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How Dr. Velma Scantlebury Became the First Black Female Transplant Surgeon

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In “Beyond Every Wall: Becoming the 1st Black Female Transplant Surgeon,” Dr. Velma P. Scantlebury, associate director of the Kidney Transplant Program for the Christiana Care Health System, recounts her journey from a childhood on the former British colony of Barbados to the United States, through her academic and professional life and the many challenges and triumphs along the way.

What originally motivated you to write this book?

My husband always kept telling me I should write a book from the time I was 50. I give a lot of talks and I mentor, and I find myself repeating a lot of the same stories about the obstacles I’ve faced just trying to pass on words of encouragement by using my own journey. It also made me realize that this would be something worth doing and I could use it as a way to encourage young people. So, a few years ago I decided I had to do this because I got older, I realized I’m starting to forget the fine details of a lot of this stuff, so I wanted to write it down quickly.

Did you primarily direct the book to younger people?

I think it’s a great story and I find that as I’ve encountered many people who have purchased the book it’s been appealing to all ages, who have given me lots of positive feedback and felt that it was helpful to them and also that they wanted others to read it, especially their children. Some of my colleagues would say, “Gosh, I never realized you went through all of that kind of stuff.” Sometimes you look on people and think they have it made, but what you see on the surface is really not what that person is experiencing.

Do you think it’s important for people to realize that even though you’ve reached a certain level of success, that those things didn’t come easily?

I remember these kids in medical school would always give me T-shirts and someone would write, “Our Professor is Super Woman.” But I didn’t feel like Super Woman. I was struggling as much in my own right to do all the things that I felt I needed to do and also felt encumbered and burdened by all the responsibility I had, and to still be able to meet the expectation of others. Sometimes that’s a hard road to travel, because others are looking to you for excellence and behind the scenes you are facing your own burdens and obstacles that you have to get over but don’t feel like people would understand because you project that image that the world was great.

How do you think your message resonates with young women who might not be getting the support from other people in their lives to pursue ambitious goals?

I think it’s important to know what it is you want to do. There was no doubt in my mind or my parents’ mind that I was going to college, yet still that wasn’t what others saw as my potential when I was in high school. And maybe it was because of several factors, but I’m glad for the support of my family who was there to push me on and say, “No, you’re not going to listen to those naysayers. You’re going to do what it is you want to do and figure out how to get there.” And I think it’s important for us as mentors, not only to young girls but young people, to let them know that they’re capable of achieving what they want to do, whatever that is, and know that there will always be those doubters, but that you need to believe in yourself and be determined and say, “At least I’m going to try.” You’ve got to learn to take risks and be grounded in your own confidence and sense of assurance. Find those people who are going to lift you up and let you know what is possible, those are the people you need to surround yourself with and who are going to elevate you and give you that sense of assurance so you’ll be willing to take that chance and be able to go to the next level.

“Beyond Every Wall: Becoming the 1st Black Female Transplant Surgeon,” is available at beyondeverywall.com.

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