In 1989 Dr. Velma Scantlebury-White became America's first black female transplant surgeon. In her 16 years at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and subsequently at the University of Southern Alabama (USA), Scantlebury dedicated herself to increasing the number of kidney transplants for black patients. She took the lead in educating black Americans about donating organs and tissues for transplantation, and as of 2007, she had performed more than 800 cadaver and 200 living-donor transplant surgeries in children and adults. Scantlebury had coauthored more than 100 research publications, monographs, and book chapters and was twice named one of the America's Best Doctors.
Overcame Racism and Sexism
Velma Patricia Scantlebury was born on October 6, 1955, in Barbados, West Indies, the daughter of Delacey Whitstanley and Kathleen (Jordan) Scantlebury. The family immigrated to the United States in 1970 when Velma started high school, hoping that she would have access to a better education. They settled in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Velma's interest in medicine began at an early age, with the death of an older sister, and her family encouraged her to pursue her ambitions. By 1972 she was working as a volunteer at King County Hospital in Brooklyn. However, Scantlebury told the Alumni News of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons: "High school was terrible. My potential did not come forth, and I was viewed as a quiet nerd." A guidance counselor told her to forget college and get a job in a hospital. But Velma did not take that advice. She won a four-year scholarship to the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University, where she majored in biology and pre-med and graduated with honors in 1977. Despite her academic accomplishments, when she was accepted at prestigious medical schools some of her professors and fellow students attributed it to her being a token black.
It was not much better at Columbia University, where her professors and fellow students refused to believe she could do such excellent work on her own. Fortunately Scantlebury believed in herself, and she received support from the Black and Latino Student Organization and Dr. Margaret Haynes, director of the Minority Student Office. Dr. Kenneth Forde, another black Barbados native, mentored Scantlebury, and they coauthored a research paper during her final year of medical school.
During her first year of medical school Scantlebury had decided to become a surgeon. She told the Alumni News: "While everybody else seemed eager to get out of the anatomy classroom, because of the smell, I was fascinated by all the connections…the nerves and muscles and circulatory system…. It was a really big turn-on for me to go from body to body and study the different functions and abnormalities." The surgery faculty at Columbia tried to discourage her. Her preceptor offered to recommend her for pediatric training instead. At a panel discussion of black transplant surgeons, reported in Awareness magazine, Scantle- bury recounted, "I was told that my hands were too small and I was the wrong color." She told the Alumni News: "Small hands can be better than big hands in surgery, especially when you're working on kids." And Scantlebury was stubborn: "I had to force myself to be aggressive…Maybe I chose to always be up against another hurdle, maybe that's what makes me thrive. I don't like being bored."
Scantlebury spent the next five years as an intern and resident in general surgery at Harlem Hospital in New York City. There she found a mentor in Dr. Barbara Barlow, director of pediatric surgery. "She was very encouraging," Scantlebury told the Alumni News. "She led me, taught me, gave me advice, groomed me, and told me I needed to do research." During her third year of residency Scantlebury spent six months assisting Dr. Mark Hardy in his research on kidney transplantation in animals. Her interest shifted from pediatric surgery to transplantation.
Specialized in Pediatric Transplantation
In 1986 Scantlebury was awarded a research fellowship at UPMC to work with Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, a pioneer of liver transplantation. She spent the next two years in the clinic. She told the Alumni News that "It really was the boot camp of fellowships." Because of the high mortality in pediatric transplant patients at the time, it was emotionally devastating work.
Scantlebury told the American Medical Student Association that the most difficult part of her training was her "inability to be accepted as an equal as a woman in surgery…we still have to prove that we are just as good and even better than the typical male surgeon." Scantlebury told the Post-Gazette in 1998: "I think there are certain doors that are not as open when you're female. The only way things are going to change is if we have more numbers. With greater numbers, hopefully, there'll be greater opportunity."
Scantlebury joined the faculty at UPMC in 1989. That same year she married Dr. Harvey White, a professor of public and international affairs and later president of the American Society for Public Administration.
