Velma Scantlebury has written an important book that covers a lot of the history of organ transplantation and underscores the difficulty of surgical training, particularly for black women. Beyond Every Wall –Becoming the First Black Female Transplantation Surgeon is a masterful and thoughtful self-published memoir, that is easily purchased on line. It is written in a series of reflections or essays, which is a good way to capture a rich, busy life.
CAVEAT: Velma Scantlebury is a long-time friend; my husband worked and trained with her in Pittsburgh, so the environment she describes is very familiar. I have always been in awe of her accomplishments and perseverance, but I can also hear her laugh as I read the book. If nothing else, Dr. Scantlebury demonstrates that it is possible to be a kind, warm and funny person and a world class surgeon in a pressure cooker environment.
This is the story of a strong woman who was raised by parents who pushed education and instilled a formidable work ethic and well-founded self-confidence. Dr. Scantlebury met barriers every step of the way, and yet she pushed on. Her willingness to admit that everything wasn’t always easy and that she didn’t always succeed at everything the first time is heartening and realistic. She is an inspiration for everyone and her honesty takes away some of the mystique of innate infallibility that some surgeons have been known to cultivate.
But wait, Dr. Scantlebury had two daughters in the middle of all this. My guess is she will never catch up on all the sleep she lost, particularly during their early years! Truthfully, the United States isn’t set up to accommodate or assist professional women who decide to have children and keep working. Nonetheless Dr. Scantlebury maintained her own course. That’s what professional working mothers do, in spite of the difficulties, and it’s about time they stop being judged adversely for it. For goodness sakes, lend a hand!
And then there is the issue of race. It wasn’t enough that Dr. Scantlebury worked tremendously hard, excelled at her profession and raised two daughter. She is black, and her book describes the pressure of dealing with racial prejudice and mean, stupid people, while at the same time raising a family and working insane hours in a high risk profession. She knows it wasn’t an even playing field — she trained with a lot of white men whose professional journeys had frequently benefited from privilege. Training to be a transplant surgeon isn’t easy for anyone, but Dr. Scantlebury’s race and sex presented inordinate and reprehensible obstacles. I’m in awe of her resilience and perseverance in sticking with it and getting where she wanted to go.
At the same time Dr. Scantlebury’s story is troubling, because she shouldn’t have had to face all these barriers. Her talent should have been recognized and nurtured from day one. Instead, she and too many women and people of color are told, explicitly or not, that they really don’t belong in their chosen profession and that they should do something that makes other people more comfortable. Whatever happened to helping children and young people develop and attain their goals? It is painful to think about all the girls and children of color who don’t push past these barriers. They lose out, and the world loses out because they may never get to contribute.
Dr. Scantlebury makes a big point of the mentors who helped her during her career and insists upon the obligation to mentor others. Throughout her career, she has reached out to help other women, and she’s clearly found it mutually beneficial. With the inspiration and concrete mentoring Dr. Scantlebury and others provide, let’s make sure women of color get the opportunities they deserve.