Growing up in Jamaica as one of eight children, O’Neil Britton, MD, didn’t think he one day would be chief medical officer and senior vice president at a major academic medical center. Yet despite many struggles and challenges throughout his life, that is exactly what he did.Britton shared his story, “An Uncommon Journey,” at this year’s ninth annual Nancy J. Tarbell, MD Faculty Development Lectureship Series, sponsored by the MGH Center for Faculty Development. The lectureship provides faculty with leadership insights and perspectives to help them with their own career trajectories.

“As I share pieces of my journey today, I’m going to speak to the developing years and how they affected me,” said Britton. “Though I consider mine an uncommon journey, it does speak a little to the story of the American dream.”

Britton grew up in a middle-class family in Kingston, Jamaica. He spoke of the extreme violence, sexism and colorism that are a part of the country but also spoke of the extraordinary music, culture and paradise that Jamaica embodies. “Because of neglect and severe poverty in the country, it leads to high violence and killings,” he said. “Yet you also will see the smile and sparkle in the people’s eyes when they greet you. You feel the vibrancy. The Jamaican people want to be warm and engaging.”

For many years, Britton’s mother wanted to move the family out of Jamaica. They finally were approved to leave and moved to Queens, New York at first – where his entire family lived in a one bedroom apartment. “We were doing menial jobs, but we had our own income and controlled our own destiny.”

After Queens, Britton and his family moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a poor, working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. He spoke of the urban development in the area where he lived – driven by early federal housing policies that created a racial divide – and how racism plays out on the map, the persistence of wealth gaps that still exist today and stereotypes that he has faced throughout his entire life and career. “Even with the best intent, when you are doing the best job, people will still see you in a certain way,” said Britton.

He held numerous jobs throughout his life – janitor, cab driver, bouncer, tutor. It was only once he went to college that he realized he could use his brain rather than his brawn. “I never had a title in mind,
I just knew I wanted to be part of the change and influence the outcome. I am interested in providing access to all patients, and I believe in health care’s ability to change the world.”

Said Britton, “Sometimes you will fight the opportunity given to you. Things will work out – sometimes you just can’t see it in the short term. I am far from having it all figured out, but I welcome the challenges of my position at the MGH and the great opportunities that I will face here.” 

Read more articles from the 06/09/17 Hotline issue.