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What's it take to go from mechanic to physician at 51? Patience, an Ohio doctor says

Carl Allamby recently completed all of his training and was hired as an attending physician at Cleveland Clinic's Hillcrest Hospital. He's 51.
Stephen Travarca
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Cleveland Clinic Hillcrest Hospital
Carl Allamby recently completed all of his training and was hired as an attending physician at Cleveland Clinic's Hillcrest Hospital. He's 51.

Carl Allamby's professional trajectory could be reduced to the plot of a feel-good movie. Skimming over the details, his is a story of a once-poor boy from the wrong side of Cleveland, who went from fixing cars to fixing people, from mechanic to medical doctor.

And technically, all of that is correct. Allamby did go from owning an auto repair shop almost straight out of high school, to recently starting his first job as an emergency-room attending physician at Cleveland Clinic's Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.

But the more accurate truth is that in this case, Allamby's social and economic mobility — the kind that embodies the so-called American Dream — was of the tortoise vs. hare variety; it stretched out over decades.

"If somebody were to watch most of my life over the past few years, it would be me sitting in a quiet room by myself studying and laboring over mounds of information," he told NPR.

"And that's the horribly boring part," Allamby added with a laugh.

The 51-year-old is thoughtful and deliberate with his words, often restarting sentences to get whatever he wants to say just right. He answers questions like he approaches his work: Slow and steady.

"I think that sometimes people just look at the end product of somebody's hard work," he said, reflecting back on his own journey. "But you know, [by doing that] you kind of miss the part where people are doing all the work that it takes to become a success."

From a young age, Allamby knew he was capable of more

As a kid, Allamby wasn't a particularly good student. Elementary school was fun, he said, and he was bright and interested in the material. "But as the years went on, life became more complex," he explained.

In middle school, he said, the pressures that came with growing up in and around poverty shifted his focus away from academics and toward basic survival. It was the 1980s in East Cleveland, and gang violence was common in his neighborhood, he recalled, adding that even the walk to and from school was fraught. "And you're embarrassed to go up and get your free lunch."

He became an academically marginal student, but inside, "I knew I was capable of so much more."

His dad worked as a door to door salesman, but with five brothers and sisters, it was clear that Allamby, like his siblings, would also have to contribute financially to keep the household afloat. He got his first summer job at 13. At 15, he started washing dishes at a local Italian restaurant, working his way up to a line cook.

"I had to provide for myself to buy my clothes, school supplies, and different things that were needed throughout the year or just providing myself with basic needs like food," Allamby said.

High school graduation came and went with little fanfare, though by then Allamby was living on his own and had picked up a job at an auto parts store. It was there that he learned about cars, and he would often pick up small repair jobs that he worked on at a shop across the street. In the beginning, he rented a portion of the space but eventually he had enough business to buy the place. He was 19.

A much younger Carl Allamby, pictured in his auto repair shop in Cleveland, Ohio.
/ Carl Allamby/Cleveland Clinic
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Carl Allamby/Cleveland Clinic
A much younger Carl Allamby, pictured in his auto repair shop in Cleveland, Ohio.

He was a community college poster boy

Despite his record as an unremarkable student, Allamby recognized there was a lot he needed to learn about cars before opening up his first auto service shop.

"I started going to the local community college, Cuyahoga Community College, and taking automotive courses at night," he said, adding that at the time he was the youngest student in all of his classes.

The experience helped him begin to reframe his thoughts on education. It was challenging juggling his nascent business with the coursework, he said, but he was good at it. He liked learning about the inner workings of cars, how things are connected.

Fifteen years later, feeling a bit restless with a desire to improve his business, he enrolled in a four-year night class program at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. This time, he wanted an undergraduate degree in business. He was 34, married, raising children and running two auto shops.

"It was a fantastic time," he said, unequivocally. "I no longer had those burdens that I had when I was a child. And when I was in class, I was able to just focus 100% on the lessons being taught, getting the most out of class." He allowed himself to fully enjoy education, he added.

