Being able to help people is a true passion for Danny MacKenzie Jr. “Nothing excites me more than being able to use my knowledge of human physiology to help people become physically and mentally healthier,” he says.
MacKenzie comes from a long line of people who know the meaning of service and hard work. “Most of my family has served in the U.S. Armed Forces, including my father, grandfathers, great grandfathers, uncles, and even my brother,” he says.
MacKenzie decided to serve in a different way. When deciding on where to attend medical school, MacKenzie was drawn to New York Institute of Technology because of its diversity. “New York Tech has an incredibly diverse student population and serves an even more diverse patient population,” he says. “I was also charmed by the warmth of the faculty I spoke with on interview day.”
That warmth is important to MacKenzie, who, after shadowing doctors as an undergraduate and seeing first-hand how they connect with their patients, “began to believe that when doctors are compassionate, their patients receive better care and have better outcomes.”
However, MacKenzie is not waiting to earn his medical degree to start making a difference. Last year, he started A Smile Is…, an innovative project aimed at destigmatizing the conversation surrounding mental illness. He gathered a group of artists, and in exchange for donations, they drew portraits of anyone willing to share their mental health stories on Instagram.
Danny MacKenzie Jr. started A Smile Is… to destigmatize mental illness.
“Our goal is to directly tackle the shame behind mental health by sharing personal stories,” he says. “Mental health issues are universal. It takes a lot of courage to confront the stigma, but the only way to change it is to confront it within ourselves.”
MacKenzie says that he has personally struggled with self-confidence and his own mental health his whole life. “As per the norm, especially in my youth, I kept it hidden,” he admits. However, when he was 18, a tragedy forced him to face the issue head-on. “I lost my best friend to suicide, and I never stopped asking myself, ‘Why didn’t I, his best friend, know he was so depressed?’ Anyone impacted by suicide knows this question. So why do we keep our mental health so hidden? It’s the stigma.”
A Smile Is… got its name from the idea that you simply cannot tell from the outside what a smile is, or what it might be hiding. Three months after launching the campaign, MacKenzie and his artists collected 30 portraits and raised more than $3,150, which was donated to Project Semicolon and To Write Love on Her Arms, two mental health advocacy non-profits.
Despite a busy school schedule, MacKenzie has served as the treasurer for both the NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians (ACOFP) and American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians (ACOP) campus chapters. In January 2019, he will begin research with Associate Professor Dong Zhang, Ph.D., and begin courses in the NYITCOM Academic Medicine Scholars Program.
Still, MacKenzie felt he wanted to learn more about the different aspects of medicine, including international health. Through New York Tech’s Global Health certificate program, he traveled to a small community in Osiem, Ghana, where he and a group of NYITCOM students worked at Hawa Memorial Saviour Hospital to deliver medical services to underserved populations. The students participated in surgeries, clinical rounds, and many birth deliveries. “We observed how Ghanaian clinicians practice medicine and learned about the varying cultural and economic issues that play into the prevalence of the country’s diseases,” he says. “It was an unforgettable, informative, and fun trip.”
As he looks towards the future, MacKenzie is keeping his options open. “I’ve always had a keen interest in pediatrics, but I’m also interested in neuropsychiatry and family medicine,” he says. “I can imagine a future at a teaching hospital somewhere in a city but, overall, I’m keeping an open mind. I am excited to see how my perspective changes after third year, and my year as an academic scholar.”