Scantlebury's landmark research focused on pregnancy following transplant surgery. At the time women were discouraged from becoming pregnant after a transplant because of the possible effects of post-transplant drugs on the fetus. So Scantlebury studied the incidence of premature births and birth defects among women who were already pregnant at the time of their transplant. Her results showed that women should wait at least 12 to 15 months after their transplant before becoming pregnant. Other aspects of Scantlebury's research included viral infections in kidney-transplant recipients, post-transplant high blood pressure, and the use of the drug FK506 (tracolimus) for preventing kidney rejection.
At a Glance …
Born Velma Patricia Scantlebury on October 6, 1955, in Barbados, West Indies; married Harvey White on November 4, 1989; children: Akela, Aisha. Education: Long Island University, BS, 1977; Columbia University, MD, 1981. Politics: Democrat.
Career: Harlem Hospital Center, New York, NY, surgical intern, 1981-82, surgical resident, 1982-86; University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute, Pittsburg, PA, fellow in transplantation surgery, 1986-88, transplant surgeon, 1988-2002, UP School of Medicine, surgery instructor, 1988, assistant professor of surgery, 1989-94, associate professor of surgery, 1995-02; University of South Alabama Medical Center, Gulf Coast Regional Transplant Center, Mobile, AL, director, USA Hospitals, chief of transplantation, USA College of Medicine, professor of surgery, assistant dean for community education, 2002-.
Selected memberships: American College of Surgeons, fellow; American Society of Minority Health and Transplant Professionals, board member; National Kidney Foundation, Medical Advisory Board, African-American Outreach Education Committee, co-chair; National Minority Organ and Tissue Transplant Education Program, board member; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Advisory Committee on Organ Transplantation.
Selected awards: American Society of Minority Health and Transplant Professionals, Lifetime Achievement Award; Seton Hall College, Honorary DSc; National Kidney Foundation, Gift of Life Award, 1998; Long Island University, Honorary DSc, 1998, Alumni Award, 2001; United Negro College Fund, Hall of Fame Achiever Award, 2003.
Addresses: Office—Regional Transplant Center, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL 36688-0002.
Despite her heavy workload Scantlebury always found time to speak to school, church, and civic organizations. In 2002 she received the Greater Pittsburgh YWCA's Commemorative Award in recognition of her work empowering women and girls and eliminating racism, her commitment to volunteerism, and her accomplishments impacting Pittsburgh and beyond.
Promoted Organ Donation among Blacks
At UPMC Scantlebury helped establish a living-kidney-donor program. She studied the outcomes of organ donations and transplantations among black Americans and evaluated factors that contributed to the lower rates of long-term kidney survival among black transplant recipients. She looked for ways to increase organ donations in the African-American community through awareness and education. In 1997 the New Pittsburgh Courier quoted Scantlebury as saying, "Parents of young murdered men should consider donations so that death would not be so senseless."
Scantlebury told the New Pittsburgh Courier in 2002 that "African Americans have higher rates of hypertension and end-stage renal disease. There's a disproportionate number of us on the kidney waiting list for this reason. African Americans alone make up 35 percent of the national kidney waiting list. In certain regions, it's more like 50 or 60 percent, so there's a great need for African American organ donors." As an organ donor herself, Scantlebury told the Courier, "When I die, it's not my body that will rise again, but my soul…. Why not give your organs to someone who needs them?"
In 2004 Scantlebury became national spokesperson for Linkages to Life, partnering black transplant surgeons with black churches nationwide to encourage black Americans to donate organs, tissues, and bone marrow. In a USA press release Scantlebury said, "The organ shortage in this country is a medical crisis, especially in the black community, where the need is greatest…We're working hard to dispel myths about donation. People fear that donors don't receive proper treatment if they're sick, or that organs are distributed first to the rich or famous. It's not true."
Blacks with kidney failure were also less likely to be referred to a transplant specialist and Scantlebury believed that this might reflect institutional racism. She told the Post-Gazette in July of 2002 that "It really boils down to making sure the patients are well informed of their choices and that assumptions are not being made about how well they are informed."
