Nation’s First Black Female Transplant Surgeon Is Helping Shape Future Physicians

TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine celebrates Women’s History Month by honoring pioneering female physician Velma P. Scantlebury, M.D., FACS, professor of surgery at the Fort Worth medical school.

By Prescotte Stokes III

FORT WORTH – Every Women’s History Month since the late 1980s, Dr. Velma P. Scantlebury, M.D., FACS, has had a full calendar.

“I look at my schedule and I see all this demand to talk about things for Women’s History Month and Black History Month,” said Dr. Scantlebury,  professor of surgery at TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine. “But the bottom line is the education and the stuff that we need to focus on should be a continuum across the board.”

Dr. Scantlebury has dedicated her life and her work of 40 years as a kidney transplant surgeon to focus on educating and raising awareness for the health disparities people in the Black community face from kidney disease.

As the first African-American female transplant surgeon in America, Dr. Scantlebury’s story and passion to serve others resonates with so many people, according to Lisa McBride Ph.D., assistant dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the Fort Worth medical school.

“We are fortunate to have Dr. Scantlebury on our faculty because she brings a ‘lived experience’ that is unique,” Dr. McBride said.  “She shares that experience with our female medical students often. Her advice to herself was that she had to self-motivate herself to be the best. Her story resonates with all of our student male and female–particularly if they want to pursue a surgery residency.”

‘You’re Going to College’

The road to becoming the country’s first Black female transplant surgeon was paved with a lot of challenges for Dr. Scantlebury, who was born in 1955 in Goodland, St. Michaels Parish, Barbados.

Her introduction to medicine was how most children meet physicians through Family Medicine.

“Generally, you don’t go to big hospitals it’s private practice or a family doctor so that is what I wanted to be,” Scantlebury said. “I knew I wanted to be a physician from the time I was about 8 years-old.”

The rolling hills and subtropical weather in Barbados, was a stark contrast to the cold concrete jungle of New York City and the borough of Brooklyn where her family would move to in 1969 when she was 15-years-old.

Her parents believed that moving to New York City would give her a better shot at becoming a physician.

“I knew I wanted to take care of other people and also choosing a career where I could be my own boss was important to me,” Dr. Scantlebury said.

At Prospect Heights High School, an all-girls high school, in Brooklyn, she set out to do all the right things to get into college. She joined various clubs, took some pre-med courses and did all things that would look favorable on a college application for a future physician in training.

However, during her senior year in high school she ran into the first of many roadblocks on her journey into medicine.  A guidance counselor looked at her college materials and thought she would be better off doing something else.

“She told me that perhaps I should just get a day job and consider going to night school,” Dr. Scantlebury said. “She felt like I wasn’t going to be a person who would have an aspiring career in anything.”

That was her first encounter with someone offering her advice while also stereotyping her because of her race and gender, Dr. Scantlebury added.

“That was just her concept of this little Black girl from Brooklyn with a heavy accent and probably having weird clothes,” Dr. Scantlebury said. “Her name was Mrs. Blanchett. In my mind I can still picture her. She also didn’t give me any recommendations or guidance about going to college. But my parents said, ‘No way. You’re going to college.”

‘Where Should I Go?’

Undeterred by that conversation, she set out to apply for college on her own. She began by applying to a college close to home in downtown Brooklyn, Long Island University. She also applied to Barnard College, a self-sustaining entity under the Columbia University umbrella, in Manhattan.

She was accepted into Barnard College on a one-year scholarship, but she was offered a full scholarship at LIU. She chose LIU.

“Just making it out of Brooklyn was an aspiration,” Dr. Scantlebury said. “For me that was a hallelujah moment because I knew my parents were struggling to make ends meet. My main concern was not costing them any additional expense.”

While attending LIU, she held a part-time job to avoid being so reliant on her scholarship. Her path to becoming a physician seemed to be in clear sight.

“I made the dean’s list every semester and I was a biology major with a pre-med focus,” said Dr. Scantlebury.

With such high academic achievements in undergraduate education, she set her sights on medical school and aimed high. She applied to Mehary Medical College, Yale School of Medicine and Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S).

Although, Dr. Scantlebury was accepted into Mehary, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Nashville, Tennessee, the idea of moving so far away from home presented a challenge.

“Living in Brooklyn I didn’t see a way of how I would get to Mehary,” Dr. Scantlebury said. “My parents knew nothing about the South and I was thinking about how that would be a major undertaking.”

