A Phoenix Rising Out of Camden...
Paul Watkins, M.P.H. ’07
School of Health Sciences and Practice
How a staff epidemiologist in Gloucester County, N.J., almost didn’t live to earn his M.P.H.
The way his mother tells it, on the night of December 19, 1993, Paul Watkins was nearly given up for dead. Then a high-school senior, Watkins was accosted by a mugger while walking home from the movies in his hometown of Camden, N.J. “I made it almost to my house, and then I heard footsteps,” he recalled. “I turned around and a guy hit me in the head with a gun. I was a robust kid so I didn’t fall down. That’s when the second guy pulled the trigger.”
A bullet tore through Watkins’ heart and lungs and exited through his back. The muggers ran off empty-handed, since all he had on him was $2 inside a small satchel hidden under his coat. Watkins vividly recalls what happened next. “I could not control my legs. They got hot and came out from under me. I leaned up against a gate, calling out until someone called an ambulance.”
Then he blacked out. At nearby Cooper Hospital the staff tried to resuscitate Watkins as his mother, who worked there as a secretary, waited fearfully for word of her son’s condition. “For 15 minutes I had no vital signs,” he says. “And after a while, the doctor came out and told my mother, ‘He’s gone.’”
Hearing the terrible news, his mother cried out, “But he’s my only baby!” says Watkins, “The doctor went back in and this time, they resuscitated me.”
Something to prove
Watkins says he knew immediately that, although his injuries were serious, he was not going to let that fact deter him. “My whole thing was, I’m not dead,” he says. “My biggest fear has always been that I won’t live up to my potential. It’s easy to get in trouble when you live in a bad neighborhood, but I learned from other people’s mistakes. When I saw someone smoking or doing drugs, I’d think, I’m not doing that! I felt like I had something to prove.”
Watkins spent a little over a month in the hospital and several additional weeks at the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. Although doctors initially thought he would never be able to move his legs again, Watkins got strong enough to stand with crutches and braces. He still uses a wheelchair to get around.
After his release from the hospital, Watkins had a home instructor who helped him make up the schoolwork he had missed. “She really busted my butt,” he says.
Perseverance paid off, and Watkins was able to graduate on schedule with the rest of his class. He applied to a nearby junior college, and after two years transferred to Rutgers University, where he graduated in 2004.
“What’s between my ears”
It was at a Rutgers career fair that Watkins’ future began to take shape. “I’m a spiritual person, and when I was at that fair, I said, God, lead me to where you want me to be.” That turned out to be the New York Medical College booth, where Watkins perused the literature and decided to apply.
Epidemiology appealed to him for several reasons. In addition to the fact that he liked math and science, the job market for epidemiologists had widened in the wake of 9/11 . “People were worried about another attack,” he says, “so there was more funding for surveillance efforts.”
Epidemiologists like Watkins serve as liaisons between the state and federal governments, monitoring jails, hospitals and schools for patterns of illness that suggest the possible presence of bio-terrorism. Epidemiology was also a career that could be pursued from a wheelchair. “It didn’t present any physical limitations,” says Watkins. “As long as I have what’s between my ears, I should be able to do this job.”
During the two years he spent in Valhalla, Watkins was something of a loner. Although he got along well with everyone, most of his classmates were younger than he was, ambulatory and from less troubled neighborhoods. “Most students seemed able to party on weekends and work diligently during the week. In my neighborhood people who drank, drank themselves under the table. If they took drugs, they became junkies.”
Determined to succeed, Watkins pushed himself, rising at 4:30 a.m., studying hard and spending much of his spare time tutoring students at a junior college. “I understood what those kids were going through,” he says.
Showcasing himself for success
After earning his M.P.H. from the School of Public Health in May 2007, Watkins began sending out resumes. Although he scored a few interviews, a government hiring freeze put a damper on his job search. Then a friend’s mother, who happened to direct an organization for persons with disabilities in New Jersey, asked him if he’d help shoot a documentary to raise awareness among local government and public health officials about the hurdles people with disabilities must overcome in trying to find services, housing and jobs.
Watkins immersed himself in the project, and ended up producing, directing and editing a 10-minute documentary titled, “Questions and Answers: A Discussion with Disabled Americans in New Jersey.” At the end of the film, Watkins himself appears on camera wearing glasses and looking serious, thanking viewers for watching.
Shortly after the documentary was completed, a local Gloucester County official saw it and was impressed. In mid-December, Watkins was called in for an interview with a Gloucester County health officer. In early February, a letter appeared in his mailbox. It was a job offer: staff epidemiologist for Gloucester County. Watkins was to report for work within the next two weeks. “I felt great!” he says. His first move was to call his mother to tell her the good news.
A driving force
These days, Watkins, 33, lives independently in a small apartment just seven minutes from his office. To get to work, he uses Access Link, a transportation service for people with disabilities. Best of all, he loves his job, spending his days working with organizations like the Office of Emergency Management and the FBI, and interacting with nurses and infectious disease control practitioners. “I have my own office, two laptops at my disposal, and a company cell phone. I really couldn’t ask for more,” he says.
Now that he’s employed, Watkins can work on other goals. He wants to learn to drive so he can be more mobile. After that, he’s thinking of pursuing his Dr. P.H. in epidemiology. He also hopes to marry and have a family some day. “I would love to have a child,” he says wistfully. “I’m so cerebral. It may make it harder to find the right person. But my grandparents have been married for 50 years, so I have a good idea of what true love means. I see how they made it work, and that’s what I’d strive for.”
Watkins says he’d like to do something for other students who’ve struggled with the challenges of the inner city. “I have a friend who came from the same neighborhood I did, and now she’s a doctor,” he says. “Once we’ve set up our own lives and careers and paid down our debts, we want to fund scholarships. Our goal is to change the culture,” he concludes. “And you can only change the culture by succeeding yourself.