Doctors in the House – richmondmagazine.com

This article has been edited since it first appeared in print.

Here’s a pitch for the perfect feel-good TV show. Call it “Meet the Randolphs.”

The show follows an African American family made up largely of distinguished, respected physicians. The 6-foot-7-inch patriarch, David, answers to “Poppy.” He and his middle child, David II, or “Little David,” lead a respected oncology clinic. They could be mistaken for twins, except dad is 3 inches taller.

Mom Renita is a top-rated dentist who graduated with honors from dental school while raising two small children. While the two Davids are often in the spotlight in local and national media, the former high school cheerleader prefers to rah-rah from the sidelines.

Eldest sister Jessica is a retinal surgeon married to Joe, a mechanical engineer. They have adorable 18-month-old twins. One running gag has Jessica playfully bickering with Little David, her medical school roommate, about the relative importance of their chosen fields — “I restore sight,” “But I cure cancer,” and so on.

Little David’s wife, Morgan, works in oncology, too, as a pediatric clinical pharmacist, assisting with young cancer patients. They have a son, David III, and a daughter on the way. Morgan hails from Tennessee and, at 5-foot-3, stands many inches shorter than the rest of the family.

There’s a younger brother, too, Doug, who is kind of an Alex P. Keaton character.

Everyone in the family is athletic — Little David played basketball for the University of Richmond, Jessica was a University of Virginia high-jumper. Financial advisor, Doug, 28, was a college football standout at Notre Dame. He turned his back on medicine, even though Dad thought he was a natural for it.

Along the way, the Randolphs have endured, and prevailed against, long hours, difficult cases and racist roadblocks.

Sounds like a can’t-miss show, right?

I didn’t even get to the part where Poppy stops the runaway Cadillac with his bare hands.

The Back Story

“I was always a sickly kid,” says Dr. David Randolph, a radiation oncologist at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Johnston-Willis Hospital. “I had congenital hip dysplasia, where the hips don’t form properly, I walked pigeon-toed and had asthma, and I did not get medical care.” It was a cultural thing, he says. His parents didn’t believe in doctors. “So basically, I was allowed to suffer.”

Growing up the sixth of 13 siblings in rural Charlotte County, near Appomattox, Randolph, 62, attended Randolph-Henry High School — “Named after the slave owner that freed my relatives,” he says. His father had a fourth-grade education and swung a 15-pound sledgehammer at a foundry. “He was an incredibly powerful man, and I wanted to be like him. I would pray, ‘Please God, let me be big and strong.’ “He grew tall but skinny, he says, and had poor nutrition. “It was only when I went to VCU and got on the meal plan and started lifting weights that I began to bulk up.”

He graduated Virginia Commonwealth University in three years. “I was dirt poor,” he says. “I didn’t pledge fraternities, and I didn’t go to parties. I studied.” He also worked multiple jobs, including one at the VCU Computer Center, mentoring underachieving students.

One night, in the throes of his last exams, Randolph looked out his window, and saw a vision, he says. “There was a step show in front of my apartment, and in the crowd I saw the most beautiful woman I ever saw in my life. I went outside and walked in her direction, but she drove off.”

But it didn’t end there. “We were introduced by a mutual friend in the Pantry Pride on West Broad Street,” recalls Dr. Renita Randolph, a dentist at Grove Avenue Family Dentistry. “We didn’t hit it off. I thought he was rude.” The Thomas Jefferson High graduate was then attending Virginia Union University on a full academic scholarship; her mom was an accountant, and the family owned a North Side general store. She didn’t suffer fools.

“I wasn’t trying to be rude, I was too nervous to speak,” David Sr. explains. A short time after he started med school at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, where he also graduated in three years, they met again. “After he settled down and actually talked to me, we hit it off,” Renita says.

After a long-distance romance — Renita was not allowed to marry until she finished school — the newlyweds lived in Norfolk’s Ghent area, where David built their furniture and finished medical school. “I was two weeks old at his graduation,” says daughter Dr. Jessica Randolph, an ophthalmology specialist and vitreoretinal surgeon at the VCU School of Medicine.

“We’ve always been exposed to medicine,” she says. “Even when we were young, we’d be out at grocery stores or church and people would recognize our parents from their offices, and early on it affirmed the importance that health care had on other people’s lives.”

David II was born in Lynchburg, where the Randolphs moved for Poppy’s family practice residency. His goal was to be a family doctor. “But I was frustrated,” he says. “I had an idealistic view that everybody would flock to the doctor, and I’d make everyone feel better. But I couldn’t make the inroads. I couldn’t get people to exercise, eat right or improve their situation. No, if they wanted to lose weight, or to lower their blood pressure, they just wanted me to give them a pill.”

