Michigan surgeon general
In February of 2003, Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom rose to the top of her profession when she was appointed surgeon general of the State of Michigan—the nation's first state surgeon general. For more than 30 years, Dr. Wisdom, an emergency-room physician, researcher, and public-health advocate, devoted herself to promoting preventative medicine within the black community. As surgeon general she launched a public-health promotional campaign and led the state's disease-prevention efforts. Wisdom and Governor Jennifer Granholm made racial and ethnic health disparities a strategic priority for the state.
Fought Racial Discrimination
Kimberlydawn Edmunds was born on October 8, 1956, in New London, Connecticut. She grew up in the predominantly white town of Mystic, Connecticut, where her father, McKinley Hoff Edmunds, Jr., an architectural engineer, worked on the design of the first atomic submarine. Her mother, Florence Jackson Edmunds, was a homemaker whose goal of becoming a nurse had been interrupted by marriage and a family that included young Wisdom, her twin sisters, and a brother. No one in Mystic would sell a black family a house or land, until a white farmer sold the Edmunds some land as revenge on a neighbor. McKinley Edmunds turned the barn into a home for his family.
Wisdom knew from early experience the benefits of helping others. Her mother often suffered with migraine headaches and ear problems, and as a youth Wisdom learned to care for her. By the age of seven, Wisdom knew that she wanted to be a doctor. But her road to that goal would be difficult. In school Wisdom experienced racism. Her sixth-grade teacher told her not to take French because she would never have the opportunity to visit France. In her 1998 presentation "Into the Heart of Darkness," Wisdom recalled her guidance counselor warning her that there was "no such thing as a black doctor," that she would never succeed as a physician, and that she should pursue a career that reflected her race and gender. However her parents supported her ambitions and the high-school classmates who had once harassed her elected Wisdom class president.
Wisdom learned how much she could accomplish by speaking out. After enduring racial discrimination at the hands of YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association) camp counselors, Wisdom—who had been elected YWCA representative for the Eastern Region—traveled with a group of girls to New York City where they picketed the national YWCA board meeting. In response, the board invited them into the meeting with Wisdom as their spokesperson. At the age of 14, she became a member of the YWCA National Board of Directors. Wisdom told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that this experience "had a very great influence on my future career."
Specialized in Emergency Medicine
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978, Kimberlydawn Edmunds married Garth A. Wisdom, a mechanical engineer who later became a financial planner. She also entered the University of Michigan Medical School as one of a few black female students.
After earning her medical degree in 1982, Wisdom joined the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan, where she remained for more than two decades. She trained as an emergency room physician and became board-certified. Eventually Wisdom held dual appointments as a senior staff physician and researcher. In 1988 she joined the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School and the following year began studying at the university's School of Public Health, where she earned her master's degree in clinical research design and statistical analysis in 1991.
Whereas Wisdom's early research focused on emergency and internal medicine and medical education, in the 1990s she began concentrating her efforts on health issues within the black community. Between 1996 and 2000, Wisdom directed the National Institutes of Health Community Liaison Core of the Resource Center for Minority Aging Research. During this period she also investigated medical-treatment effectiveness with the Agency for Healthcare Policy Research.
At a Glance …
Born Kimberlydawn Edmunds on October 8, 1956, in New London, CT; married Garth A. Wisdom, 1978; children: Garth A., Jr., Kristina, Brandon. Education: University of Pennsylvania, BS, Biology, 1978; University of Michigan Medical School, MD, 1982; Henry Ford Hospital, intern, internal medicine, 1982–83, resident, emergency medicine, 1983–85; University of Michigan School of Public Health, MS, 1991.
Career: Henry Ford Health System, Detroit, MI, senior staff physician, 1985–, Center for Medical Treatment Effectiveness Programs in Diverse Populations, researcher, 1995–02, Institute on Multicultural Health, founder and director, 2003; University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, Department of Medical Education, instructor, 1988–95, assistant director, academic programs, 1990–97, assistant professor, 1995–; Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, assistant professor, 1997–02; University of Michigan, School of Public Health, adjunct assistant professor, 2003–; State of Michigan, Lansing, Surgeon General, 2003–.
Selected memberships: American College of Emergency Physicians, fellow; ADA, Task Force to Revise the National Standards for Diabetes Self-Management Education Programs, Diabetes Education Program for Pharmacists, Michigan Affiliate Board of Directors and Minority Affairs Committee; American Medical Association; American Public Health Association; Michigan State Medical Society, Concerns of Women Physicians, Public Awareness Committee.
Selected awards: University of Pennsylvania, Onyx Senior Honor Society, 1978; Crain's Detroit Business, Healthcare Heroes Award, 2002; National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs, Inc., National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Award, 2003, 2005; Detroit Community Health Connection, Inc., Community Health Warrior Award, 2005; Morehouse School of Medicine, honorary doctorate, 2005.
Addresses: Office—Office of the Surgeon General, Michigan Department of Community Health, 201 Townsend St., Capital View Building, 7th Floor, Lansing, MI 48913.
