As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
Dr. Sampson Davis is an emergency medicine physician in his hometown of Newark, N.J. He grew up in a rough neighborhood. As a kid, he excelled in school but didn't always stay out of trouble.
"Just to walk down the street, I would see drug dealers, I would see people stealing cars, I would see prostitution, I would see people using drugs," Davis says. "That was my surrounding."
At 17 years old, Davis and three friends committed a robbery. They called themselves the Robin Hoods of the community, targeting neighborhood drug dealers, stealing their money and giving back to the poor.
"When the robbery took place, we jumped out of the car and walked up to them and patted them down, taking things out of their pocket," he says.
Out of the corner of his eye, Davis noticed a car pull up.
"Within seconds, sirens everywhere, cop cars everywhere," Davis says.
He and his friends were caught and sent to juvenile hall.
"I spent the summer between my junior year and senior year in juvenile detention," he says.
Had he been a few months older, Davis would've had a felony charge and would've been tried as an adult.
"I'm quite certain I would've been given years in jail," he says.
Davis says being locked up was eye-opening.
"In a cold room with a thin sheet, I realized that if I didn't change my life around and stay more on the academics, that I would die on the streets," he says. "And that was my big break."
He returned to school his senior year and made a pact with two of his high school friends: They were going to become doctors.
"We made this promise that we were going to figure it out," he says. "Being the first one in my family to go to college, I didn't know I had to fill out a college application, and I had to take the bus to my own college interview."
They made it to Seton Hall University in New Jersey and went on to medical school.
"Two of us became physicians, one became a dentist," Davis says. "We all are practicing doctors in New Jersey and New York."
Davis returned home to Newark to practice emergency medicine at the same hospital where he was born. It's there that he saw the name of a patient, Don Moses, who was admitted to the ER the previous night.
"I closed my eyes and thought, 'Don Moses, I know a Don Moses,' " Davis says.
Suddenly, it hit him.
"This was the Don Moses I did the robbery with years ago," he says.
Davis sprinted down the hall and began seeing the familiar faces of Moses' family.
"He had been shot multiple times, and he had died," Davis says. "If I had decided to stay down that same road, I would've been dead. I probably would've been lying right next to Don, who lost his life on the streets.
"To be back in Newark as the same physical being but with a different mental perspective, I feel like I went through these things in life, I'd never wish them on anyone, but certainly if I can make it, anyone can make it."
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