Thomas, Claudia Lynn
Claudia Lynn Thomas
As the first woman and the first African American to graduate from Yale Medical School's program in orthopedic surgery, Claudia Lynn Thomas is a role model for other women and minorities. She is committed to improving racial disparities in health care and has worked to increase the number of minority medical students recruited each year.
More than a medical practitioner, Thomas has also had first-hand experience as a patient. She survived life-threatening kidney disease that required extensive hospitalization and an eventual transplant. "I have a lot to say" about overcoming obstacles, she told Ken Morgan of the Baltimore Times. "I consider myself to be an instrument of God."
Parents Inspired Values and Goals
Thomas grew up with her parents and older sister in a modest neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. Her father, Charles Thomas, who died in 1981, had worked at various jobs during the Depression and eventually found work as a welder in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Thomas's mother, Daisy Edwards Thomas, had moved to the city from rural Mississippi with her family as a young child. Because she had dyslexia, she had been placed in vocational courses instead of academic ones. Nevertheless, Daisy valued education and made sure that her two daughters would not be denied opportunities that she had missed. Before her daughters began kindergarten, Daisy taught them letters and numbers to prepare them to excel in school.
Family life in the Thomas household was loving and stable. Charles, as Thomas described him in her memoir, God Spare Life, was "the spiritual leader of our household, and the church was our family's spiritual glue." Daisy was the creative inspiration, encouraging her daughters' intellectual and artistic development through books, home lessons, and outings to the Bronx Zoo and the Brooklyn Children's Museum. She arranged dance lessons for the girls, led their Girl Scouts troop, and volunteered at their public school. Both parents held high expectations for their children, and neither hesitated to discipline them when the girls broke rules. Though Thomas remembered being punished for misbehavior, she greatly valued the high expectations and moral standards that her parents modeled.
Thomas attended the High School of Music and Art, one of New York City's specialized schools. The school nourished her artistic talents, but also gave her a strong foundation in the humanities and math. On the basis of her excellent test scores, she was awarded a New York Regents scholarship as well as a National Merit scholarship. In 1967 she enrolled as a math major at Vassar College, an elite private school where she was among only a small number of black students. Though Thomas had always felt comfortable with white friends, at Vassar she felt increasingly isolated. Black students there, it seemed, would always be a tiny minority; the college was not interested in increasing black enrollment or in shifting the focus of its classical curriculum to reflect the interests of a more diverse student body.
Led Student Takeover at Vassar
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the spring of her first year helped to radicalize Thomas, and she returned to campus eager for change. She and other black students formed the Students' Afro-American Society (SAS), which pushed for the creation of a Black Studies program at Vassar. Though the college instituted the program in 1969, it was not possible to major in Black Studies, nor was it evident that the program's funding would be renewed after its first year. Thomas and others felt a growing urgency about the climate at the school. "During the 1960s many blacks were convinced that it would take an armed revolution to remove inequalities for people of color in the United States of America," Thomas recalled in her memoir. "As black students at Vassar, our beliefs were no different. That revolution was coming soon, and we wanted to be prepared." She and other SAS members secretly trained themselves in survival skills, and in October of 1969 they staged a takeover of Vassar's Main Building.
For three days they held the building, frightened but determined not to give in even if the authorities used force against them. Finally, the college agreed to accept all of their demands, chief of which were the creation of a Black Studies major and the hiring of more black professors. The resulting Black Studies program, according to Thomas, "became a model for colleges around the nation." Not only did it attract leading faculty members, but it also offered a six-week trip to Africa during which students visited seven countries on that continent. This visit, she recalled, "affirmed my link to a majestic, vast, and glorious land and its people, a link that had been missing all my life…. The ability to envision my African ancestry confirmed the importance of establishing a Black Studies program at Vassar College… The takeover of Main Building had been a moral imperative."
After graduating with honors in 1971 as a Black Studies major, Thomas began medical school at the Johns Hopkins University, earning her medical degree in 1975. She then began residency in the prestigious orthopedic surgery program at Yale-New Haven Hospital, becoming the first black person and the first woman admitted to the program. Yale's climate was far from welcoming, and Thomas sometimes became embroiled in controversy—as when she refused to sign the oath of office at the West Haven Veterans Administration Hospital, where she was required to do a clinical rotation, on grounds that she could not swear to support the United States against domestic enemies that might include African-American activists. She also boycotted a lecture given by a white physician from South Africa. But she also enjoyed the challenges of orthopedic surgery, including the physical strength required to move bones into proper place. After completing the program in 1980, Thomas worked a year as a fellow in the shock trauma unit of the University of Maryland Medical Center. She then began her orthopedic practice, joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins.
Survived Hurricane and Cancer
In 1985 Thomas married and moved to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, where her husband ran a contracting business. Thomas loved the island and her surgical practice there. But things changed in 1989, when Hurricane Hugo hit the island. Thomas and her husband waited in their boarded-up home while electricity went out, communications collapsed, and the storm—which became the costliest in U.S. history at the time—raged outside, tearing town trees and buildings in its path. "God, spare life," Thomas prayed, according to her memoir.
At a Glance …
Born on February 28, 1950, in New York, NY; married Maxwell Carty, 1985 (divorced). Education: Vassar College, BA, Black Studies, 1971; Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, MD, 1975. Religion: Christian.
Career: Yale-New Haven Hospital, New Haven, CT, orthopedic residency, 1975-80; University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore, shock trauma unit fellowship, 1980-81; Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery, 1981-85, 1991-; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, private medical practice, 1985-89; Maryland medical licensure board, part-time consultant, 1991-; Tri County Orthopedic Center, Leesburg, FL, partner.
Memberships: American Medical Association; Eastern Orthopedic Association, Yale Orthopedic Association, Newington Alumni Association, National Medical Association, Monumental Medical Association, Johns Hopkins Minority Faculty Association (president, 1983-85).
Addresses: Office—Johns Hopkins Hospital, 601 North Caroline Street, Baltimore, MD 21287.
Shortly after this devastating storm, Thomas's kidney disease, which had been diagnosed a few years earlier, suddenly worsened. Returning to Baltimore, she prepared for transplant surgery with her sister, Cathi, as donor. Tests, however, revealed a disturbing complica- tion: Thomas was not suffering from straightforward renal disease, but from cancer. Both kidneys had to be removed. Thomas was put on dialysis until she became healthy enough to endure the transplant procedure. It was a grueling 16 months, with her mother nursing her through many life-threatening complications. The surgery, a success, was finally done in September of 1991.
After her recovery, Thomas, now divorced, returned to work as an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. Though she no longer performs surgery she enjoys mentoring young surgeons. When asked where she has found the courage and strength to overcome obstacles and pursue her own goals in life, she answers that her family played a "tremendous role" but that "the ultimate source of my fortitude is faith" in God, according to the final chapter of her book. "The miracles that have occurred in my life," she added, "have taught me that through faith, nothing is impossible, and the degree of spiritual peace that this gives me in my everyday existence is something that I pray every human being will someday experience for themselves."
God Spare Life: An Autobiography, WME Books, 2007.
Thomas, Claudia Lynn, God Spare Life: An Autobiography, WME Books, 2007.
Baltimore Times, July 23, 2007.
"Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons," U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health,http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/aframsurgeons/newfrontiers.html#thomas (September 15, 2007).
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