On any given day at the 1.3-million-square-foot, state-of-the-art Christiana Hospital in the US state of Delaware, you may spot a quiet but phenomenal doctor with remarkably tiny hands.
Those hands have been at the heart of more than 2,000 miracles for kidney patients who needed a new lease on life.
But if Barbadian Dr Velma Scantlebury was not bold enough to turn the medical profession in the United States upside down, she would have abandoned her dream after detractors told her she had no business in the medical profession because her hands were too small and she was the wrong colour.
The stubborn Dr Scantlebury, who was taken from the Alleyne Secondary School in the land of her birth kicking and screaming to the Big Apple when she was 14 years old, somehow determined she would take on the big change.
“Failure was not an option for me . . . . People often ask ‘so what was your option if you didn’t make it?’ Well, I didn’t have a second choice; I didn’t have a plan B.”
More than four decades later, mission accomplished. But the humble doctor who is currently the Associate Director of the Kidney Transplant Programme at the Christiana Hospital quickly downplays the fact that she is the first ever African American female transplant surgeon, received the 2003 honour of the Best Doctor in America and was named one of the Top Doctors in America in 2004 and 2006 – and that’s not even all.
“It was not about scoring firsts, no. My goal going into medicine was to be able to help people,” she says.
It was personal tragedy that inspired her desire to become a doctor from as young as eight years old.
She lost a beloved sister and was dismayed by the fact that she was powerless to help, so she silently declared she would become a doctor.
Still, it wasn’t until she had to pen an essay about her future career that her wish to save lives emerged.
“It seems that being able to put it on paper solidified it,” she reflects.
Her ambitious parents were determined to see their child’s dreams fulfilled and they headed to the “Land of Opportunity”.
However, it was a rude awakening for the smart teenager who had to confront and overcome racism in high school.
“The transition was difficult because we moved to Brooklyn. Being a West Indian in Brooklyn was not pleasant . . . . There was a lot of teasing and ridicule from being from the islands at that time,” she recalled.
The young Scantlebury pressed on to win a four-year scholarship to the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University and then graduated with honours.
The way was clear for the would-be-doctor to move closer to her career, and she did, gaining a place at the prestigious Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, at the prodding of a fellow Barbadian.
“I was astonished when I got the interview and that was history for me,” she said.
It was there that Dr Scantlebury realized that being a surgeon was her calling.
“Dissecting the body in anatomy class opened my eyes to see this is my passion.”
Her excitement and curiosity to discover the world of medicine was put to the test as her work level mounted and detractors tested her mettle.
“I was told that I only got in because they needed a token black. But that was fine; it got me where I wanted to go. I was told that I didn’t have what it took to become surgeon, I was too small, and I was discouraged when my preceptor refused to write a letter of recommendation for me to be a surgeon,” she said.
Not immune to the pressures, Dr Scantlebury thought it was time to give up and return home. But her parents had other ideas.
“I went home and said I was not going back and my parents would say ‘yes you are, or leave. You have to go back’.”
So she dug in her heels and went on to land her first job at Harlem Hospital in New York where she worked as an intern and resident in general surgery, leaning on the support of her mentor, Director of Pediatic Surgery Dr Barbara Barlow. And life improved.
“Once I got to Harlem Hospital and realized that most of the residents were black, it wasn’t as much of a hardship because we all were in the same boat struggling to achieve the same thing and it was a better learning experience,” she said.
It was there Dr Scantlebury performed her first surgery and there was no turning back for the young doctor.
“I was on the floor and this lady walked up. She had just had a baby and she said ‘I need to see someone because my doctor said I have gall stones. I need to have my gall bladder out’, and I said ‘ok, I am right on it’.”
After a jovial fight with her colleagues about who would get the job, Dr Scantlebury won.
“I said, ‘I saw her first, it’s mine’, but someone said ‘you don’t know how to take a catheter out’, and I said, ‘but I will by the time I get there’. So my senior resident took me to the cadaver lab and we practised taking out a gall bladder,” she recalled.
“I got teased when I went into the OR [operating room] and it was a frightful experience but I was able to do it. That was a boost to my self-esteem as an intern. I can still see that lady standing at the desk to this day.”
With her first surgery under her belt, the young doctor decided she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her mentor and become a pediatric surgeon.
During her residency, she spent six months involved in research on kidney transplants in animals and this shifted her love from pediatric surgery to transplantation.
The indomitable Dr Scantlebury was subsequently awarded a research fellowship at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine where she worked closely with prominent doctor Dr Thomas Starlz.
“So I did everything in the abdomen – liver transplantation, kidney transplantation, pancreas transplantation, so I was a multi-organ transplant surgeon.”
She subsequently concentrated on kidney transplants and is regarded as a pioneer in the field.
The devout Christian shares: “I think God gives us a mission and we have to make the best of it. You want to be the best with what you have.”
This International Women’s Day, this giant of a woman is advising ladies everywhere to take the risk and be bold for change.
“Be willing to step outside the box. There are always going to be fears in being adventurous. I thank my parents for being able to go just beyond the norm, and I think women and young people have to envision themselves beyond what they think they can do.”