Breaking Down Barriers in Transplant Surgery: Velma Scantlebury, MD, FACS

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Dr. Mary Hines, president of Carlow University, thanks Dr. Velma Scantlebury following her presentation to the high school girls attending Carlow’s Prepare to Care Summer Workshop.

Under the best of circumstances, a surgeon prefers that a patient enter the operating room as calmly as possible, but Velma Scantlebury, MD, FACS, recalls one patient where there was little she could do to pacify him.

“This was in 2000, while I was working on the transplantation team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center,” recalls Dr. Scantlebury, who is currently the associate director of the Division of Transplantation at Christiana Care Transplant Center, in Delaware.  “The nature of transplant surgery is that the patients and their families don’t always get to meet the surgeon prior to surgery.”

This might have been one of those times when not meeting each other would have helped.  As Dr. Scantlebury and the team were moving one patient, who lived in Erie, from his room to the operating room, he suddenly looked up at her and said, ‘You’re a woman.’”

“Yes,” she replied.

“And you’re black,” the patient said, which Dr. Scantlebury calmly affirmed.

“Please, please, please don’t kill me!” The patient pleaded, gripping the sides of the gurney strongly enough to make his knuckles turn white.  “I have a young daughter.”

While Dr. Scantlebury can laugh about it now, the story illustrates one of the obstacles – if not the biggest obstacle – that women, particularly minority women, face in surgery:  overcoming the preconceptions that they are somehow inferior because they are not Caucasian males.

“There is a bias toward male surgeons,” says Dr. Scantlebury.  “It’s often a hindrance that keeps women from advancing in medical careers.”

This is just one of the points that Dr. Scantlebury sought to drive home to the high school girls attending Carlow University’s Prepare to Care summer workshop for those interested in a career in health care.

Dr. Scantlebury, who was born in Barbados and grew up in New York City, is the first African-American woman in the field of transplantation surgery, and one of only two African-American women transplant surgeons in the United States.  She was selected as one of the Nation’s Top Doctors in America for 2003, 2004, and 2006, and was honored with the National Kidney Foundation’s Gift of Life Award for her work in the field of kidney transplantation.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Long Island University, and her medical degree from Columbia University.  She completed her internship and residency in general surgery at Harlem Hospital Center in New York City, and completed her training in transplantation surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, from 1988 until 2002, under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Starzl.

Dr. Scantlebury moved to the University of South Alabama as director of the Gulf Coast Regional Transplant Center, and remained there until 2008 when she accepted the position at Christiana Care Hospital Systems.

In 1996, Carlow honored her as a Woman of Spirit®, an award that recognizes local, national, and international women whose successes inspire us and whose lives embody the values and mission of Carlow University.

In a question and answer session following her presentation to the girls at Prepare to Care, she was asked what advice she would offer to those who want to follow in her footsteps.

“Like what you do, and surround yourself with people who make a positive impact on you,” she told them.  And the patient from Erie who pleaded with her before surgery?

“He did well. And we have become friends since that day.”

Carlow University’s Prepare to Care summer workshop, which is sponsored by UPMC, is open to all high school girls entering grades 9-12 interested in exploring the healthcare professions.  It is one of three summer workshops Carlow presents annually, the others being “Summer Science Nation,” which explores careers in science, and EcoCamp, which focuses on environmental science.  For more information about how to register for next year’s workshops, please call Laurie Petty at (412) 578-8851 or via e-mail at ljpetty@carlow.edu.