Photo Credit: Tima Miroshnichenko
How This Barbadian Became The First Black Woman Transplant Surgeon In U.S.
Dr. Velma Scantlebury-White became the nation’s first Black woman transplant surgeon in 1989. It wasn’t a title she was intending to aim for at first.
“It was not until my third year in Pittsburgh as a junior attending that word spread about me being the first black woman transplant surgeon. Realizing that there were no others before I was a daunting acknowledgment: many women had paid a price for freedom, to get an education, to attend medical school, and even to become a surgeon.”
To date, Dr. Scantlebury-White has performed more than 2,000 transplants. In a field that’s dominated by white males, Dr. Scantlebury-White said had to overcome many obstacles as a woman and a woman of color.
“I think for women it’s even harder because they have a double strike,” she said. “Rather than overt racism, there’s now what they call micro-aggressions and implicit bias.”
Born in Barbados in 1955, her family moved to New York City in 1970. She attended Long Island University-Brooklyn, graduating with honors and degrees in biology and pre-med. She later earned a medical degree at Columbia University, where she met Barbara Barlow, M.D., a pediatric surgeon at Harlem Hospital in New York, who became her mentor and ultimately helped Scantlebury-White focus her career in surgery.
“There are many more women in general surgery, but moving into a field such as transplant becomes difficult in finding support,” Scantlebury-White told UNOS. “One of the things we’re actually trying to get is continued mentorship and sponsorship from program directors, who play a role in making sure the fellows get the best experience possible and also get embraced when they’re in their training years.”
She has been advocating for doctors of color and organ donation within the Black community since but says there are some challenges with achieving equity access.
“One of the issues we see is the delay in getting to the waitlist, especially in a lot of rural areas,” she said. “Another issue involves disparities. There’s still a difference in those who are being transplanted with living donors, in terms of people of color vs. Caucasians.
More than 20 years ago, she said she would not retire until there were 10 other Black women in transplantation surgery. There are 12 now, by her count, but wants to see more.
“While I congratulate those who were able to make it through, we do need a better support system. The challenges are not as bad as they were 30 years ago when I was training, but they still do exist. We have women out there, and we have more in the pipeline who are coming along.”