My mother was quite the academic. She went to Queens College and was first in her class with a degree in biology. She met my father there. He comes from a family of Southerners, from South Carolina and Georgia, and they ended up in Queens because of racial discrimination. He often talks about the bus rides down south during the summer to visit. Once they passed the Mason-Dixon line, he would have to get up from the front of the bus and walk to the back, to the colored section. And I always admired how his father would never miss a day to vote, even when he had terminal cancer and had to be carried up the stairs in his wheelchair by my father and uncle.
After college, my mother decided to go into the military. She was in the Army for quite some time, and then she came back home, raised me and worked as a postal worker. She unfortunately died very young, at the age of 38.
I was young when my mother passed away. I don’t have all the details which still is haunting for me. The hospital she died in no longer exists, but I remember how cold it felt. I always think, what if she had gone to another hospital? Would the experience have been different with more resources? She was young, beautiful, smart, and just really taken too soon.
A lot of people have similar stories, right? So, it certainly does impact how I look at the doctor-patient relationship and how I look at community health in general. It really reinforces my mission to provide access to care and pay attention to areas of need, as part of my work at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine.
I am proud to be an avenue where voices of the Black community can be heard. We have to be mindful of how unconscious racial biases can influence how Black people perceive health care. I think if we look at people in a humanistic way, we’ll be able to overcome some of those barriers. That’s why having a direct partnership with communities is so important. The programs I’m a part of here, specifically around doulas, community health workers, mobile health units, paying attention to the social determinants of health, mentoring young students of color — it all helps.
I often hear my grandmother’s voice when we talk about things like health equity, diversity and inclusion, local health, global health — it’s a collaborative effort. And that resonates, because my grandmother was very much out in the community. She preached, she sang, she taught, she did everything. She was determined to follow her own path. And I’m just so appreciative that she did that, that she broke the mold.
This Black History Month, I want to recognize how Black people have persisted and are thriving. It’s a time to be full of pride and recognize how people have moved forward. And what I really love to hear about are the everyday lives — that’s what we really need to celebrate. I’m raising a son, a little Black boy, and I want to teach him about his ancestors and share our family stories with him.
I remember the first time I delivered a baby. I was living with my father’s brother in Miami, Florida, where I did my residency. And my uncle, he was just so proud. He used to count how many deliveries I’d do, and even years later, he’d ask me, “So what’s your number now?” And I’d say, ‘Man, Uncle Earl, I stopped counting. And now I teach others how to do it.”
He passed away a few years ago, and now I think back about how wonderful it is that I had the opportunity to come full circle, to respect the legacy of so many who have come before me, and now be able to help thousands of people at the beginning of life.