(Interview) Present and Unaccounted For: Black Women in Medicine

4 years ago

When you think of a doctor, what image comes to mind? Is it a black woman? That's the question filmmaker Crystal Emery poses to viewers through her upcoming documentary Present and Unaccounted For: Black Women in Medicine. The film profiles many groundbreaking women, including the first black woman to serve as Surgeon General, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, along with current Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. I recently caught up with Emery to find out more about this unique project.

BH: Could you begin by explaining what led to your interest in the subject of black women in medicine?

In November 2010, Dr. Forrester Lee at Yale Medical School approached me to ask for my assistance with creating a video to honor the first three African American women to graduate from Yale Medical School. The video would be included as part of the medical school’s bicentennial celebration. I agreed and so in December, I accompanied Dr. Lee to New York where we met Dr. Doris Louise Wethers. Dr. Wethers had graduated from Yale in 1952 and was one of the graduates being honored. When I met her, I was amazed to see this phenomenal, petite woman. Her work on sickle cell anemia was a key factor in extending the life expectancy of sickle cell patients from 18 years to over 50 years. This was groundbreaking work in the medical field, and I had never even heard of this woman! I was fascinated.

On January 9, 2011, I accompanied Dr. Lee to Washington to meet Dr. Beatrix Hamburg. Dr. Beatrix was the first African American woman to graduate from Vasser in 1944 and the first African American women to graduate from Yale Medical School in 1948. I was amazed at the stories that she shared about her life. I thought it was beautiful that she was still married despite the difficulties that she and her husband dealt with. They were married during a time when both of them were in medical school and they were an interracial couple (he was Jewish) during a time when this would have been socially difficult.

One of the unifying themes that struck me in conversations with both of these women was that they did not allow race, gender or economic status to hinder them from achieving their goals. The following day I met with Dr. Velma Scantlebury, the first African American female transplant surgeon. We met at a Boston Market restaurant in Delaware because it was the only nearby location that was wheelchair accessible. Dr. Scantlebury and I spent three hours sharing and talking about her journey. Can you imagine being the first African American woman organ transplant surgeon, (an awesome one at that!!) and not even know that you are?

The synergy of these three conversations made me realize that we needed a way to tell the stories of these amazing woman that many people had never heard of. I felt the call to produce a documentary to tell the inspirational stories of these unsung heroes who are certainly present but unaccounted for.

Watch a preview of Present and Unaccounted For: Black Women in Medicine

BH: You interview some very high-profile women in your documentary, such as Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin. What kind of reaction did you receive from your subjects when you approached them to be part of your film?

My journey of this film in this respect is kind of unusual. When I first started doing the research I looked up the “African American female firsts” across a number of medical disciplines. I began contacting the women who held these titles: Dr. Alexa Canady, Dr. Barbara Ross Lee, Dr. Claudia Thomas, etc. The response from them was generally positive. However, I did notice that there was an undercurrent of suspicion. I had to prove myself both personally and professionally in many ways. I had to prove to them that I was honest and upfront about my intentions with the information I was seeking from them and that I could be trusted. I also had to show them that I had the professional experience and expertise to create a great documentary. I had to gain their trust, first and foremost, so that they would feel comfortable engaging in open and honest dialogue about their lives and the issues that they faced as female doctors in professions where they were the gross minority.

Once we got past these parts, some of which was difficult, the rest is wonderful. I have developed strong lifetime relationships with these women. Meeting them and interviewing them was just an eye-opening experience. Although it was difficult getting the interview with our current Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, because of her high profile status and her rigorous schedule, the payoff was so powerful. She has such a good heart and her story is fascinating. She went to school to be a chemist and had no interest in being a doctor, but look at where she is today. Her interview was so inspiring and moving I wish more people could experience the real her. She is someone who is genuinely concerned with the quality of care and improving the lives of Americans today.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, from Present and Unaccounted For

BH: So sharing the inspirational stories of these black women who broke barriers is a big part of your film, but another theme in Present and Unaccounted For is that the absence of African Americans in medicine can result in oversights in diagnosis and treatment. Who do you hope will watch your film?

I want anyone with a heartbeat to watch this film. This film is not limited to one section of the community. It is for educators who have soft expectations for women and people of color. It is for all women because the playing field is not equal.

One of the central ideas of treating illness is that physicians must treat the whole person. This is why cultural sensitivity becomes a key factor in the relationship between doctors and their patients. This is why it is important to recruit minority doctors because of their ability to be culturally sensitive and their propensity for returning to work in their own communities where this disparity is felt more acutely.

