CLEVELAND — 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.
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 mom 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.
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 in urban communities.
Allamby missed the enrollment cutoff for that year and took more Tri-C classes to prepare. He aced them all.
"While he was in the classroom with me, I worked him pretty hard," said Dr. Ormond Brathwaite, dean of STEM at Tri-C and Allamby's Chemistry 2 professor.
Brathwaite gave Allamby more than an "A'' when the course ended. Brathwaite's daughter had just passed the medical school exam, and he gave Allamby her books and study materials knowing the work ahead of him.
"It was a steep climb, but he had the intellect," Brathwaite said.
Allamby completed the two years at CSU and got his second undergraduate degree, acing the NEOMED entrance exam in 2015. But before classes began, he had to dissolve his auto repair business by hiring an auctioneer and selling off everything in a day.
"It was like, 'Finally, I am free of this and I can go after something I've always wanted,'" he said.
His workload didn't decrease, though. Medical school was rigorous and Allamby, commuting from Beachwood, also had a family life: His wife, Kim, and two grade-schoolers at home and two grown children from a previous marriage. Going to school full time would eat through his savings and require hefty student loans.
"The stakes were high, like, 'Man I really can't fail,'" he said.
That meant buckling down with the books.
"There were a lot of days where it was like, 'Oh my God, I have this mound of paperwork to go through, all of this information to understand, how am I ever going to get this down and also spend time with my kids?' And my wife would tell me, 'Hey, we're OK, go do some studying, do whatever you have to do and get it done.'"
He did. Not only did he ace every class, he was appointed by then-Gov. John Kasich to serve as the student representative on the school's Board of Trustees.
"He is the poster child for this program," said Dr. Jay Gershen, president of NEOMED. "It's not just what he's doing, it's who he is. He's an amazing man."
Allamby's amiable personality, not just his academic record, impressed the hiring committee at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital, where he was selected for a three-year residency in emergency medicine.
"He's got people skills most doctors don't start out with, that customer relations mentality from his years in business," said Dr. Steven Brooks, chair of emergency medicine at Akron General. "We were blown away by him."
His background as a small business owner also showed an impressive work ethic, Brooks said. Allamby said he laughed when people warned him about the long hours residents put in.
"When you own a small business, an 80-hour week is like a vacation," he said.
His bedside manner and his work ethic certainly distinguish him. But there's something else that could really benefit patients particularly in urban areas: his race.
"Being a physician of color, you have a special connection with patients when you look like them. There is a certain level of trust between you and the patient. This person who looks like me understands what I'm going through," said Dr. Stephanie Gains, an emergency department physician at University Hospitals who mentored Allamby during one of his clinical rotations in medical school.
Allamby understands the importance.
"There are so many times throughout the different hospitals where I will walk in and (a black patient) will say, 'Thank God there's finally a brother here,'" Allamby said.
"We absolutely need more black doctors, he said, noting mistrust that has a long history, including the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis, where black patients were victimized.
"I think you remove a lot of those barriers when there is a person there who looks like you," he said.
Research shows that black patients fare better with black doctors. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research last year found that black men, who have the lowest life expectancy of any American demographic, were more likely to share details with black doctors and to heed their advice. Having a black doctor was more effective in convincing them to get a flu shot than a financial reward.
But there are not enough black doctors.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, less than 6% of medical school graduates nationally identify as black while 13 percent of the population is. The Association said the number of black males in medical school, despite a slight uptick last year, has been around the same since 1978.
"Some students of color, data just shows they aren't encouraged to go into science and math and medicine. We kind of write them off before we find out what their desires are," said Kimalon Dixon of the Cleveland Foundation, who as program officer orchestrated a grant for the Partnership for Urban Health to help change that.
"Programs like this are trying to undo the damage done by structural racism," she said.
Dr. Sonja Harris-Haywood, who runs the Partnership for Urban Health, said there are 90 partnership students in the school now, another 40 in residency programs, like Allamby. Twenty-two percent are minorities, much higher than the general medical school average.
To date, 125 students from the partnership have enrolled at NEOMED.
The hope is that they will stay local.
"We're just trying to produce doctors to serve our community," she said.
Allamby hopes to encourage the next wave of black doctors when they are young. He doesn't recommend starting in your 30s.
"When I speak at a junior high or high school, I tell the kids, 'Hey, if you are interested in medicine, reach out to me," he said, "because I will help you as much as I can.' "
His 23-year-old son, Kyle, is a firefighter in East Cleveland pursuing a paramedic degree. Dad helps him as well as Kyle's twin sister, Kaye, who is studying to be a registered nurse. His wife is a physical therapist.
"I have this big business plan," Allamby says with a wry smile, "where my son will bring in the patient, I will save their life, and my wife will rehab them, and my daughter will take care of them while they're in the hospital. And then they'll get a free oil change on discharge."