Black History Heritage Month – Physician Highlight

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  • February 21, 2021
By: National AMWA Premedical Division

In honor of Black History Month, AMWA has taken the entire month to highlight 28 Black women physicians throughout history. For the last week of this month, AMWA’s Premedical Division wanted to take the time to highlight and celebrate some of the amazing women who make up the 2% of Black female doctors currently in the workforce. May we recognize the need to diversify medicine, while celebrating their incredible contributions to medicine today and always! Continue reading to find the full background and stories of the amazing physicians we have highlighted. 

Kristyn Smith, DO 

 

Background

As a child, Kristyn was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and underwent surgery at age 5. It was this early exposure to medicine that made Kristyn want to become a doctor. In middle and high school, Kristyn’s favorite classes were the sciences, which further solidified her future career path. She went on to earn her bachelor’s in sociology & pre-medical studies from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). After undergrad, Kristyn worked as a research coordinator; her projects focused on health disparities and health care provider cultural and linguistic competency. She went to medical school at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine and during her time there was heavily involved in leadership and volunteering on- and off-campus. Currently, Kristyn J. Smith, DO is an emergency medicine resident physician at a busy level 1 trauma center in Philadelphia, PA. 

What is it like being a Black woman in medicine? There could be a whole book on this question! In general, I’d say it is hard, but medicine is a difficult field in general. Being a black woman in medicine, the frequency with which I encounter microaggressions is increased. I’ve been mistaken for a medical transporter, unit secretary, or nurse on several occasions. Also, you are often viewed and evaluated through a different lens, by both patients and educators. In certain situations, a male and/or non-black colleague may be viewed as assertive and confident, while you are viewed as aggressive and cocky for the same exact actions. 

What advice do you have for young women who may be on the path to medicine?

Don’t listen to haters! If you really want to be a physician you can and will be one. Currently, over 50% of medical students are women – which should give you confidence that you can be one of the 50%. It does not matter what obstacles you have in front of you, your goal of wearing a white coat is possible. Find a mentor who will help you navigate the path. Additionally, reach out to medical professionals and participate in a summer program to gain exposure to the field. 

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Olapeju Simoyan, MD, MPH

Background 

I was expected to be a doctor, and while I was interested in becoming a doctor and “helping people”, I also had several other interests. I initially studied dentistry – (after high school), and eventually went to Johns Hopkins to study public health, thinking I might end up working for an international organization such as the World Health Organization. My MPH was followed by a residency in dental public health and when the international health job that was supposed to have been “guaranteed” with an MPH from Hopkins didn’t materialize, I finally went to medical school. After an internship in psychiatry/family medicine, I switched programs to complete my training in family medicine. The few months of psychiatry rotations I had were mostly in addiction psychiatry and I realized that I could specialize in addiction medicine as a family doctor, which is what I ended up doing. After my residency, I joined the founding faculty at a new medical school, now known as Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. I served in several roles there and worked in various clinical settings in Northeast Pennsylvania between late 2009 and early 2020. I started my current position as the Medical Director of Research at Caron Treatment Centers, near Reading, PA in February 2020. 

What is it like being a Black woman in medicine? 

It is an absolute privilege to be a physician and I consider myself fortunate to have had several opportunities to combine my interests in teaching and research with patient care.  

I was born in Washington, DC, into a diplomatic family and then grew up mostly in Nigeria. I was exposed to people of various cultures and ethnicities at an early age and the color of my own skin was not an issue while growing up. For example, when we lived in Vienna, Austria, our housekeeper and chauffeurs were white. Although I knew enough about American history to know about slavery and racism in a very general sense, I was unprepared for the racial stereotyping I experienced when I returned to the US as an adult.  I naively thought I was coming to a “post- racial” society. Unfortunately, this was far from the case. Being asked if I was the “cleaning lady”, or being referred to as a nurse, even after I had introduced myself as “Doctor”, to name a few examples, were experiences I hadn’t been prepared for. 

