Transplant Surgeon Works To Improve African Americans’ Lives

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Dr. Velma ScantleburyDr. Velma Scantlebury

Why she is a local hero: Scantlebury is working to increase the number of minorities who are organ donors and to bring more minorities into the field of organ transplant surgery.

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The story is simultaneously sad and hilariously funny.

Scantlebury, the first Black woman to become a transplant surgeon in this country, was headed in to surgery with a patient whom she had never met. Because of the emergency nature of transplant surgery, a patient’s regular doctor may not be the one performing the transplant. The patient first noted that Scantlebury was a woman. Next, he noted that she was Black.

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“Please, please, please don’t kill me!” The frightened patient said, “I have a young daughter,” Scantlebury recounted to a group of young women during a summer program, according to Western Pennsylvania Hospital News.

As the first Black female transplant surgeon, Scantlebury is used to odd questions. Still, she has also been incredibly successful in her career, performing more than 200 live donor kidney transplants. Now, Scantlebury is out to bring more minorities to the field but also looks to increase the number of minorities who are organ donors.

According to the U.S. Department of Health’s Office of Minority Health:

Minorities make up 54 percent of those on the organ transplant list but [are] only 33 percent of those who receive transplant surgery. African Americans comprise the largest group of people in need of a transplant at 29 percent, but make up only 14 percent of donors. And because of a greater incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure among African Americans, we are more at risk for organ failure. Organ types are more likely to match if they come from individuals of the same ethnicity.

Scantlebury is working to break down the mistrust that African Americans have of the medical establishment, including the belief that doctors won’t work as hard to save your life in an emergency situation if you are an organ donor — the legacy of the Tuskegee experiment linger even until this day.

At Delaware’s Christiana Care Health System, where she heads the division of transplantation, Scantlebury is doing research to increase the life span of organ donor recipients. She also works with Linkages to Life.

“My passion,” she told Ebony Magazine, “is to educate the African-American community and to empower dialysis patients with the knowledge and understanding that they, too, can have a better life through the gift of transplantation.”

Scantlebury is also committed to increasing the number of minorities and women in her field so that future generations won’t have to deal with patients concerned about their doctor’s sex or race.

“I’ve always said that I would not retire until there are at least 10 other African-American women in transplantation,” said Scantlebury.

So far, there is only one other, but don’t doubt what a determined woman like Scantlebury can accomplish.

As for the patient concerned about her race and sex, Scantlebury ultimately prevailed.

“He did well. And we have become friends since that day,” she told the roomful of young women.

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