Car mechanic shifts gears, becomes a doctor at age 47 and helps address shortage of black doctors
Carl Allamby became an expert diagnostician after spending his childhood ducking his head under the hoods of Chevys and Fords with the older guys in his East Cleveland neighborhood. If a car whined and growled while turning, or if it squeaked on startup, he could run through a checklist in his head, zero in on the problem, and fix it.
Today, after a career overhaul, he does the same thing with people as an emergency medicine resident, having graduated from medical school this year at age 47.
The car mechanic is now a people mechanic at Cleveland Clinic Akron General hospital, where he started as a resident this month. He’s done more than rebuild his own career: He has narrowed, by one, the huge gap in black doctors in this country, particularly black male doctors.
To go from Carl the mechanic to Dr. Allamby, he had to engineer a 180-degree turn without ever hitting the brakes.
Hard work brings rewards
Allamby grew up in East Cleveland with two brothers and three sisters. His dad was a part-time photographer who also sold cookware door-to-door. His mum was a stay-at-home parent. Money was scarce.
School was never much of a priority, but working was.
He got a job at 16 at an auto parts store near where he lived. And because he knew his way around cars, customers started asking his advice on how to install the parts they bought.
“I just started saying, ‘Hey, yeah. I can take care of you after work in the parking lot,’” he said.
He was great at fixing cars, not so great at school. He graduated from Shaw High School with less than a 2.0 grade point average. No big deal, he wasn’t going to college.
“Through high school, I don’t remember a single person talking to me about college,” he said. “For us, it was mostly going and finding a factory job or go to the military. I ended up finding a job.”
That job grew from the parking lot of the auto parts store to a repair bay he later rented in a shop across the street. He eventually took over the whole building and ran a business repairing cars and eventually selling used cars for 18 years there. He then bought out another shop in South Euclid, Advanced Auto Repair, and ran it, along with used car sales, for another eight years.
His former customers rave about him.
“I’m telling you, this guy worked nonstop. He could fix the cars in his sleep,” said longtime customer Tawanah Key.
“He’s really smart, he can make a diagnosis on a car like nobody’s business,” said another customer, Karen Roane.
The work was hard, and vacations were rare. Still, he decided to finally enroll in college to seek a business degree.
“Most people go into business not because they’re good businessmen but because they’re good at whatever their trade is. I was good at fixing cars,” he said. “I just felt like if I really wanted to grow this and grow it right, I really needed a foundational education in business to really understand it.”
So in 2006, decades after high school, he started taking night classes, one or two at a time, at Ursuline College. But there was one required class he kept putting off: Biology.
“My argument was, ‘I’m here for business, why do I even need to take a biology class?’” he said.
Finally, his counselor said he needed it to graduate. So he signed up.
And that’s when the auto mechanic shifted gears.
One class changed everything
The class was an overview of life. “Pretty basic,” said Allamby.
But there was something about the teacher, Dr. Micah Watts, a resident at the time in interventional radiology at the Cleveland Clinic.
“He just lit up when he walked into the room,” said Allamby. “After the first hour of class, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I have to go into medicine.’ It was like a light switched on.”
Allamby remembered once dreaming of becoming a doctor when he was a child, but, “Somewhere through junior high and high school, that had gotten beaten out of me.”
And he had no black doctors as role models.
“Nobody to even to emulate. Just to say, ‘Hey, I know a guy who is a doctor who looks like me and if he can do it, I can do it,’” he said.
He considered a career in medicine, perhaps as a nurse or physician’s assistant. Being a doctor seemed impossible because of the years of study it would require. He was 40, had a family, and was still running a business.
But he had role models this time. And when he brought it up to the two black doctors he’d befriended at the Severance Athletic Club, Drs. Kenneth Lane and David Headen, they told him to aim high.
“It was just incredible, the support they gave me, saying ‘You can do it, this is totally possible,’ ” he said.
Nontraditional student, nontraditional program
After wrapping up his business degree with a 3.98 GPA, Allamby began taking basic science courses at Cuyahoga Community College while he figured out what was next.
A chemistry teacher told him about a new program at Cleveland State University that offered intense undergraduate classes, help preparing for the Medical College Admissions Test, and then, if successful, a spot at the Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown. The Partnership for Urban Health sought to recruit and train doctors, especially minority doctors, to practice urban communities. Read more