Advice for young women who may be on the path to medicine

I feel very strongly about encouraging girls and young women to pursue their dreams and to fulfill their potential.  I recently saw a meme that someone else had posted on social media in honor of Women Physicians Day, which read “Be the doctor your parents wanted you to marry.” I reposted it, adding a comment about how as student AMWA members in medical school, we had T- shirts that had a similar message. The message really resonated with me, as part of the reason I didn’t go to medical school when I was younger was because I was so concerned about having time for all the other things I wanted to do with my life, not the least of which was raising a family. Years later, I was in my thirties and still single and finally decided to stop limiting myself and pursue my dreams. 

Now back to that meme. Someone reposted it with an accompanying essay in which he commended female physicians, but then went on to state that women should ideally be focused on their families and that he would be more impressed with women who chose to stay home, adding that his opinion was based on the description of an ideal woman in the 31st chapter of the book of Proverbs. (This person happens to be married to a female physician, no less). 

I have nothing but the utmost respect for women who pursue the option of staying home, but the message in question had nothing to do with that. It was simply encouraging women and girls to be all they can be. 

As for Proverbs 31, the woman described in this chapter of the Bible is anything but a traditional stay- at- home mother. She is very active both inside and outside the home!  

The concept of being the person you want to marry also resonated with me in other areas. When I was younger, I wanted to marry someone who was very musically talented and had more musical ability than I did. At some point, I came to the realization that I was the one who needed to pursue my interests and develop my abilities in that area, because I was the one who was passionate about music. Ironically, after all those years of training and finally becoming a “real” doctor, I felt the need to pursue my artistic interests – music, photography and narrative writing. It was only after I became comfortable with where I was in my professional life that I was able to fully express myself in these other areas.  Having creative outlets and interests outside of work is very important for maintaining balance and avoiding burnout. 

Be all you can be.  Don’t limit yourself because you are a woman. Make the best of your life, whether you are single or married and whether you have children or not. 

I would have benefited from career guidance and mentoring when I was younger, so I feel a sense of responsibility to mentor others. I encourage young people considering medicine to get exposure to different specialties. The good thing about medicine is that there is a such a broad range of possibilities. Research experience – whether clinical or community based is always a plus. 

Expand your world by traveling (when it is safe to do so). Learn about other cultures and health care systems in other countries if you have the opportunity. If you can’t travel, look for local opportunities to engage in community service. 

Finding your purpose in life is not always a straightforward endeavor; there may be many twists and turns and even detours along the way. Stay focused on your goals, find good mentors, educate yourself about the options available and be flexible. When you meet obstacles, it will be important to determine whether they are simply delays or signs that you should take a different path. That is something each person will have to determine for themselves.  Even after all these years, I am still learning that life is about the journey, not the destination. Each of us needs to fulfill our own unique calling, regardless of how “off the beaten path” this may be. I have come a long way from feeling like something was wrong with me to embracing my true self and finally realizing that I can be a physician-scientist and creative artist at the same time. I concluded that God wouldn’t have given me these interests and abilities if I wasn’t meant to use them. So, to all the young ladies out there, I say: “Stop trying to be ‘normal’”. Be the superstar you were created to be! 

https://www.caron.org/our-team/olapeju-simoyan

www.thedoctorwriter.com

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Sydelle Ross, MD 

Background

I originally hail from the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.  At 6 years of age, I knew that I wanted to be a physician.  I also loved singing and I dreamed of becoming a singing doctor.  I arrived in the US at the age of 18 determined to pursue my undergraduate degree and my premedical studies.  Because I always had a great appreciation for the French language, I decided to major in French while fulfilling my premedical requirements.  I was determined to spend my entire junior year studying in France, which I did, against the advice of many.  I took a year off after graduating from college to apply to medical school and I set off on the interview trail.  It was a wonderful year.  I was ultimately admitted to my first choice medical school in New York City and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  I continued with residency training in anesthesiology, followed by a fellowship in pain medicine.  During the early years of my practice as an attending physician, I felt that I needed to offer more to my patients.  I made the decision to enhance my singing ability so that I could offer music-based, patient-centered care.  I currently practice hospice and palliative medicine in the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System.  As a classically trained vocalist, I have been incorporating music into my practice of medicine, as I care for patients who are living with life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses.

What is it like being a Black woman in medicine?

