How this Barbadian broke barriers to become the first Black woman transplant surgeon in U.S.

Ama Nunoo May 27, 2021
Dr. Patricia Scantlebury is a trailblazer holding the door for other Black women to be transplant surgeons. Photo: New Pittsburgh courier

Dr. Velma P. Scantlebury has been a force advocating for more females, especially Black female transplant surgeons in the United States. She set out to be a role model for the female surgeons in training ever since she learned after her qualification that she had become the first Black female transplant surgeon in the country.

“It was not until my third year in Pittsburgh as a junior attending that word spread about me being the first black female transplant surgeon. Realizing that there were no others before I was a daunting acknowledgment: many women had paid a price for freedom, to get an education, to attend medical school, and even to become a surgeon.

“I was now a transplant surgeon—the first in my family to attend college, and the first to be a black transplant surgeon. Such a status never meant much to my parents, I was just following God’s plan for my life” she told Transplant Journal.

Black female doctors are a minority in the male-dominated surgeon profession but due to her remarkable achievements as a transplant surgeon and the many doors she has opened for other women and women of color, the numbers of African-American female transplant surgeons have risen steadily over the years.

“My success is due in part to the many others who broke down barriers and pushed ahead despite the obstacles they faced. I was told in medical school that I “would not make it” as a surgeon. Here I am today,” she said.

“My goal is to encourage, educate and empower young women to aspirate to achieve their goals and to seek out positive reinforcement that would help build their self-esteem and determination to succeed.”

Scantlebury always had the needed support to grow into her full potential from her family, especially her mother and mentors. She was born in 1955 in Barbados and her family migrated to the United States when she was 15. They settled in New York in 1970 and the culture shock and prejudice were not subtle, according to Scantlebury.

Her high school counselor told her and others who looked like her to forget college and did little to nothing to guide them in the selection of schools. In short, they had low expectations of many of the Black and Caribbean students. A guidance counselor told Scantlebury to “forget college and get a job in a hospital.” She however went ahead to pursue higher education.

Scantlebury got a full 4-year scholarship to Long Island University where she graduated with honors and a degree in biology before heading to Columbia University for her pre-med. She continued to face many prejudices and racism but she got some mentors who supported her to earn her medical degree. Scantlebury’s first outside school job experience was at Harlem Hospital Center in New York City where she did an internship and residency in general surgery.

The mother of two, whose daughters are now adults, took her fellowship training in transplantation surgery at the University of Pittsburgh. She then joined the university’s School of Medicine staff in 1989 as an assistant, and then an associate professor of surgery.

Her zeal to impart knowledge led her to accept an offer to serve as professor of surgery and an assistant dean for community education for the University of Southern Alabama in Mobile in 2002.

Scantlebury is passionate about research to better the chances of African Americans in the area of “pregnancy and reproduction after transplant, FK506 in pediatric and adult kidney transplantation, and post-transplant [sic] hypertension.” She also loves to do charitable work providing opportunities to underprivileged and underserved families, according to the University of South Alabama.

The 66-year-old is a member of the American College of Surgeons and has served as vice-chairperson of the African-American Outreach committee at the National Kidney Foundation of Western Pennsylvania, per Capitol Technology University.

She has earned many awards over the years including the National Kidney Foundation’s Gift of Life Award for her work in transplantation among minorities and the American Society of Minority Health and Transplant Professionals Lifetime Achievement Award. Also, Scantlebury was included on the “Best Doctors in America” and “Top Doctors in America” lists many times.

“My goal is to encourage, educate and empower young women to aspirate to achieve their goals and to seek out positive reinforcement that would help build their self-esteem and determination to succeed. My advice to other transplant surgeons in training is to never doubt yourself or your capabilities. You have chosen this field because of your love for surgery and transplantation. While others may question your level of surgical skills, know that women can make better surgeons, with equal or better talent and accomplishments.”

Her contributions to society span across her successful transplant surgeries, mentoring, books, and teachings. She has performed 2,000 transplants, published 86 peer-review research papers, written 10 monographs, and sold 1,200 books according to her website.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: May 27, 2021


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