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His Sights Were On Medical School, When Tragedy Struck His Family, Twice

Left to right: Brennan May, father Ronald, brother Ryan, mother Susan and brother Bradley in May 2019
Courtesy of the May family
Brennan May, from left, father Ronald, brother Ryan, mother Susan and brother Bradley in May 2019.

Ryan May, 24, grew up in Fayetteville, Georgia, with dreams of becoming a doctor. In the past year, both of his brothers died unexpectedly.

Ryan May was the middle brother, the brainy one who played violin and football, was often talkative, inquisitive, and smart in science and math.

“I’ve been saying I wanted to be a doctor since I was like, 4 or 5 years old,” he recalled.

Almost two decades later, when Ryan got his first interview at a medical school, one of the first people he told was his older brother, Brennan.

“Brennan and I talked almost every day. He was so excited,” said Ryan, now 24.

Ryan spent much of his life looking up to Brennan, who was seven years older.

“I’d been looking up to him and trying to catch up to him forever. And we had finally come to fully stand out, as peers,” Ryan said.

In 2020, Brennan joined a Navy special forces unit, and was training at Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle, learning to dive for explosive ordnances.

“He was absolutely in love with the training,” Ryan said. “The harder they pushed him, the more he loved it.”

On August 31, 2020, Brennan was practicing breathing exercises underwater at the pool of the apartment complex where he lived with his wife, Allison, in Destin, when he drowned suddenly. He was 29.

Brennan died 10 days before Ryan’s first medical school interview. It was fall of 2020, and the nation was in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic. For people across the country, holding traditional rituals for lost loved ones was complicated and dangerous.

The grief was immense, but Ryan felt he had to keep going, and stay strong for his family, and for the tasks ahead.

"There wasn't a lot of space to process, because I had eight interviews over the span of the next 10 weeks,” Ryan said.

Courtesy of the May family
Ryan (left) and Brennan May, celebrating Ryan's graduation from Mercer University in May 2019.

Ryan was able to perform well in his interviews, conducted virtually due to the pandemic. But keeping his pain at bay was a struggle. His body began to lock up at times. Anxiety overwhelmed him.

“I was having panic attacks, because I felt like I had such a limited timetable to quote-unquote be OK, and be ready to function,” Ryan said.

Over the winter, daily tasks like getting out of bed, and eating, seemed to take every ounce of energy Ryan had. As the sun went down each day, his depression worsened.

“I remember just being in this like agony at all times, and I had this fear that I would never be OK again. Like, I couldn't see my way out of it,” Ryan recalled.

A friend told him he didn’t sound good, and helped Ryan see a therapist. After a couple of months, he began to emerge again.

“In hindsight, I'm realizing that is where my strength now comes from. Like, I've broken," Ryan said. "And now here I am on my feet."

Ryan was accepted at six different medical schools, and decided to attend Mayo Clinic's School of Medicine in Phoenix, Arizona.

In early May 2021, Ryan's family went with him to tour the campus and medical facility.

At Ryan's side was his younger brother Bradley, 22. Bradley was sensitive and sometimes quiet, and dreamed of owning his own restaurant one day. He was a new father to a baby boy.

Brennan’s name came up during the tour. The last time the family had been to Arizona was in January 2020, when Brennan was inducted into the Navy.

Ryan saw tears spill from Bradley’s eyes.

“So we walk a few more steps and he like, grabs me from behind, he just like wraps me up in this giant hug," Ryan recalled.

"And he says, 'The last time I was this proud was when we were here to send Brennan off to the Navy. Thank you for giving us something to celebrate and bringing us together.'

“He's got like tears just like, rolling down my shoulder. Nobody really knows how to break me down quite like Bradley. So now I'm crying. And then I hear my mom yelling at my dad, ‘Get a picture!’

“I thought it was such a strange thing to do in that moment. And now I'm just so thankful to have that image,” said Ryan.

Just weeks later, Bradley was shot and killed, after an apparent dispute with a neighbor near the condo he'd just moved into in Clayton County, Georgia. A police investigation is still underway.

His family, in a statement, described Bradley as an "intelligent, charismatic young man who had a lifetime of potential ahead of him."

Courtesy of the May family
The three May brothers as children, with Ryan standing, and Brennan holding Bradley.

Friends and family gathered for Bradley's funeral. Ryan recognized the feelings of grief and shock. Those felt familiar. But simultaneously, the terrain was new.

"Losing them back to back, the first thing that I felt was really alienated from most of the people in my life, aside from my parents, because the first thing that everybody tells you is, 'I can't imagine what you're going through.'”

