Edwards, Willarda V.

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Willarda V. Edwards

1951–

Physician, association director

"Awareness is one thing, action is another," Dr. Willarda V. Edwards once told Crisis contributor Frankie Gamber regarding health disparities. Her phrase perfectly captures Edwards' approach to her own work as an internist and as an active participant in numerous national health and medical associations. From the beginning of her career, Edwards committed herself to action. She has worked in service to her patients in Baltimore since 1984; in service to her fellow physicians through her more than a dozen years as an elected official in the country's largest medical associations; and on behalf of her community at large through her work as National Health Advocacy Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and, most recently, as the President and Chief Operating Officer of the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America.

Intrigued by Medical Career

Born in Fort Meade, Maryland, on December 22, 1951, to a U.S. Army computer specialist and a public school counselor, Willarda Virginia Edwards grew up with two older brothers. Edwards traces her interest in becoming a doctor to a particularly vivid struggle she had at age five with her brothers over a toy bag. Her mother had offered her two sons the doctor's bag and her daughter a nurse's bag. Edwards coveted her brothers' gift. "The three of us fought over it until I finally got the doctor's bag," Edwards told Nikitta A. Foston of Ebony. Edwards developed a more serious focus on a medical career in high school. There she joined a Health Career Club and learned that a career in medicine could combine her interest in the sciences and her enjoyment of people. Several other factors led her to choose being a doctor over a nurse, according to her interview with Tracey Gatewood in the Afro-American Red Star. "I kind of thought maybe being a nurse would be fine," Edwards remembered about her opinion before doing some research at a health career fair in the ninth grade. "Then I started looking through the book at some of the salaries and said well maybe I'll be a doctor." Moreover, her work as a nurse's aide during her senior year in high school cemented her goal to become a doctor when she realized that nurses had to follow doctors' orders even if they did not agree with them. Edwards determined that she would prefer to be the one making the decisions.

Edwards completed her high school education in El Paso, Texas, where her family had moved when she was 11. She then studied premed at the University of Texas at El Paso and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1972. Edwards won a Navy scholarship to attend medical school and entered the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where she graduated in 1977. Her studies led her to become an internist, a medical doctor who concentrates on preventing, diagnosing, and treating diseases that affect adults. Edwards then completed her residency in Baltimore.

Her medical career officially began in the U.S. Navy, when she served four years on active duty in the Annapolis Naval Clinic. She later spent six months at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where she became chief of the Internal Medicine Department. She completed her active duty in 1984 with the rank of commander; she remained in the Naval Reserves until 1998.

Fresh off active duty, Edwards opened a private practice in Baltimore in 1984. By 1991 she had partnered with Dr. Theodore A. Stephens and their practice flourished and grew to include more than ten employees. Edwards even earned an M.B.A. from the Loyola College of Baltimore in 1999, which helped her manage the growing practice.

Committed Herself to Community Service

Before long, Edwards realized that her successful medical practice was not enough; she determined that she could do more for her community than simply treat her patients. She thus set out on a course that had her devote part of her time working through medical associations to improve the lives of her patients as well as those of her fellow physicians. Edwards had long known the power of medical associations. As a medical student in 1973, she had joined the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), a branch of the National Medical Association dedicated to increasing the voice and the numbers of black medical students. Through the association Edwards networked with black doctors who encouraged her. When Edwards herself became a physician, she remembered her own mentors' encouragement and became a mentor to incoming medical students. Moreover, she committed herself to nurturing ties throughout the medical and political communities. Edwards told Health Quest contributor Anita Womack she learned that "in unity, there is strength."

Edwards took that notion of unity further than anyone before he, as she became the first person to straddle the divide between the NMA and the American Medical Association (AMA). After attending her first AMA meeting in 1994, Edwards ran for and was elected president of her local chapters of both the AMA and the NMA later that year. She was the first person to hold both offices at once, and was the first African-American female to hold the presidency of the AMA chapter, the Baltimore City Medical Society. Edwards set clear goals for her work in the associations. "I think that my biggest emphasis as president of both societies is the need for physicians to be better organized," she told Gatewood, explaining that "the societies are the way to get the people together and harness our forces." Moreover, Edwards considered her leadership positions a way of "fighting against the idea of the 'old boy network'," which she considered a detriment to the society by making physicians feel that the organization was "not inclusive" and "not doing anything for them." Edwards determined to make the organizations she worked for inclusive, active, and successful.

At a Glance …

Born Willarda Virginia Edwards on December, 22, 1951, in Fort Meade, MD. Education: University of Texas El Paso, BS, 1972; University of Maryland School of Medicine, MD, 1977; Loyola College, MBA, 1999. Military service: U.S. Navy and Navy Reserves, 1974–98.