Understanding certain cultural patterns and habits can assist in better diagnosis and treatment. The ugly truth still remains that African Americans are the least likely to be receive heart catheterizations for myocardial infraction. Numerous studies done by the National Institutes of Health and the American Medical Association support this. There was actually one study done where doctors were given patients with nearly identical histories and symptoms except one set was characterized as African American and the other was white. In every case, after chart review the white patients were recommended for heart catheterization at a higher percentage than their white counterparts. This also ties into the intervention rates for African Americans before amputation. African Americans exhibit the highest amputee rates for complications from other physical illnesses such as diabetes. These patients were less likely to receive less critical interventions before amputation is performed. Cultural issues permeate the health care profession and are interfering with doctors ability to treat minority patients fairly and effectively.

The main target audience for this film is young people, particularly young women of color. I am concerned about the images that all Americans see concerning African American women. There is an overabundance of images and media portraying African American women as oversexed, undereducated and material-obsessed people. This film presents a counter to those images as these are sophisticated, professional women who have worked hard and met success despite obstacles that may have been in their path. These women have not only made their own lives better but have excelled at the healing arts and improved the lives of people and the effectiveness of the medical system itself.

Women still are not fully embraced on surgery levels. This film is to educate all those who still think a woman’s place is only in the home, and all those who think we are not smart enough. And every woman who doesn’t believe she can transcend her current situation.

I believe that everyone needs to see this documentary. It cannot be put into a strict category because at its core, this is a documentary about the American Dream and the triumph of the human spirit. These themes transcend all boundaries of race, class and gender.

BH: There are many inspirational stories in your film, and also a lot of stories which reflect challenges. How do you feel about the outlook for black women in medicine, after the work you have done?

I think the Civil Rights struggle is an ongoing struggle. Although women have made significant advances there are still a lot of places where the playing field is not even. My purpose is to use this film to inspire more young women to go into the field of medicine, not just as gynecologists and pediatricians, but in other more obscure specialties that are still male dominated.

Prior to Present and Unaccounted For: Black Women in Medicine, I produced my first feature length documentary, The Deadliest Disease in America. Through this project I learned a great deal about overt and subtle racism in the health profession. Although this has not necessarily been my personal experience as I have an exceptional cohort of doctors that provide me care.

Present and Unaccounted For taught me about the power of being a woman. The greatest part of this journey, for me, is learning about the lives of black women doctors. Most of my own doctors are male, but the women in this film are so brilliant. They are so brilliant in fact that it made me feel brilliant just to be in their company. To top it off, their stories are just amazing. Take Dr. Claudia Thomas, the first African American woman orthopedic surgeon who has battled cancer and had two kidney transplants, yet, she continues to practice. Who would not be inspired by such a story of selflessness, commitment, and an indomitable will.

Still from Present and Unaccounted For

BH: You have raised quite a bit of money to produce this film, but that you still need funds to complete it. Can you explain what the reaction has been like and what hurdles you face?

It is always difficult raising money for voices that are not heard. There are very few projects that paint a positive picture of the African American culture. Perhaps if this was a documentary about some negative aspect of African American culture the financing would have come differently.

Filming, even with all our great technology, is a very expensive process. We filmed open heart surgery in Washington, kidney transplant in Delaware. These were not low-budget captures. When we filmed Yale Medical School graduation it was a three camera shoot. Also, having so many locations elevates this project to a major undertaking.

Another major factor is packaging the film so that the right people understand the value of the images in media and how this film can positively influence the younger generation. These women’s stories have value, not just as part of the canon of African American achievers, but because they have made significant contributions to the science of medicine—and this affects us all.

Films are a process, they go through different phases. As the film has gone through these different phases, we have grown. For example, in our original treatment the film did not end with the young women graduating from medical school. This was a change that happened in a stage of growth later on. Even though this increased the budget for the film, it gave the film a more powerful presence. Seeing this young women graduating is priceless.

BH: What's next? When will production wrap up? And when and where is the documentary scheduled to be shown?

The next phase is post production. We need to raise $200,000 for the total completion of the film. After post-production we also need financial support for the national education tour.

Post production should begin in July and be finished by November. After completion, we look forward to a possible airing by APT (American Public Television) in 2014.

To help us in our endeavor to complete this film, please go to the URU The Right to Be website to make a donation. Big, small or in between, anything you contribute will move us closer to our goal. I always say it takes a whole village to raise a child and by working together, I know that we can raise the finishing funds for the film. This is an important and timely work that will change belief systems by inspiring, educating and demonstrating the triumph of the human spirit.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.

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