Growing up in Philadelphia, Louis Albert Ivey III fell in love with art and design, and he dreamed of becoming an architect.
By the time he was a young man arriving at Princeton University in 1976, his dreams had shifted to engineering and a chance to one day design and build bridges. But midway through college, Ivey switched gears again on his life plan. This time he decided he would major in biochemistry with an eye toward a medical degree.
But that decision may well have been fate.
After all, becoming a doctor would make Ivey the third generation in his family to do so, a remarkable feat that traces back to the formal end of slavery.
Within 100 years of blacks being freed from slavery and given the right to vote, the exceptional Ivey family was well on its way to making its mark in medicine — and in the military as well.
When Ivey III’s grandfather, Louis Albert Ivey, born in 1894 in Alabama, became an officer in the highly segregated U.S. Army, it was so rare that he was named in the book, The American Negro - 367th Infantry.
And when he became a surgeon in 1928 after graduating from Howard University in Washington, D.C, he was among a small percentage of black doctors in the country.
“Howard University was one of only two medical schools at the time where African Americans could go to become doctors,” said Ivey III, a surgeon at Kaiser Permanente in Hayward, who raised three children in Pleasanton with his wife, Miriam, his college sweetheart, who he married while in medical school. “It was founded shortly after the Civil War as African Americans were migrating to the nation’s capitol. You had to be an exceptional student to get in.”
Louis Albert Ivey was killed in a car accident at 39 when his son Louis Albert Jr. was only 3.
Yet he followed closely in his father’s footsteps. The younger Ivey joined the Navy ROTC at Penn State, and, like his father, received notoriety in a book when his photo was published in Battleships as the first black officer to serve aboard the New Jersey.
After earning his medical degree from Howard, he became a cardio-thoracic surgeon and was the first black surgeon to train in that field at Cornell’s New York Presbyterian Hospital. He still practices medicine today at age 80.
But Ivey III says his inspiration to become a doctor wasn’t borne of his family legacy as much as his desire to make a name for himself as an African American.
“I was accepted into the Cornell Summer Program, which was designed to recruit young minorities to become doctors,” says Ivey.
“It was impressed upon us how the majority of black men did not have much of a future. So they worked with us in getting our medical school applications together and getting interviews and references.’’
When one of the trustees of Ivey’s church offered to write a letter of recommendation for him, he jumped at the chance. That trustee, it so happened, was C. Everett Koop, soon to become Surgeon General of the United States.
Koop’s letter helped Ivey get interviews at almost every medical school he applied to. Ultimately, he chose Columbia University in New York.
To help pay for his expensive education, Ivey got a military scholarship in exchange for agreeing to serve for four years as a doctor in the Navy after he graduated. But by the time he completed his residency and arrived at Camp Pendleton in 1989, the Persian Gulf War was soon to erupt and Ivey’s life, as he knew it, would be changed forever.
“I was a Navy doctor on a Marine Corps base, and I was deployable to anywhere the Marines were going,” says Ivey.
“We were all on standby mode ready to get our gear together. It was extremely stressful.”
By the winter of 1991, he was operating in a make-shift hospital in a desert war zone along the Kuwait border with the 1st Marine Division. Pummeled nightly by Iraqi artillery, Ivey struggled to care for wounded and dying soldiers, both Saudi and American, including the first Purple Heart recipients.
He says he was proud to be part of the mission, despite living with the possibility that Saddam Hussein’s troops would unleash chemical weapons in the desert sands.
“There were mobile missile launches right near our camp, and we came under rocket attack nightly,” says Ivey.
“We slept in our clothes so we could grab our gas masks and run out to our bunker when the ground started shaking."
Ivey was glad to survive the experience and think about his upcoming discharge.
But in 1992, he was again deployed to the Middle East for operation “Restore Hope.”
This time he found himself in the war-torn wasteland of Mogadishu, Somalia, where his team of doctors was trained to use close-range pistols in case the enemy burst through the security lines around their camp.
Fortunately, they never did, and he left shortly before the notorious Black Hawk Down operation.
Being so close to these dramatic events gave Ivey a completely different way of looking at his own mortality as he was caring for the well-being of others as part of this battle. Ivey knew more than ever before just how precious life really was.
“You never take it for granted when you’re in combat," he says.
“If you wake up under rocket attack, then you always have this incredible euphoric feeling when you get through it.”
Back in Southern California, Ivey’s wife, Miriam, never knew the dangers her husband was facing. He would send her letters and cassettes and never mention what was really going on. She didn’t find out until he was home safe and sound with her and their two small children, Gabriel and Lauren.
Upon his return and the family's move to Pleasanton, Ivey began practicing medicine at Kaiser in 1993 where he continues today.
He loves to spend time with his family (another daughter, Isabel, was born in 1997) and enjoys his free time taking 40-mile bicycle rides and practicing photography, a skill he honed in the Saudi desert, evidenced by the exceptional photos he now displays on his iPad.
So the question begs to be asked: Will there be a fourth generation doctor in the Ivey family? When it was time for firstborn Gabriel, now 25, to go to college, Ivey watched as his son pondered what he would do with his life.
“Gabe was a social, political kind of kid, student body president at , and all that, and I always thought he’d be a lawyer,” says Ivey.
“He majored in sociology in his first year at Princeton.’
But in a not totally surprising turn of events, Gabe Ivey changed his major in his sophomore year at Princeton. He is currently a fourth-year medical student at Howard University, and his father is honored he's following his path. (Gabe also married his college sweetheart, Brittani, while in medical school.)
Sister Lauren, 22, who never wanted to hear about the “blood and guts” that a medical career would entail, went on to study architecture at Princeton, and 14-year old Isabel is a high school freshman who loves to dance and play in the band.
For now, the Ivey family’s medical legacy lives on as Ivey winds down his own career and Gabe (currently on rotation at the Mayo Clinic) prepares to graduate and begin his residency.
Given the odds of the racial barriers the family faced, the fact that four generations of Iveys have been able to practice medicine and excel in their careers is impressive.
“I’m fortunate to have been born into a family of black educators and physicians,” says Ivey.
“You look at the statistics of a young black man growing up in this country, and his prospects are not that great. My family believed in education and raised us to believe in it as well.
“It’s like hitting the jackpot.”