Addressed Racial Disparities in Healthcare
Wisdom often treated black patients with medical complications from diabetes. Her initial study documented the disparities in blood-sugar levels among black and non-black patients with diabetes. In 1998 Wisdom told the African American Women on Tour conference in Detroit, as quoted in the Michigan Chronicle: "There is no such thing as 'borderline' diabetes caused by a touch of sugar—you have it. One person dies every 1.2 hours from diabetes. African American bodies have insulin resistance; sugar needs to get into the cell. Newly diagnosed diabetes is devastating, especially in the midst of amputating a foot or leg when it could have been prevented. Ninety-five percent of diabetes care is self care." Wisdom led the establishment of the Detroit chapter of the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and she worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on diabetes care.
Wisdom created and directed the African-American Initiative for Male Health Improvement (AIM-HI). With an outfitted van, AIM-HI staff visited churches, fraternities, and even barbershops, screening black men for diabetes and high-blood pressure and educating them about the effects of these diseases. Although geared toward men, about half of those screened were women. The results were worse than Wisdom had imagined. About one-third of the 7,000 adults required follow-up testing and care. Federal funding enabled AIM-HI to open two centers in Detroit that offered screening for diabetes, hypertension, stroke risk, and eye disease, as well as follow-up care and access to primary healthcare. Classes and support groups were established for diabetes and hypertension self-management, nutrition, and fitness training.
In 2003 Wisdom obtained grant money to establish the Institute on Multicultural Health. She told CBB that she was most proud of her accomplishments with AIM-HI and this new institute, as well as her early research publications on emergency medicine and her later research documenting racial disparities in healthcare. Her article "The Healing Process: Reflections on African American History and Diabetes Care" was based on the presentation "Into the Heart of Darkness" in which Wisdom and a white colleague presented pictures and personal stories of healthcare inequalities to a predominately white audience. This risky undertaking was so well-received, Wisdom told CBB, that it "set the stage for future presentations on understanding cultural racism."
Appointed State Surgeon General
Upon being named surgeon general, Wisdom was given the opportunity to promote preventative medicine throughout Michigan. As the state's chief public health officer, Wisdom told CBB that she saw herself as "the people's doctor" with responsibility for utilizing the best scientific data and resources to improve public health, work with legislators and policy-makers, and build partnerships to promote the health of the state's citizens. She told CBB, "two-thirds of healthcare costs and deaths are due to chronic diseases and the etiology of these diseases is unhealthy lifestyles."
As of 2005, almost 40 percent of black men in Michigan died before age 65 and black infants were almost three times as likely to die as white infants. In 2004 Wisdom directed the development of "Michigan Steps Up," a statewide healthy lifestyles campaign that called for preventative measures including exercise and healthier food in schools and workplaces. As a result of her 2004 report on the health status of Michigan residents, Wisdom was able to create "A Prescription for a Healthier Michigan," which dealt with protecting families and communities, eliminating healthcare disparities, and promoting healthy lifestyles. She also established the "Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention" initiative and focused attention on HIV/AIDS, tobacco use, infant mortality, unwanted pregnancies, school health programs, and access to healthcare. The Michigan Chronicle quoted Wisdom in May of 2004: "Too many Michigan residents are uninsured, including children and working adults. Too many lack health care coverage or are unable to get medical care; and too many Michigan residents have no personal healthcare provider."
Following Wisdom's appointment, other states began to consider creating surgeon-general or equivalent positions. Wisdom told CBB that state surgeon generals could help promote healthy lifestyles by reaching out to community advocates who can "empower themselves to create environments that support healthy behaviors."
Wisdom authored many reports and research publications and was the recipient of numerous honors and awards. She told CBB that in the future she hoped to use her research, publications, speaking engagements, and teaching to have an even greater impact on the health of underserved communities.
(With M. D. Rush and S. Winslett) "Diabetes Mellitus," in Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide, 5th Ed., McGraw Hill, 2000.
"Crossing Boundaries," Diabetes Spectrum, Vol. 8, No. 5, 1995, p. 310.
(With others) "Comparison of Laboratory Test Frequency and Test Results Between African-Americans and Caucasians with Diabetes: Opportunity for Improvement," Diabetes Care, Vol. 20, No. 6, June 1997, pp. 971-977.
"The Healing Process: Reflections on African American History and Diabetes Care," The Diabetes Educator, Vol. 24, No. 6, 1998, pp. 690-700.
"Strategies for Community Participation in Diabetes Prevention: A Detroit Experience," Ethnicity and Disease, Vol. 13, No. 3, Supplement 3, 2003.
Crain's Detroit Business, August 26, 2002, p. 12.
Health & Medicine Week, May 24, 2004, p. 502.
Lansing State Journal, November 26, 2005.
Michigan Chronicle, June 28, 1998, p. 1-C; May 28, 2003, p. C2; October 20-26, 2004, p. B1; September 7-13, 2005, p. A6.
"Into the Heart of Darkness: Reflections on Racism and Diabetes Care," Michigan Diabetes Research and Training Center, www.med.umich.edu/mdrtc/education/profedu.htm (February 10, 2006).
"Michigan's First Surgeon General," Michigan Department of Community Health, www.michigan.gov/textonly/1,2964,7-132-65525-,00.html (February 10, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom on February 26, 2006.