He found inspiration in a charismatic father figure, Peter Hulick, then the radiation oncologist at Lynchburg General Hospital, who was laser-focused on treating cancer. “We had these optional one-month rotations, and I did a month with him, and I was so impressed with the difference he made in people’s lives. I wanted to be like him,” David says.

The family returned to Richmond so that David could do his radiation oncology residency at VCU. These were hectic, sleepless times. “We made it because I was board certified in family practice,” he recalls. “So, I would work two 12-hour shifts in the emergency room, and that was enough to pay for child care.”

Renita enrolled in the VCU School of Dentistry, eventually graduating with honors. “I did it with a whole lot of prayer and gumption,” she says. “My classmates were 20-somethings and footloose and fancy free, and when I got home, I was Mom. Our children have always come first. I didn’t start studying until they were in bed.”

“She’s amazing,” Jessica says. “She had two small children at home and was still first in her class. And that was at a time when dental school wasn’t very friendly to Black people.”

“My whole family, we’ve worked very hard and achieved a whole lot despite racism, sexism and all the -isms,” Renita says. “I experienced it. But I had the wherewithal in dental school to stand up for myself.”

Before moving the family to Roanoke, where he and Renita each set up practice, David Sr. became the first African American to finish VCU’s radiation oncology program. He’s more vocal than his wife about the racism he endured.

“One day my chairman looks at me and laughs out loud. He was German and said in a thick accent, ‘You’re Blecch. You’ll never get a job.’ ” An earlier department head had accused Randolph, apropos of nothing, of pimping women and selling drugs. “All but one of the chairmen there were a–holes,” he says today, “but they could not intimate me.”

family ties

“My dad was my superhero,” says Dr. David Randolph II. “He’s so larger than life. I grew up wanting to be exactly like him.” Father and son now work side by side as radiation oncologists at HCA Virginia, the third highest-rated radiation oncology program in the HCA network, treating blood, brain, breast, skin and other cancers. “He knows all of my patients, and I know all of his.” He says he’s seen his dad do incredible feats. At 10, he watched him stop a Cadillac, barehanded, from rolling downhill. “My Poppy is Superman,” he reportedly exclaimed, and he still seems in awe of his father.

“It’s remarkably unusual to have a father-son duo like that, in practice together,” says Dr. Mark Jones, an orthopedic surgery specialist and longtime family friend who knew Renita in high school (and who is head of his own remarkable family of doctors). “When David Sr. was in Roanoke, he was known as the Mayor of Roanoke. He just has a magnetic personality… and his son is one of the nicest people I know.”

In February, the two Davids taped a segment for NBC’s “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” celebrating “Rad Dads.” Not to spoil anything, but bring a hankie when it airs (it’s slated for June). “I told my dad how much I loved him and what he meant to me,” David II says.

Morgan Randolph, who met her husband at Wake Forest while they did their residencies, thinks that her husband and her father-in-law have earned the attention. “It’s about the way they take care of patients and how they run their clinic, and that’s always been admirable to me,” says the 34-year-old clinical pharmacist at VCU Health.

“I think it is so cool that they are blowing up and getting recognized,” says Doug Randolph, the baby brother who works for Merrill Lynch in Washington, DC “Both are groundbreaking in their own respects, Dad with the experience and my brother with the advanced training. It’s wonderful to see.”

He and Jessica offer up comments about their parents that echo Little David’s: “They were always our role models, and they never pushed medicine on us. They were always saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what you want to be, just be the best at it.’ ”

Mom and Dad set other examples, too, Jessica says. “My dad does woodworking on the side. He’s made all of the furniture in my house except for couches and chairs. One of the special things he makes are wooden crosses that he gives to patients.”

“I just gave a cross away to a woman this past Monday,” confirms David Sr., who learned woodworking in high school and has made and gifted dozens of crosses inlaid with distinctive, personalized hearts. “This lady’s oldest daughter had died in a car accident, and I wanted to comfort her. The wood that I chose was purpleheart.”

He often crafts the pieces at his “haven,” a workshop on the family farm, which rests on the Charlotte County land his grandfather bought in 1901. Amid goats, sheep and a field of irises his grandmother planted, he makes tokens of love that are functional and lasting. “All of my children sleep in beds I’ve made,” he says, “and I tell them that my arms are always around you.”

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