Still against all odds: 'Black Women in Medicine'

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Crystal Emery (center) is pictured with (from left) Medical School Dean Dr. Robert Alpern; Dr. Gary Desir, chair of the Department of Medicine; and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp. (Photo by Michael Benson Photography)

Dr. Velma Scantlebury was well into her career on the day that she walked into a patient’s hospital room to review his pre-operation procedures. The patient asked to see his surgeon. “I am your surgeon,” Scantlebury told him.

In Florida several years ago, a journalist wrote a newspaper column expressing deep gratitude to his surgeon, Dr. Claudia L. Thomas. Upon first meeting Thomas, the journalist wrote, he assumed that she was his dietary consultant.

Scantlebury, now associate director of the Kidney Transplant Program at Christiana Care in Delaware, and Thomas, now in private practice in Florida, broke racial and gender barriers as the first black female transplant surgeon and first orthopaedic surgeon in the United States, respectively. The women, along with five other trailblazing black physicians, recounted stories of prejudice and triumph in the documentary “Black Women in Medicine,” shown on April 26 at the School of Medicine. The movie combines interviews with the physicians and historical footage of civil rights marches and protests from the 1960s and 1970s.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” said one of the interviewees, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper who became the first black female U.S. surgeon general. Her comment underscored the film’s message: More black female doctors are needed in the nation’s hospitals and clinics to serve as role models.

One audience member, Dr. Krystal Buchanan, a Yale diagnostic radiology resident and the only black woman in her residency group of 54, saw parallels between her experiences and those of the women profiled in the movie. “Everything that happened in the movie, I thought, ‘Wow, that was me last year, or even two days ago,’” Buchanan said.

“This project is unique because we are documenting history, creating history, and changing the future.”

—  Crystal Emery, producer and director, “Black Women in Medicine”

The movie is part of a national initiative called “Changing the Face of Medicine,” led by URU The Right to Be, a nonprofit formed by Crystal Emery, the film’s New Haven-based producer, director, and editor. Through film screenings and community outreach, the initiative aims to increase the percentage of black doctors in the United States to 7% by 2030. Black Americans make up about 14% of the population, but only 5.5% of nation’s physicians and surgeons, according to a 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

“This project is unique because we are documenting history, creating history, and changing the future,” said Emery.

The idea for the film came to Emery in 2010, as Yale’s medical school celebrated its bicentennial. Dr. Forrester Lee ’ 79 M.D., associate dean for multicultural affairs, asked Emery about the possibility of producing a short film of interviews with the school’s first black female graduates. In one of her earliest interviews, she sat down with Dr. Beatrix A. (McCleary) Hamburg ’48 M.D., the first black woman to graduate from the School of Medicine. Emery also spoke with Dr. Doris L. (Wethers) Booker ’52 M.D., a pioneer in treating sickle cell anemia. “I realized it was my charge to tell the stories of these women,” she said.

In the beginning, Emery said, she had no idea the film would cost upwards of $800,000, require travel to seven different states, and take nearly four years to complete. Emery, who earned her M.A. at The New School in New York, barely mentioned the near-insurmountable challenges she faced due to severe muscular dystrophy that has left her a quadriplegic. “When I roll into a room people see a black woman with wild hair in a wheelchair,” she told the audience. “I never know which prejudice I might be dealing with.” Education, she said, remains paramount in breaking down engrained biases.

Two breakout workshops that followed the film screening were designed to be a step toward that education. One group, led by Amos Smith, president and CEO of Community Action Agency of New Haven, discussed how to jumpstart the initiative in communities. The other session, led by Maureen Hunter, a 1979 graduate of Yale College and a practice leader with the IBM Leadership Academy, covered recruitment issues for black women in medicine. 

Thirty minutes into the discussion, Hunter had collected several action points: incentivize mentorship, lower financial barriers to medical school, and teach health disparities as part of medical school curriculum.

Hunter also asked workshop participants to identify the points of power within the medical school structure, such as deans, chairs, and department heads. “Change has to come from higher up,” she said. By the end of the workshop, the participants expressed hope and resolve tempered by the knowledge that there is no immediate answer to increasing diversity.

At the School of Medicine, Dean Dr. Robert J. Alpern, the Ensign Professor of Medicine, recently announced the creation of the school’s Committee on Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice, which will develop programs and initiatives in education, research, and faculty recruitment. The committee’s goal, he wrote in a message to the medical school community, is to “promote increased diversity among trainees and faculty, foster an inclusive environment that values the contributions of all members of our school, and advance social justice in our broader community.”

The film “Black Women In Medicine” will be shown on American Public Television in fall 2016. For more information visit

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