Emory Report

November 1, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 10


Twin ER doctors give Grady patients double takes

Patients come into Atlanta emergency rooms with a range of problems: heart attacks, fevers, broken bones, headaches. At three of the city's ERs, doctors work overtime to make sure their patients don't acquire an additional complaint: double vision.

There's no infection lurking in the emergency departments of Grady, Crawford Long and Emory hospitals. But there is a potential problem. It keeps administrators poring over personnel records and paying close attention to shift schedules.

Its name is T.K. Jasper. Or more precisely, their names: doctors Travis Kendal and Travan Kennard Jasper--Emory emergency physicians, assistant professors and identical twins.

"One night, somehow, we got put on the same schedule for Grady," said Travan, the elder by 37 seconds. "We had a good time that night. They had never seen the two of us together before."

"Some people still don't know there are two of us," added Travis. "One nurse thought I was making it up."

The brothers, who turned 30 years old last month, joined the emergency medicine department in June 1998. They arrived trailing the same brilliant resume: Stanford University biology degrees, University of Chicago Medical School, University of Michigan residency. But their recruitment by Emory offered more than the marquee value of identical twins with identical training doing an identical job. It added two more African-American physicians to a local cluster that is striking in a mostly white profession and a very white specialty.

"We have the largest contingent of African-American faculty in any predominantly white institution in the country," said Leon Haley, chief of the Emergency Care Center at Grady. "There may be more at Howard University or at King-Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles. But there are 35 African-American faculty in emergency medicine across the country, and we have 11 of them."

Taking the jobs in Atlanta put the Jaspers in the unusual position, for once, of not being unusual. "We were the only African-Americans in our residency program in the last two years of our training," Travis said. "When we went to University of Chicago, it was 132nd out of 133 medical schools for its percentage of minorities--less than 1 percent, and our arrival raised it to 3 percent."

"For once," said Haley, also African-American, "they don't have to be trailblazers, because the road has been blazed for them."

Though there are still double takes. "We've been doing genetics lectures to middle school students in a summer program," Travis said. "So if Travan starts the lecture, for instance, he'll make an excuse and leave the stage, and I'll walk on and take over. And then at the end he'll walk back on, too. They are always surprised, and I can't ever believe they didn't notice."

It can be hard to tell the two apart. They cut each other's hair and shave in the same style: a goatee with a wisp under the lower lip. They have the same taste; on a recent morning, having dressed in separate houses, they both wore white-on-white shirts, earth-toned geometric ties with gold tie bars, chino trousers and soft-soled shoes (Travis' were Timberlands, Travan's Bass). Until recently, they both owned white sedans and black sport utility vehicles--Travis a Mercedes and a Jeep, Travan a Lexus and a Ford Expedition. They call each other "T."

But there are differences. They are both single but keep their private lives separate. "People always want to know if we date the same women, " Travis said, rolling his eyes. "It's not an issue." They both wear wire-framed glasses, but Travis' are copper-colored while Travan's are closer to gold. Their voices are alike, but Travan's speech is slightly slangier, Travis' a bit more formal. Travan is half an inch taller; Travis has a chicken pox scar in one eyebrow and a tiny freckle in the bow of his upper lip.

Detecting the differences requires close scrutiny. The Jaspers are used to it. "We've always gotten a lot of stares, a lot of questions and sometimes a fair amount of attention," Travis said with a shrug.

The Jaspers, who have no siblings, were born in Richmond, Va. Their mother and stepfather are hairstylists, and their grandfather owns a small business. They were the first in their family to finish college. They were co-valedictorians in high school, got the same SAT scores before college, scored within one point of each other on their graduate school admission exams and received residency evaluations that were never more than two percentage points apart.

Of course, they deny being competitive.

"They told me a story about why they tended to follow each other's career," said Arthur Kellermann, who heads the medical school's emergency medicine department and recruited both Jaspers in separate interviews. "They said that since their mother had trouble telling them apart, she would reward or punish them both for something one of them did. It programmed them from an early age to look out for each other."

As in their mother's raising of them, being non-distinguishable has both rewards and pitfalls. Their credit records get mixed up. When they applied for residency, several programs assumed they'd received duplicate applications and threw one out. To get residency assignments through a nationwide computerized system known as "matching," the Jaspers resorted to the type of application used by couples who want to be in the same location. Otherwise, they would have been competing against each other--on the basis of identical records.

"I heard people [in other residency programs] say, 'We liked them, but we couldn't figure out how to handle twins,'" said Steven Dronen, the residency program director for emergency medicine at Michigan. "I looked at it as two for the price of one--though, of course, we paid them two salaries."

Twin physicians in emergency medicine is a slightly risky proposition. Because it moves so quickly, an ER depends on spoken commands; unlike most hospital medicine, not much is written down until afterward. The pitfall of doctors who look alike could be that a nurse, replying to one physician's order, could give a test or medication to the other's patient.

To combat that, Michigan kept the Jaspers on different shifts. Emory has assigned them mostly to separate hospitals, Travis at Emory Hospital and Travan at Crawford Long; both work at Grady but, except for one slip, never at the same time.

The system isn't perfect. "When we were residents, there was an elderly lady with altered mental status," Travis said. "She came in with all her family members, and after a few hours she was fine. I walked off to do something, and while I was gone, my brother walked through the department in regular clothes. She said to her relatives, 'Dr. Jasper just walked by in street clothes; he must be leaving,' and then I walked up again, still in my white coat. And they said, 'You know, we think Mom's having problems again.'"

The high visibility of being young, black, bright and noticeable has an extra resonance at Grady; many of its patients are African American, too. "We weren't as fortunate as some others growing up, so if things had been different, we would have been the people who go to Grady," Travan said. "So when I came to Atlanta, I hoped I'd spend most of my time at Grady. You know, I'd done all this hard work, and now it's time to give back to the community I came from, and hopefully not only take care of them, but be a role model.

"If people ask me, I can say, 'I know exactly what you're going through. I came from a household that had some of the things you're dealing with in your household.' I have a lot of patients who say, 'It's so nice to see you doing this. Keep going.'

"They just urge me on."

This article, written by M.A.J. McKenna, first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is reprinted with permission.

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