As a transplant surgeon, Dr. Velma Scantlebury is working to increase the number of African-American organ donors.
Scantlebury is the nation’s first African-American transplant surgeon. The Barbados native is currently the associate director of the kidney transplant program at Christiana Care in Delaware. She has served as a national spokesperson for Linkages for Life, which partners transplant surgeons with Black churches nationwide to encourage African Americans to donate organs, tissues and bone marrow.
Scantlebury recently highlighted the importance of organ donation when she spoke at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine’s (PCOM) event titled “DREAM: Celebrating Diversity and Achievement in Medicine.”
“For African Americans, high blood pressure is the number one cause of kidney disease,” Scantlebury said.
“If you go into any dialysis unit you may find that at least half of the patients on dialysis — at least within inner cities will be African American.”
She said African Americans with chronic kidney disease are four times more likely than Caucasians to develop end-stage kidney disease.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost 35 percent of the 95,000 people on the national waiting list for a kidney transplant are African American.
“We make up 35 percent of those on the waiting list but in terms of organ donation, only 12 percent of the donor organs are from African Americans,” Scantlebury said.
To that end, she said it’s important that African Americans are educated about the urgency of donating organs and knowing that they can help save lives. Scantlebury says educating people can help dispel the myths and misperceptions that many have about organ donation.
“We try to get our patients to understand that while you are on are the list — you could be educating the community. The education may allow that person to benefit who is spreading the word. Also you may encourage people to practice better health habits,” she added.
While she focused on the importance of organ donation during her presentation at PCOM, Scantlebury also hoped to encourage students in attendance to consider pursuing a career in transplant surgery.
“As an African-American surgeon you hope that you can encourage the students to consider going into surgery and be a role model so that they know that this is something that they can achieve also,” she added.
PCOM’s Diversity officer Dr. Lisa McBride said the DREAM event was dedicated to the vision and life of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Ethel D. Allen, who was 1963 graduate of the college and first African-American woman elected to an at-large seat on the Philadelphia City Council.
“What we hope to accomplish is to not only to bring awareness of how important it is to be an organ donor but also to provide our students with the mustard seed of hope so that they know that regards of the challenges that they face here at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine that they can dream big and they should own ambition and be their own hero,” McBride said.
Scantlebury, 59, became the nation’s first African-American female transplant surgeon in 1989. She has performed more than 1,000 kidney transplants during her career.
She originally set out to become a pediatric surgeon, but she fell in love with transplant surgery while completing a fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh. She was awarded a research fellowship to work with Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, regarded as a pioneer of liver transplantation.
Scantlebury said the significance of becoming the first African-American female transplant surgeon didn’t dawn on her until after she completed her training and wondered where were the other women in her profession.
For those who are considering a possible career in transplant surgery, Scantlebury offers some words of advice.
“Really believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who have positive perceptions of what your abilities are,” said Scantlebury.
“Often times, some students get the negativity in terms of (hearing) ‘well maybe that is not for you,’ but if your heart is truly set and that’s what you want to do, have that determination.”
She says it’s important for aspiring surgeons to find mentors from various backgrounds to provide advice and help point them in the right direction.
Scantlebury earned her medical degree from Columbia University. She was an intern and resident in general surgery at Harlem Hospital Center. After completing fellowship training in transplantation surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, she joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine as an assistant professor of surgery in 1989. Prior to becoming the associate director of kidney transplant program at Christiana Care, she served as professor of surgery, assistance dean for community education and director of transplantation at the University of South Alabama’s Regional Transplant Center.