SSM Health surgeon hopes book inspires Black girls to become doctors

Aug 15, 2023


Dr. Jovita Ugochi Oruwari wants Black girls to see her.

She wants Black girls to see what's possible, that they can be successful, live full lives and help Black patients facing sometimes drastic health disparities.

Dr. Jovita Ugochi Oruwari meets with patient Dawn Patrick of St. Louis in July. Oruwari is a breast surgeon at SSM Health DePaul Hospital — St. Louis. She edited a book called Black Girls in White Coats, which features profiles of 60 Black female doctors.

Oruwari, a breast surgeon at SSM Health DePaul Hospital – St. Louis, edited a book that published this spring called Black Girls in White Coats. The book profiles 60 female doctors from around the country in different medical disciplines.

Black physicians make up 5% of the physician workforce, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Black women account for just under 3%. The nation's Black population is 14%.

Oruwari, 55, a native of Nigeria, attended college and medical school in the U.S. and has worked in St. Louis for more than 20 years. She was an oncologic breast surgeon for the Mercy St. Louis Cancer and Breast Institute, which is in a predominantly white area. When she moved to DePaul in 2020, and the majority of her patients were Black, she was struck by what she learned about disparities in medicine and the patients' experiences.

"It was a huge eye-opener for me," she says. "A lot of data that I knew in the back of my head but I never really conceptualized was true."

Book inspiration
She points out that Black women are 40% more likely than white women to die from breast cancer and are more likely to have advanced breast cancer. Many do not have access to mammography.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she saw Black patients' mistrust of the vaccine, a fear rooted in a long history of the medical field mistreating and exploiting Black people.

When she talked to Black children about what they wanted to be when they grew up, they'd say Beyoncé or Jay-Z. "Nobody ever said health care, right?" she says.

She knew she could serve as an example. One white patient brought her two Black adopted children to meet Oruwari. "She wanted them to see someone of color who was practicing medicine just so that they can see that this is a possibility," the doctor says.

All of these things, Oruwari says, sparked the idea for this book.

Different paths to medicine
Oruwari knew some of the Black female doctors profiled in the book. Others she contacted through social media. They filled out a questionnaire, or, if they preferred, Oruwari interviewed them. Each profile reads like a short essay.

The doctors' calls to medicine were different: Oruwari knew her career path since she was 3, when she sat in her grandfather's hut in Nigeria and watched him give natural remedies to people as a traditional medicine man.

Dr. Jade James-Halpert, an obstetrician and gynecologist at SSM Health DePaul Hospital, writes that her mother used a lot of home remedies growing up, and she interpreted that to mean there was a shortage of Black doctors. "I decided I wanted to become one so I could help communities of color with their health," she writes.

Many of the doctors are frank about struggles in medical school, or instructors not believing they should go into a certain field. Some have faced subtle or more overt discrimination from their peers, supervisors and patients. Some have struggled with their own mental health.

Women in general experience similar stresses, and they often think they are all alone, says Oruwari.

"We don't really talk to each other because everybody's trying to make it through," she says. "And there's this thing in medical training where you don't show any sign of weakness. So you don't complain, you don't talk to each other, everybody's doing just fantastic, right? So you don't realize until you start talking to each other that you all probably had the same struggle."

Beyond the white coats
Many of the women discuss their life outside of work, which includes time with family, mentoring and educating others through TikTok and other social media. Some of them have side businesses, such as providing financial consulting for women or marketing a line of fashion eyewear.

Many of the doctors write about the moment of recognition and joy when Black patients walk through an exam room door and are greeted by a doctor who looks like them. Studies show that this goes beyond simple recognition: Black doctors and patients listen to one another, resulting in better outcomes.

Writes Dr. Esther Ufot, who practices family medicine in Atlanta: "My proudest moment was a 90-year-old patient who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. saying to me, 'You are the first Black doctor I have ever seen in my 90 years, and I am glad I am alive to see this.'"

That recollection gave Oruwari chills.

Oruwari asked the doctors to submit two types of photos: a professional one, maybe wearing a white coat or scrubs, and another as simply women, maybe glammed up for a night out.

"I know what appeals to the kids is glamour," she says. "They don't want to talk about going to school for eight years."

Modeling possibilities
When Oruwari was in medical school, she was mentored by two female surgeons — even more of a rarity in those days — who specialized in breast cancer surgery. "Walking into the hospital and meeting these women who were surgeons was so inspiring to me, because, oh my gosh, they're women," she recalls. "And, I mean, they're doing this. I can certainly do this."

Oruwari knows she will retire someday and wants someone who looks like her to fill her shoes. As a Catholic, she is grateful SSM Health is on board with her mission and is helping her promote the book. She's given away copies to local schools and youth organizations.

"This book is not only for every little Black girl out there who has dreamt of wearing a white coat and a stethoscope," she writes in the book's introduction. "It is also for all the little Black girls that have not dreamt of it because they have never thought it a possibility."


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