Career: U.S. Naval Academy Medical Clinic, internist, 1980–84; Internal Medicine Private Practice, managing partner, 1984–; University of Maryland School of Medicine, assistant dean of the Office of Minority Affairs and Faculty Development, 1997–99; NAACP, National Health Advocacy Director, 2001–2004; Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, president and COO, 2004–.

Selected memberships: American Medical Association, various elected positions, 1994–; Monumental City Medical Society, president, 1994–1996; Baltimore City Medical Society, president, 1995; National Medical Association, Chair of the Board of Trustees, 2002–2003; MedChi, Maryland State Medical Society, board of trustees, 2001, president 2004.

Awards: Liberty Medical Center, Person in Medicine, 1995; Zeta Phi Beta, Women of the Year in Health Service, 1997; State of Maryland, Top 100 Women Award, 2003.

Addresses: Medical Practice—1005 North Point Blvd., Suite 724, Baltimore, MD 21224. Association Office—Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, Inc., 231 East Baltimore Street, Suite 800, Baltimore, MD 21202.

After serving her terms in these two top positions in Maryland medical societies, Edwards continued her activism. She held national positions in the AMA and NMA for more than a decade. She served in such capacities as Maryland delegate to the AMA, AMA treasurer, Vice Chairperson of the Women's Congress of the AMA, and chair of the board of trustees for the NMA. She coupled her national focus with state and local level work. She was appointed to commissions and task forces by Maryland governors, including the Maryland High Blood Pressure Commission, the Maryland Task Force to Study Patient and Provider Appeal and Grievance Mechanisms, and the Health Services Cost Review Commission (HSCRC), for which she served as commissioner from 1994 to 2002. Her work on these commissions and task forces gave her great experience in the nuts and bolts of legislative work. She was also a mentor at her local Big Brothers and Sister Club.

Driven to Take on Challenges

Edwards became the national health advocacy director of the NAACP in 2001, and by 2002 had already started promoting a strategic plan to push for the elimination of health disparities in America. She outlined the plan in Health Quest in 2002, and summed up its goal thusly, "Now with the health disparities reports confirming that African-Americans are suffering disproportionately from poor-quality medical care and clearly are disproportionately affected by cancer, diabetes, heart disease and HIV, we have even more momentum. We need to harness this momentum and elicit everyone's support and focus on improving the health of our communities." The plan she outlined was not small; it called for more African-American physicians, cultural training for non-African-American physicians, universal health coverage, and revisions to the proportional expenditures on health problems at the federal, state, and local levels. For the three years Edwards served as health advocacy director, she oversaw regional and national efforts toward these aims.

In characteristic fashion, Edwards soon found more challenges to tackle. In 2004 she took on two new ones. That year she became the president of Medchi, the Maryland State Medical Society, the second female and second black elected to the office. During her one-year term, Edwards pushed the Maryland legislature to consider the devastating impact of medical malpractice insurance policies on the medical community. While doing so, she also took on the presidency and chief operating officer positions at the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. Edwards explained her decision to leave her position at the NAACP for the SCDAA in an interview with W. Thomas Carey of the Medical Alumni Association of the University of Maryland: "I put in my application, and they saw my activities at the NAACP and the NMA and the financial turnaround at the NMA and recognized that they needed those qualities. I saw this as another opportunity to do more especially right here at home." About her new position Edwards wrote on the SCDAA Web site: "I am delighted with the opportunity to bring my experiences in clinical practice and organized medicine together to work for an improved SCDAA. My goal is to raise awareness to the continued dangers of sickle cell and to increase funding for research and treatment to the level of other blood disorders." Since assuming her position, Edwards brought her energies to bear on the SCDAA mission to support efforts to find a cure for sickle cell disease and to advocate for improvements in the quality of health and life for those affected by the disease.

Throughout her career, Edwards, a single woman, remained fully focused on the difference she saw between "awareness" of a problem and the "action" needed to solve it. As she continued to treat her patients, serve in various positions in national, state, and local medical associations, and work for the SCDAA, Edwards was consistently a woman of action. "It is very clear that whatever I do," she explained to Carey. "I try to do the very best and make a difference."

Sources

Periodicals

Afro-American Red Star, June 17, 1995, p. B1.

AMA Voice, November-December 2002, p. 6.

Crisis, November-December 2004, p. 54.

Daily Record (Baltimore), November 9, 2004.

Ebony, August 2003, p. 66.

Health Quest, July 31, 1995, p. 30; May 31, 2002, p. 19.

On-line

"Alumna Profile: Willarda V. Edwards '77," MAA, www.medicalalumni.org/bulletin/winter_2005/alumni.htm (January 30, 2007).

"Maryland's Top 100 Women," Maryland Daily Record, http://216.183.118.80/events.cfm?fuseaction=eventDetail&eventID=5&winnerID=629&pageContent=winnerBio (January 26, 2007).

Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, www.sicklecelldisease.org/index.phtml (January 30, 2007).

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