In 1949, Dr. Helen Elizabeth Nash became the first Black woman to join the attending staff at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. That same year she was also one of only four Black physicians—and the only woman—invited to join the faculty at Washington University School of Medicine.
As a pediatrician, Dr. Nash spent her life advocating for and mentoring children and families through her private practice. She continued shattering racial and gender stereotypes throughout her career and became president of the Children’s Hospital staff in 1977. Her legacy continues to inspire many young Black women and men to this day.
Dr. Nash’s achievements are worth celebrating, but as a medical community we still have very far to go. According to the AAMC, in 2018 only 5% of active physicians identified as Black or African American, falling far short of reflecting the nation’s diversity. It is vital to continue amplifying Black voices in medicine so we can create the access and equity Dr. Nash spent her life fighting for.
Dr. Brittany Reid is a member of the Onsite team and is the Director of Neonatology at Hackensack JFK Medical Center in Edison, NJ. Dr. Reid also serves as Onsite’s Executive Director of Community Connections and works hard to improve equity in all of the communities we serve. She was gracious enough to take part in a short interview to share about her life and experiences as a Black woman in pediatrics which you can read below.
Dr. Reid, what made you want to pursue a career in medicine?
My maternal grandmother – she needed a triple bypass in the late 1990s and unfortunately experienced some complications afterward and required a prolonged hospital stay. I remember visiting her in the hospital and observing the physicians providing care… I was simply inspired by the work they were doing to improve my grandmother’s health. That experience… although stressful from a personal standpoint… sparked an interest in medicine and science that continued to evolve.
Why did you choose neonatology?
During my 3rd year of medical school, I chose to do an elective in the NICU and I fell in love with the world of neonatology. The patient population, the integrated work with families, the opportunities for both clinical and procedural tasks… everything just spoke to me and unlike other rotations, I found myself genuinely enjoying the experience. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I chose to do my acting-internship (AI) during 4th year in the NICU… and I believe I was the only person in my class to do so.
What obstacles did you experience along your journey?
In retrospect, although I attended wonderful educational institutions, there were a few people who did not provide advice with my best interest at heart. There were physicians who deterred me from applying to certain residency programs because they didn’t “think I’d fit in” or “I wasn’t in the top 10% of my class” and therefore, I shouldn’t try. Funny thing is… one of the institutions I was swayed from applying to ended up being where I attended for my neonatology fellowship. I now find myself wondering what may have happened if those conversations had gone differently… if those few doctors had encouraged me to apply and given me useful feedback for the application process. In the end, I know I was put where I was meant to be and I’m thankful that that experience didn’t discourage me from seeking admittance to other institutions later in my medical education.
Talk about your role as Executive Director of Community Connections.
I began this role in the Fall of 2020, and I’m grateful to have this opportunity. In this position, I’m seeking to explore ways that Onsite can better and more equitably serve our patients in the hospital, brainstorming ways to give back to the communities, and hoping to investigate partnerships to provide mentorship to those seeking a medical career. This will involve internal education within the company, building external relationships, and enhancing my own knowledge about current events and needs. Onsite’s vision is to optimize the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of families. I take that statement to heart and look forward to the ability to expand upon this vision to further elevate what our physicians do.
What barriers do you see to improving access and creating equity in our communities?
Health equity is intricately tied to other government systems – education, politics, homeownership, etc. A person living in a neighborhood with limited resources is more vulnerable to developing chronic diseases (i.e. hypertension, diabetes, etc) and is less likely to have access, education, and financial stability to receive the health care they need or to know how to advocate for themselves. Inexcusably, data has continued to show that the people who continue to be boxed into this situation are mainly people of color. The truth is that we need policy change on a government level to establish long-lasting impacts on strengthening health equity. However, I believe that there is promise for the future and if more physicians continue to act as advocates through lobbying, clinical research, patient empowerment, and community outreach, then positive change is inevitable.
Has Dr. Nash’s story had an impact on your life and career?
Dr. Nash was truly a trailblazer for Black women in medicine. Her, and others like her, helped bulldoze a path for future women of color to pursue medical careers. As a Black woman, it makes a difference to see and read about the impact and successes of people who look like you and who can more personally relate to certain experiences you may have. Her fervor and determination for medicine is admirable and it motivates me to step outside of my comfort zone to form my own path, leave a positive mark, and hopefully open new avenues for future Black physicians.
Talk about your experience as a Black woman in leadership.
Being a leader can be a rollercoaster, but in the end it’s very rewarding. Black physicians may make up approximately 5% of the active physician workforce, but the percentage of Black, female physicians is only 2% with those in leadership positions being even less. As a young, Black female in senior leadership, I feel as though I’ve accomplished a significant feat and been given the rare chance to thrive, make positive change, and give back to other Black women seeking medical careers. I’m grateful to be in this position and look forward to personal and career growth.
How can we create awareness for the problems that still exist around race in the medical community?
Communication and continued acknowledgement are key. Quite often we talk about issues for a period of time while they are a “hot topic” and then these problems die a quiet death as we move onto the next subject that’s sparked media attention. To have meaningful awareness that incites change, we have to keep the conversation going. Reviewing data, brainstorming interventions, discussing policy… whatever that conservation is, we can’t let it get snuffed out… otherwise, people slowly turn a blind eye, ignore the signs, and the problem is never solved.
What would you say to young Black women and men who are considering a career in medicine?
If medicine is your passion, stay firm in your course. Unfortunately, I can’t assure you that it’s an easy road… you will travel through some treacherous terrain. However, doing the following things may just get you to a place of happiness in your career:
- Find someone who you can confide in, who uplifts you, and who can provide honest, but constructive advice. True allies are a blessing and you’ll need that if you want to grow.
- Think, rethink, and revise your goals as you go through seasons. You will not be the same person as you are in medical school when you’re an attending. Your career will be an evolving process so don’t be afraid to change things around as needed to get you where you want to be. There’s not one right way to have a career in medicine.
- Think about ways to give back to other Black men and women who are pursuing medicine and encourage them to follow their passions as well. Representation matters and we’ll continue having a hard time increasing the presence of African-Americans in medicine if you don’t make yourself known.
- Don’t shy away from opportunities that take you away from what’s familiar out of fear or doubt. It’s the discomfort that will help you learn and evolve.
Onsite Neonatal is grateful to be a practice built upon a wealth of diverse individuals and experiences. By sharing their perspectives, we can work together to create greater access and increase equity in healthcare. Click here to read more about Onsite and our national private neonatal practice.