Plus, it unearthed a long-buried dream. Inspired in part by Denzel Washington on St. Elsewhere, he confessed: "I had thought as a young boy that I wanted to pursue a career in medicine."

One of the requirements for his degree was an intro to biology course. It was the second-to-last class that he took before graduating. (Which he did summa cum laude.)

"When I took the biology class, it was just phenomenal. I loved it from the moment that I first walked in there," Allamby said.

The feeling stuck with him, and soon Allamby had a talk with his wife. "I came home and told her that I was thinking about pursuing something in medicine in the medical career," he recalled. It would be a break from the non-stop grind of servicing cars nearly 365 days a year, he thought.

Despite his enthusiasm, Allamby said he wanted to be certain that medical school would be a good idea. "Because I was hesitant at first, I went and took classes once again at the local community college. I would go to night classes or early morning classes, and I did phenomenally well and got straight A's through all of my classes."

He eventually transferred into a program at Cleveland State University that guaranteed him a spot at Northeast Ohio Medical University, if he did well.

He did. Once again he graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor's in Science, and by 2015, Allamby, started medical school.

Carl Allamby with a patient at the Cleveland Clinic. "I know when I show up in the hospital that people are looking at me to be somebody who they can rely on to take care of their health needs and to give them guidance. But I've been dealing with that for a long time," he said, referring to his years as an auto mechanic.
Stephen Travarca / Cleveland Clinic
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Cleveland Clinic
Carl Allamby with a patient at the Cleveland Clinic. "I know when I show up in the hospital that people are looking at me to be somebody who they can rely on to take care of their health needs and to give them guidance. But I've been dealing with that for a long time," he said, referring to his years as an auto mechanic.

He benefited from being an older student

He was by far the oldest student in every class, he said. In fact, he recounted several instances where a fellow student would watch him walk into a room, sit up straight and introduce themselves. "Then, they'd ask me if I was the professor," he said — and they'd be surprised when he explained that he was "one of them."

Yes, there was some self-consciousness, he admitted. But in many respects, Allamby explained, he felt a certain advantage. "Younger students are dealing with much different circumstances ... but I was very focused. I knew how to stay focused on the task in front of me."

He added: "There's some internal stigma that kind of sticks with you when you're an older person, that you're an older person. But my philosophy has always been to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And the more I can put myself into uncomfortable situations, the more I can grow."

During his years in medical school, Allamby continued to run both of his auto service businesses. But as he got closer to realizing his dream of becoming a doctor, he decided to sell them off.

Allamby graduated from medical school at age 47, promptly starting an emergency medicine residency at Cleveland Clinic Akron. Now, at 51, he's recently completed all of his training and was hired as an attending physician at Cleveland Clinic's Hillcrest Hospital.

When asked if he feels like a different person now that he's a doctor, Allamby said not much has changed.

"I know when I show up in the hospital that people are looking at me to be somebody who they can rely on to take care of their health needs and to give them guidance. But I've been dealing with that for a long time," he said. "Back in the automotive industry, it was interestingly similar, because people put that same kind of trust and those same kinds of responsibilities on me when it came to taking care of the car."

At the time, he said, he felt an "enormous responsibility for a big part of people's lives – their cars. And that people are counting on me. I felt that, you know, almost all of my entire adult life. So that hasn't changed much."

Allamby's rules to live by

In recent years, Allamby has been asked to speak publicly about his journey from fixing cars to saving lives. When he does, he avoids using language that makes him sound exceptional. In fact, he tries to do the opposite, stressing the methodical nature of his slow rise through the ranks of academia.

Being successful at just about any task requires a three pronged approach, he said. First, you need to devise a plan. Next, you have to make sacrifices to truly dedicate yourself to an area of study. And, finally, you have to find the conviction to stay the course, even when things become difficult.

"There's going to be times when you feel like giving up, but those are the times to really push forward and to rely on the people who surround you," Allamby said. "People who give you positive feedback in order to kind of fill your bucket back up so that you can keep going."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.