don’t have insurance, and Medicaid doesn’t pay as much. The overhead’s just too great.”
But the Yonkers, N.Y., native found he enjoyed the city when he moved to Newark in 1962, deciding to decline a teaching gig at Yale University.
The variety of illnesses patients presented and the challenges of the city’s public health system convinced him to stay, he said.
He went on to build his reputation, training more than 8,000 doctors as the chief of infectious diseases at St. Michael’s and treating VIPs like former Gov. Brendan Byrne.
Recalling his many career highlights, Smith noted how easily they may not have happened because of money concerns after his father died when he was a teenager.
“He worked in a junk yard, and my mother wanted me to take over there because, you know, junk was lucrative back then,” he said. NJ.com