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

BlogHer Original Post

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.

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