Being a Black woman in medicine has not been an easy journey, however, remaining true to who I am has made all the difference.  From the very start of my undergraduate training, I was told on a number of occasions that I was not good enough to be admitted to medical school- my grades were not competitive enough; as an international student I was not wealthy enough.  I was advised to consider other health-related professions because medical school would be too far a stretch for me.  The discouragement would continue with her the years and present itself in different ways.  I can truly say that being anchored in who I am had allowed me to stay the course.  Knowing who I am has enabled me to clearly define my purpose by focusing on the things that truly make a difference in the lives of others.  This, in turn, has led me to develop more meaningful relationships with others, including my patients.  These relationships have helped to sustain me during the ups and downs.  In the words of Maya Angelou, “… people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  

These words are true and I aspire to live them out as I continue to touch the lives of others.  

“I sing because I feel”- Dr Sydelle Ross

What advice do you have for young women who may be on the path to medicine?

It is important to truly understand who you are.  Take the necessary time to identify the people and things that give a sense of meaning and purpose to your life.  Always honor and cherish them.  You will need to rely on them when the going gets tough.  They will fill you with renewed strength and purpose, which you will then be able to share with others during their time of need.

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De. Oneeka Williams

Background
An award-winning surgeon and author who uses her scalpel as a pen to write world-changing books… Dr. Oneeka Williams. Dr. Oneeka Williams has been blazing trails to her Unlimited starting as early as 13 years old when she entered an all-boys high school as the first girl to join their ranks. As one of the 0.001% of physicians who are Black female urologic surgeons, Dr. Williams understands well the importance of role modeling and having people who believe in you and are willing to be your champion. Dr. Williams is a distinguished Urologic Surgeon and Assistant Clinical Professor of Urology at Tufts Medical School. She did her early education in Guyana and Barbados and credits her science teacher Mom and journalist Dad for her early love of science and writing. She completed her MD, MPH at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health in 1993 and general surgical training at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1995. She is one of the first Black women to graduate with a BA in Biophysics from Johns Hopkins University and is the first Black female to train in Urologic Surgery at the Lahey Clinic. This journey has made Dr. Williams keenly aware of the under representation of women in many arenas, especially STEM careers. This ignited an intense desire to change these statistics. She identified early intervention and exposure as key elements and created a mechanism in the form of a powerful, confident girl super surgeon, Dr. Dee Dee Dynamo-whose Superpowers of Positivity on a platform of exciting storytelling weaves together science, literacy and empowerment and representation in a book series that encourages girls that they can live a life without limits.

Dr. Williams currently practices Urology 3 days a week. Her commitment to community and public health is very central to her practice and she speaks regularly on Pelvic Floor Health and Prostate Health. She is active in working towards decreasing disparities in health, especially urologic health through her direct patient care activities and advocacy through her work in consulting roles and organizations. She spends the rest of her time writing, speaking, spending time with family and building her Positive Education and Health Advocacy Company.

What is it like being a Black woman in medicine?

Being a Black woman in a predominantly male surgical specialty has its challenges. Rampant disrespect, unequal treatment and disparate compensation and maintaining work life balance are common concerns. However, there is a sense of accomplishment to know that you are breaking barriers, providing great care for patients and achieving your goals in spite of the Naysayers.

What advice do you have for young women who may be on the path to medicine?

My advice to young women interested in medicine is to expect that it will be an arduous journey and as such it is important to develop a self care process that supports emotional, mental and physical health.

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Elizabeth Garner

Background

Elizabeth Garner is Chief Medical Officer at ObsEva, a Swiss women’s health specialty pharmaceutical company headquartered in Geneva. With well over a decade of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Dr. Garner has wide expertise in drug development, including clinical trial design and conduct, CRO selection and management, US and ex-

US regulatory submissions, FDA Advisory Committee strategy and execution, commercial launch planning, promotional review, medical affairs, and pharmacovigilance. She is highly skilled in the medical and clinical assessment of early and late-stage product candidates. As a member of ObsEva’s Executive Committee, she provides strategic leadership on the Company’s overall development strategy and frequently represents ObsEva to investor, Key Opinion Leader(KOL), and other key stakeholders.