Shortly after Bradley's funeral, Ryan moved to Phoenix to attend medical school. He'd already found someone there who knew the kind of pain he was experiencing.

A third-year medical student named Lucky Krog, 25, had lost her 17-year-old brother suddenly to a brain aneurysm, then a month later, her grandmother died.

She remembers talking to Ryan during his application process while she was working in the admissions department, and learning that his older brother Brennan had recently died.

"I was like, Oh, what a crazy coincidence, because it was only a few months after that had happened to me," she said.

"For most of our conversation we didn't actually even talk about the school very much, we spent most of the time just kind of talking about how shocking it is to lose a sibling," she said.

Krog said she is doing her best to be there for Ryan. Sometimes, she said, "the hardest part about grieving is other people. People want you to grieve in a certain way, especially when you are high-functioning person. People don’t appreciate the inconsistency of it.”

Krog said what helped her was being surrounded by friends who “were willing to let my grief look like what it was,”

“That is part of why I reached out to Ryan is because I wanted to pay it forward,” she said.

Sherman Lee is a researcher at Christopher Newport University in Virginia who has studied grief in the pandemic. His research has shown that isolation made grieving worse for many people.

But people have also found new tools to reach out.

"One of the things the pandemic has brought about was a big push in technology," he said. "There are a lot of ways we can deliver social support now."

Courtesy of the May family
The May family poses for a picture in Whiteriver, Arizona on the Apache reservation, ahead of Brennan’s Navy induction in January 2020.

Other students have reached out too, bringing Ryan meals, or stopping by to chat.

Amarachi Orakwue, 23, a friend who is attending medical school in Minnesota, sends him texts regularly, and calls to talk. She hasn't experienced a loss of this magnitude, she said. So she did some research.

"I went on YouTube and watched a TED talk on how to help someone that's going through a loss like this," she said.

Orakwue was connected to Ryan early in the process of applying for medical school through their shared mentor, Suliman El-Amin, a psychiatrist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

When El-Amin heard of the deaths in Ryan's family, “I was just overwhelmed with sadness. Both his brothers. Now he is the only child. Think of how much pressure that is,” he said.

“His story is so much deeper because this stuff happened to him right at the cusp of going into a field where all you deal with is life and death,” El-Amin said.

The first year of medical school can be intense for any student. For African-American men, the stakes are particularly high.

While other racial groups have made gains in medical school over the past 40 years, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the number of Black male medical students has declined, from 3.1% of the nationwide medical student body in 1978 to 2.9% in 2019.

“Unfortunately, there are not enough Black males in medicine,” said Michele Halyard, dean of the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine’s Arizona campus.

“Many Black males have other things that are going on within society that make that road just that much harder,” she said.

Halyard took Ryan to lunch shortly after he arrived.

“I said to Ryan, you have to make me a promise that if you ever struggling day or night, do not feel like you're bothering me, I want you to reach out,” she said.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Ryan's aunt, Sarasota physician Lisa Merritt, has mentored Ryan for many years. She is also grieving the loss of Ryan's brothers.

“You know, I wish I could say it's completely otherworldly. But as Black people, unfortunately, we all come up with incredible challenges and grievous losses. It's hard to find someone who hasn't had a loss early on," she said.

During the pandemic, Ryan interned at the Sarasota Multicultural Health Institute, a community advocacy group headed by Merritt, a physiatrist. She has told Ryan his brothers are with him.

“His success is their success and his ability to serve as an example for other young Black men. And to eventually, as promised to me — as all the other MHI scholars do — serve as a mentor and continue to raise that pipeline. Then, you can be at peace with things that you have no control over" Merritt said.

Ryan began classes in mid-July. He's not sure what path in medicine he'll eventually take.

For now, he said he is "getting accustomed to a world that doesn't have my brothers in it. And, you know, getting accustomed to being on the precipice of like, all of my dreams coming true. I want to try to build a legacy that feels like it, breathe some life into them.”

El-Amin — Ryan's mentor at Mayo Clinic — said Ryan is fortunate to have him, a Black psychiatrist, on speed dial.

"He will have a unique perspective on life compared to all his classmates. He got to see tragedy firsthand and experience how it is, being a family member. So he will be able to speak to his patients and the family members of his patients in a brand new way that he probably would never have been able to speak to before. He will be speaking from experience."

El-Amin said he was impressed by Ryan the first time he met him. But one skill set of Ryan’s particularly struck him.

“He asks for help. He is not ashamed to ask for help. He is not embarrassed. That is what makes Ryan different. He is going to be a damn good doctor because of that,” he said.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.