CHICAGO (WLS) -- Ernest Billinger knew for years he needed to make a change when he was working jobs without the future he wanted for himself.
"That first step is just setting your goal, holding yourself to it. I mean, if you don't make a goal, then nothing's going to happen," said Billinger, Macolm X Nursing Class 2021 salutatorian.
Billinger's goal was set when his uncle Nathaniel Boykin died at just 53-years-old due to a preventable blood clot.
"At the time the doctor told me it was an insect bite. It turned out to be a thrombosis, a blood clot in his calf. Christmas Day, it broke free and lodged in his lung, and he suffocated to death," Billinger said.
The incident set Billinger on his path. He went to Malcolm X College and City Colleges of Chicago to make his goal a reality.
Billinger said he even saved his own life from a similar fate thanks to his studies.
"It's because of that information, because of nursing school, because of my uncle, that I was able to diagnose my own blood clot, and go to the emergency room and prevent any complications," Billinger said.
After graduating salutatorian this year from Malcolm X College as a registered nurse, Billinger will join the ranks of healthcare professionals fighting frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, and he will be breaking barriers as does so.
"They can look to him and say well, 'If he can do it, then I can do it because he looks like me. He represents me,'" said David A. Sanders, Malcolm X College president.
Black male nurses are underrepresented. Billinger said it is vital patients see themselves reflected in their healthcare professionals.
"It helps break down those walls of hesitation when it comes to healthcare," Billinger said.
Billinger said he is on a pathway to the future starting as a registered nurse in vascular surgery at Mayo Clinic in just a few months.
"I just kept thinking of my uncle, and I can help," Billinger said.
Black male nurse makes strides as he graduates salutatorian from Malcolm X College