Moved to South Alabama
The USA Regional Transplant Center in Mobile had been established in 1996 by former UPMC fellow Dr. Ferdinand Ukah, a native of Nigeria. However following Ukah's death the Center had floundered. The Mobile area had one of the highest rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in the country and as of 2005 more than 2,000 state residents were awaiting kidneys, with less than 300 transplant surgeries occurring per year. In 2002 Scantlebury was named the Center's new director. She told the Alumni News: "I wanted to make it work, in part because this was my friend Ferdinand's dream and, in part, because it was a new challenge and time to move on."
As assistant dean for community education at the USA College of Medicine Scantlebury continued to work toward reducing healthcare disparities among blacks, who constituted about two-thirds of her patients. Her husband had been named director of the USA Center for Healthy Communities and she was the principle investigator on a Center grant to research issues of health disparities in the development, diagnosis, and treatment of diabetes, obesity, nutrition-related disorders, hepatitis C, gallbladder disease, H. pylori infection, sickle-cell disease, kidney disease, and renal complications from infection with HIV.
In a 2007 address reported in the Virginian Pilot, Scantlebury said that some patients still asked her for their "real" doctor or assumed that she was a nurse and asked her to change their bedpan. "I remember one patient in Pittsburgh who didn't want to be transplanted by me," she told the Alumni News "And I said, ‘I'm okay with that.’ I got to the point where I saw it as their loss, not mine, just ignorance on their part."
Received Many Honors
The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Scantlebury gave frequent presentations and lectures at professional meetings and public forums and was often interviewed for documentaries and radio and TV programs. In 2007 she was featured in an exhibition by the National Library of Medicine and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.
Scantlebury wrote the introduction to Ebony magazine's 2006 issue celebrating the accomplishments of black women: "This is a celebration of all those women—young, old and in between—who are characterized by their selflessness, their strength, their sacrifice, and their indomitable spirit. They are women who—individually and collectively—have helped to shape and form the solid foundation of not only Black America, but America in general."
Scantlebury herself continued to act in such a manner. She saw herself as holding the door open for other women to join her efforts. "I've always said that I would not retire till there are at least 10 other African-American women in transplantation," she told the Alumni News. As of 2007 there was only one other.
(With others) "Pregnancy and Liver Transplantation," Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 76, No. 6, December 1990, pp. 1083-1088.
(With others) "Improving Results of Pediatric Renal Transplantation," Journal of the American College of Surgeons, Vol. 179, No. 4, October 1994, pp. 424-432.
(With others) "Outcome of Kidney Transplantation in African-Americans Using Tacrolimus," Transplantation Proceedings, Vol. 29, No. 8, December 1997, pp. 3731-3732.
(With others) "BK Virus: Discovery, Epidemiology, and Biology," Graft, Vol. 5, December 1, 2002, pp. 19-28.
(With Women's Health Committee of the American Society of Transplantation) "Reproduction and Transplantation," American Journal of Transplantation, Vol. 5, No. 7, July 2005, pp. 1592-1599.
"The Insider," Ebony, Vol. 61, No. 5, March 2006, p. 10.
Ebony, March 2006, p. 92.
New Pittsburgh Courier, February 22, 1997, p. B3; April 17, 2002, p. A9.
Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), September 8, 1998; July 23, 2002.
Virginian Pilot, February 7, 2007, p. B2.
"Alumni Profile: Velma Scantlebury: Kidneys are Colorblind: An African-American Woman Transplant Pioneer," Alumni News and Notes,http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/news/journal/alumni.html (October 26, 2007).
"Dr. Velma Scantlebury," American Medical Student Association,http://www.amsa.org/surg/transp_int1.cfm (Octboer 26, 2007).
"The Nation's Black Transplant Surgeons Bring a Message of Heritage, Hope and Healing to New Jersey," Awareness Magazine,http://www.awarenessmagazine.net/page37.pdf (October 26, 2007).
"New Frontiers in Academic Surgery," Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons,http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/aframsurgeons/newfrontiers.html (October 26, 2007).
"USA Transplant Surgeon Leads National Effort to Increase African American Organ Donations," USA Health System,http://www.southalabama.edu/usahealthsystem/pressreleases/2004pr/111204.html (October 26, 2007).