From 2014 to 2019, Dr. Garner was Chief Medical Officer of Agile Therapeutics, located in Princeton, NJ. She played a crucial role in Agile’s 2014 Initial Public Offering and was instrumental in the company’s investor relations, communications, and business development strategies. Dr. Garner led the Phase 3 clinical development of Twirla®, Agile’s low-dose contraceptive patch, and managed the $35 million budget for the 2000-subject SECURE trial. Dr. Garner was subsequently the core presenter and moderator for the October 2019 Bone, Reproductive and Urologic Drugs Advisory Committee (BRUDAC) FDA Advisory Committee Meeting. Following a strongly negative FDA recommendation, she achieved a 14:1 positive committee vote, which led to FDA approval of Twirla® in February 2020. She also led Agile’s pre-launch activities, including promotional review, medical affairs, KOL development, and the pharmacovigilance and medical information programs.

Prior to Agile, Dr. Garner was Vice President of Medical Affairs for the Preventive Care Business Unit at Myriad Genetics, where she managed the women’s health research, publication, and KOL development programs, provided medical and scientific input on Myriad’s marketing and new product strategies, and directed an experienced team of Field Medical Specialists. She also served as Myriad’s media spokesperson. Before that, she was Senior Director at Abbott Laboratories, where she oversaw all clinical aspects of the global Phase 3 endometriosis development program for elagolix (Orilissa®), which was approved by the FDA in 2018.

From 2007 to 2011, Dr. Garner was Associate Director, then Director of Clinical Research at Merck Research Laboratories. As a leader on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine program, she was instrumental in achieving successful outcomes on important regulatory submissions. Dr. Garner also served as chair of the Gardasil®9 HPV vaccine program Product

Development Team, leading scientific, regulatory, global access, and medical affairs strategies. Dr. Garner was the core presenter and moderator for the successful 2010 Gardasil® FDA Vaccines and Related Biological Products (VRBP) Advisory Committee Meeting. She also had substantial involvement in commercialization strategy and KOL development and participated in due diligence on infectious disease and women’s health products.

Dr. Garner received joint M.D. and M.P.H degrees from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. She was trained in obstetrics and gynecology at Brigham and Women’s/Massachusetts General Hospitals and completed a fellowship in gynecologic oncology at Brigham and Women’s/Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Prior to entering the pharmaceutical industry, Dr. Garner was Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, where she focused on academic clinical practice, basic science research in ovarian cancer, and teaching and mentorship of trainees and medical students.She is an author on numerous peer-reviewed scientific papers, has extensive experience as a media spokesperson, and is a frequent panelist and speaker on a range of topics including healthcare and women’s leadership.

Dr. Garner is a member of the Board of Directors (BOD) of Kezar Life Sciences, a publicly traded company focused on the development of new therapies for autoimmune diseases and cancer. She serves on the board’s audit and clinical strategy & execution committees. She is also on the Boards of Sermonix Pharmaceuticals, developing targeted therapies for breast

cancer, and Pharm-Olam, a global Contract Research Organization. She is on the BOD and serves on the audit committee of the Drug Information Association (DIA), a member-driven organization for global healthcare product development. She also serves on the BOD and is treasurer and chair of the finance committee of the American Medical Women’s Association, a

professional organization which functions at the local, national, and international level to advance women in medicine. She is also on the Board of CorStone, a global non-profit organization focused on resilience in youth. Dr. Garner was a 2018 honoree at the Executive Women of New Jersey’s Salute to the Policy Makers gala, which recognizes executive women

leaders across all industries. She was a 2019 awardee of the PharmaVoice 100 Most Inspiring Individuals in the life sciences industry.

What is it like being a Black woman in medicine? 

Being a black woman in medicine is wonderful as every day there are opportunities to represent and to advocate for women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as to highlight the need for greater investment in women’s health. Being a woman in medicine has its challenges for sure, and those challenges are even greater for black women in medicine. Again though, as someone who has successfully navigated through these challenges, I have the privilege of being an advocate for women who are earlier in their careers or considering a career in medicine.

What advice do you have for young women who may be on the path to medicine?

It is very important to believe in yourself, your goals, and what you have to contribute. It is also essential to have supporters around you that you can lean on when you need it. Where there is a will there’s a way, so be persistent and use your experiences of adversity to make you stronger.

 

Anna Vardapetyan

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