P.K. Fonsworth III, M.D. (left), is shown with two classmates from the University of California, Irvine M.D.-M.B.A. program—Kim Ramirez and Thiago Halmer—on Match Day 2013.
P.K. Fonsworth III
Of the some 1,200 medical students who belong to APA, undoubtedly all have an interesting tale to tell about why they decided to become physicians and especially psychiatrists. But probably none of them has a more eclectic and colorful story than just-graduated medical student P.K. Fonsworth III. He was awarded his M.D. on June 1.
His is a tale of relinquishment and rescue, of poverty and privilege, of exposure to multiple cultures and languages, and of integration of these experiences into a desire to help underserved Americans.
Fonsworth was born 31 years ago in the Philippines to a woman from that country and an African-American soldier stationed in the Philippines. Their marriage did not last. Perhaps for that reason, or others, she felt incapable of caring for her son, so several weeks after he was born, she turned him over to an older Japanese-American woman named Ethel Watanabe to raise. Watanabe was living in the Philippines because her son, an American soldier, was stationed there.
What he remembers most vividly about those years, he said, is “feeling different. Growing up, I looked very different from the average Filipino. And certainly when I was coupled with my adoptive grandmother, the two of us were kind of an island. We both looked very different. But we were there for each other, and I was very lucky to have her.”
During the first 10 years of his life, he and Watanabe lived comfortably in the Philippines. She even had enough money to send him to a private American school there, since she owned a hair salon and received $400 a month from Social Security, which went far in the Philippines. But she was ambitious for him and thought that he could get a better education in the United States. She told him, however, that if they moved to the States, they wouldn’t have much money to live on since she was retiring, and $400 a month would buy much less in the States than in the Philippines. She asked him whether he was willing to make the sacrifice. He said that he was.
They settled in Martinez, Calif., and lived, as he remembers, in a shack with mice scampering about, no heating, and ivy creeping in through the cracks. However, a woman named Sandi Ashton befriended them and helped them. And they persevered.
“Martinez felt like a time of adversity and survival to me,” Fonsworth recalled. “While in my junior year of high school, I came to realize that I had the intelligence to get out of poverty and that education was going to be my mechanism. I think it was that epiphany along with my adoptive grandmother’s love and guidance that gave me the strength to succeed academically.”
Fonsworth won a competitive four-year scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, through an organization called IDEAL (Initiative for Diversity, Education, and Leadership).
“IDEAL has been an incredible springboard because it has allowed me, from a very early point, to learn and refine my leadership skills,” he said. “I am also incredibly grateful to IDEAL for giving me a mentor—Anula Jayasuriya, M.D., Ph.D. She is the only woman, in fact the only Sri Lankan, to get four degrees from Harvard—a B.S., an M.B.A., an M.D., and a Ph.D. She is a venture capitalist and runs biotech firms in India.”
During Fonsworth’s first year in college, though, Watanabe died. He felt devastated. However, her death from cancer also awakened his interest in medicine.
After he graduated from college, he worked for two years at Planned Parenthood as a health-service specialist and emergency contraception clinical trial coordinator. His experiences there gave him some idea of what it would be like to be a physician, “sharing information with patients and encouraging them to play an active role in their health care,” he said. He also learned “when to be silent and listen to the concerns raised by patients. For example, many discussed the fear, anger, and embarrassment they felt when testing positive for a sexually transmitted infection or an unplanned pregnancy.”
Subsequently Fonsworth attended medical school at the University of California, Irvine. It was a five-year M.D.-master’s degree program designed to groom physician leaders to serve the largest growing underserved community in California—the Latino population. The program was called PRIME-LC (Program in Medical Education in the Latino Community).
It was while he was in medical school that he decided on a career in public-sector psychiatry. “I think that my oscillating between the worlds of privilege and the lack thereof has heightened my sensibility to marginalized populations, particularly those suffering from psychiatric illness,” he explained.
Also, Gerald Maguire, M.D., a professor of clinical psychiatry and senior associate dean of medical education at UC Irvine, fueled his growing interest in becoming a psychiatrist. “I have known P.K. ever since he joined our medical school five years ago,” Maguire noted. “After his first year of medical school, I sponsored his summer scholarship to help treat underserved children who stutter in the impoverished regions of Brazil. I also supervised him on his psychiatry research rotation where we published a case report in the American Journal of Psychiatry on deep brain stimulation for the treatment of stuttering. P.K. is a bright, compassionate student who is committed to helping our underserved medically ill population. He is an excellent writer and communicator. He will no doubt prove to be an excellent psychiatrist.”
Fonsworth also joined APA at Maguire’s suggestion. “He will be a valuable member to our organization,” Maguire emphasized.
This summer, Fonsworth is starting a psychiatry residency at the University of California, Los Angeles–Harbor Medical Center, which he believes is ideal for his goal of working as a “cultural broker,” whether between mainstream and marginalized communities, between English and Spanish speakers (he speaks both languages), or between medicine and business.
“Harbor-UCLA offers a clear shot at the work I hope to do in public-sector psychiatry in Los Angeles,” he stated. “It offers high-quality, cost-effective, patient-centered care regardless of ability to pay—not to mention a state-of-the-art psychiatric emergency facility second only to Bellevue and great faculty with interests that parallel my own in the borderlands of ethnicity, culture, language, and psychiatric treatment.”
Fonsworth attributes his academic successes to his “adoptive grandmother”—Watanabe—who gave him “the values and dreams to educate myself and contribute to society.” But he is also grateful to people such as Ashton and mentors such as Jayasuriya and Maguire “who have been a lifeline to me in the way my grandmother has been.”
And “as a psychiatrist,” he ventured, “I hope to be a lifeline to my patients, showing them the same wisdom, compassion, and understanding that these individuals have shown me.” ■