Welcome to the third post in our series Voices from #BlackWomenInMedicine. To learn more about our mission to support Black women in medicine, we encourage you to read our first blog post in the series as well as part two. Black female doctors represent only 2% of physicians.1 It is our hope that by sharing stories, perspectives and wisdom from this 2%, we will inspire change so that underrepresented minorities are presented with ample opportunities to follow in their footsteps of making medicine their career. We also hope this blog series brings an invigorated appreciation for Black female physicians who have made it their lives’ work to improve the health of others, regardless of race. #PathTwitter has a unique and strong presence on the web and we hope you will take the opportunity to share this blog post and amplify these voices while reflecting on how you can bring equality to medicine.
We had the honor of communicating with Dr. Valerie A. Fitzhugh for a Q&A on her career and her experiences as a Black female in medicine. Dr. Fitzhugh is an associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Pathology, Immunology, and Laboratory Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
When and why did you choose to pursue medicine?
“I originally wanted to get a PhD in biological oceanography. I even did a summer internship at the Rutgers University Marine Field Station in the summer of 1998 (which looking back was one of the greatest summers of my life). At one point during that summer, grant submissions were due, and I noticed how stressed everyone was during that time. When I asked about it, I learned that people’s jobs hinged on whether or not they got grants. That scared me right out of the field. I loved science, and I knew I wanted to make a difference, so I decided to focus my studies toward medicine. I took the MCAT and was fortunate enough to get into several medical schools.”
And how did you get into pathology?
“Pathology happened by accident. I had been an athlete for as long as I can remember, and in college I was a four-year letter winner in varsity NCAA Division 1 fencing at Rutgers University. I have always loved sports. It seemed natural for me that I would become an orthopedic surgeon. So, I worked toward that. My step scores were very good, and I was a competitive applicant. My first exposure to the practice of pathology was during my fourth year acting internship in orthopaedics. I was amazed by watching the pathologist make frozen section diagnoses that guided the orthopaedic oncologists’ management. I thought what she did was inspiring. I was sorry I hadn’t been exposed to pathology sooner, but I assumed I was going to be an orthopaedic oncologist. I had 18 interviews. What could possibly go wrong? I didn’t match into orthopaedics. So, I decided to make a complete career change and I scrambled into pathology. My entrance into pathology was very different from that of most pathologists, but it was the best thing for my career. I have zero regrets.”
Dr. Fitzhugh is currently interim chair. In addition to serving in this outstanding role, she is the first black woman to chair a pathology department at New Jersey Medical School where she earned her MD. What’s more, she is the third black woman to chair a pathology department at any academic U.S. institution. “The first was Vivian Pinn, MD, who was Chair of Pathology at the Howard University School of Medicine. I have had the good fortune to be able to correspond with Dr. Pinn as I have taken on this role. I appreciate her ear. The second was Patricia A. Thomas, MD, who was Chair of Pathology at the University of Kansas; sadly, she passed away in 2015. The third is me; while I am interim now, I do aspire to chair a Department of Pathology as a permanent chair someday.”
How does one get through the difficult days of not only being a Black female physician, but a physician in general?
“My family has always been my biggest cheerleaders. They have been so supportive of me through everything; through the long days and long nights, through the tears, and through the ups and downs. They have been there for me throughout my disappointments as well as my successes and I will always be grateful for them. I have wonderful mentors in both pathology and in medical leadership (whom I will spare the embarrassment of naming here) who have always seen my potential and have always believed in me. One of the things that makes it easier to go through the day to day of being a physician is having a core of people around you who believe in you and support you.”
As you have advanced in your career, what types of discrimination have you faced?
“I have had people say things to and about me that are distinctly untrue; such as, ‘You got (insert good thing here) because you are Black.’ I have been asked if I was an affirmative action hire. I have been told I can be “token” in spaces which have been devoid of Black pathologists. Sadly, the better you do, and the more prominent you become, the more people seem to think that things are handed to you simply in the name of diversity. The microaggressions occur almost daily, and on some days, multiple times each day.”
What words of wisdom do you have for Black women in medicine and Black women pursuing medicine?
“As a Black woman in medicine, you go through a lot. That said, as Black women, we are desperately needed in medicine. Patients need to see us. Medical students need to see us. The only way we will be seen is if we are there. We can have an important voice but we have to be present to have that voice. Each one of us has awesome potential but it will not be realized if we are not there. Yes, there will be times where people’s biases will affect you. However, you have to rise above it and know that you are capable. Never forget that you are in medicine because you are brilliant and compassionate, just as brilliant and compassionate as everyone else who has the honor to practice.”
Pathology, and medicine in general, is not diverse. How can we change that?
“Tough, tough question. I think it is important to shatter the stereotypes surrounding pathology. It is an incredible field filled with kind and brilliant people. The biggest problem I see is that it is often not considered medicine when in fact it is the cornerstone of medicine. And no, you don’t have to be “weird” to do it (full disclosure, most doctors are quirky regardless of specialty. This is not a bad thing. I think it adds to the uniqueness we bring to our careers). One of the biggest issues I see with recruiting those underrepresented in medicine into medicine and particularly into pathology is the low numbers of us in academia. Outside of the pediatricians most children see, they have little to no exposure to other doctors. In addition, that doctor may not be a person of color. So, when underrepresented students reach medical school, they often do not see physicians that look like them. I have made it my mission to try to expose underrepresented kids as young as I can to faces like mine. I want them to see that they can achieve what I have achieved. I have talked to kids as young as 4 and 5 years old about being a pathologist and what we do. It is my hope that by exposing children young, they might get excited about pathology as adults. I am not sure if it will work; only time will tell.”
We would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to Dr. Fitzhugh for talking with us. To other Black women in medicine, we’d like to share your story in our Voices from #BlackWomenInMedicine series. Please email Kristin at firstname.lastname@example.org or message us on Twitter at @instapathbio. Stay tuned as we continue this series in the coming weeks.
Built on the vision of better patient outcomes, Instapath was founded in 2017 by engineers and scientists to enable patients to immediately know their cancer diagnosis. Our team made it our mission to develop fast and easy digital pathology technology so diagnosis can be made in minutes instead of days. To learn more about Instapath and our technology, visit https://instapathbio.com or contact us at email@example.com.