However, she was accepted into the medical programs at Yale and Columbia, which was only a few subway train rides away in Manhattan from her home in Brooklyn.

“I applied to Columbia as an afterthought because someone who attended my church was an alumnus,” Dr. Scantlebury said. “But I still didn’t think they would take someone like me.”

She took a moment to reflect back on the day she had her interview for the medical program at Columbia and it was much like something you would read in a book.

It was the late 1970s on a brutally cold day with gusting winds coming off the East River. She took an hourlong subway train ride from her Prospect Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn to Columbia’s medical school in Uptown Manhattan on 168th Street.

“I wrote this in my book that despite the wind coming off the East River I was all set,” Dr. Scantlebury said. “I think I used so much hairspray that day (on my hair) you could’ve probably cut yourself on it, it was so cold. But it was a great interview and I came out of there being positive and getting that letter of acceptance confirmed.”

But again, the stereotyping and disbelief in her ability to succeed would come from another educator, this time it was the Pre-med officer at her undergraduate university where she had excelled all four years.

“I went into the Dean’s office with my two acceptance letters from Yale and Columbia and I asked where should I go?” Dr. Scantlebury said. “The reaction was, ‘What? You got into Columbia? How come Jane didn’t get in,’ Well Jane was the White student obviously.”

In 2018 at the end of her career as a practicing physician, she penned a book titled, “Beyond Every Wall: Becoming the 1st Black Female Transplant Surgeon.”

“To let people know that there is still the concept of being a Black person and that there is no way you got into these prestigious places on your own merit,” Dr. Scantlebury said.

Struggles During Medical School

Getting into Columbia’s medical program would only be the first hurdle in a long line of obstacles she would have to overcome to realize her dream of becoming a physician. During her time at Columbia, there wasn’t much support for students of color, according to Dr. Scantlebury.

“The bottom line was certainly there was no support once you were in there. It was almost as if they expected you to fail,” Dr. Scantlebury said. “For me, as the only person of color who wanted to be a surgeon, I was constantly met with comments like you don’t have what it takes.”

Academically, she excelled at Columbia and she began to focus on the type of surgeon she wanted to become despite her critics.

The first surgeon she worked with was Dr. Barbara Barlow, who was the chief of pediatric surgery at Harlem Hospital from 1975-1999. She mentored Dr. Scantlebury during her hospital rotations during medical school.

“I wanted to be just like her I loved the way she operated and the way she took care of patients,” Dr. Scantlebury said. “She was responsible for having New York City put guardrails on windows to keep kids from falling out because of the high trauma rate. My goal in life was to become a pediatric surgeon and come back and take her job at Harlem Hospital.”

Another opportunity developed during that time. She met another male medical resident who was working on animal research. The male resident needed an assistant to help with performing kidney transplants in dogs.

“I happened to be in the right place at the right time.” Dr. Scantlebury said. “I took six months and did that research.”

When the highly acclaimed Match Day came, which is when the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP), or The Match, lets U.S. medical students know if they matched with a U.S. residency program, or graduate medical education program, Dr. Scantlebury was left out in the cold.

Match Day is important because completing a postgraduate residency program that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) is one of the requirements for obtaining a medical license to be able to practice medicine.

At the time, Dr. Scantlebury did not receive a letter of recommendation to apply for a residency as a surgeon from her medical school.

“Without that medical school recommendation, I did not match,” said Dr. Scantlebury. “Without that, no one was going to take a chance on me despite having excellent grades in surgery. I struggled.”

Becoming a Transplant Surgeon

Her excellent grades in surgery during her medical school rotations at Harlem Hospital were enough to help her obtain a one-year provisional residency at Harlem Hospital, with help from Dr. Barlow. With Dr. Barlow’s guidance, she was able to turn that provisional residency into a full residency in general surgery and completed her additional four-year training at Harlem Hospital as a medical resident.

“I saw it as an opportunity to prove myself,” Dr. Scantlebury said.

Under Dr. Barlow’s continued guidance, she was pushed to pursue a fellowship in pediatric research to give herself a competitive edge in becoming a pediatric surgeon. But once she began applying to pediatric surgeon training programs, she quickly realized that fellowship alone wouldn’t be enough to give her an edge.

“I was the only Black in the room,” said Dr. Scantlebury. “Most of the White men were applying for the second and third time and there were only 12 spots in the whole country for pediatric surgeon training.”

When she interviewed at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Surgery and Transplant, she was told that her resume was not competitive enough to secure a job as a transplant surgeon. However, that interview led to her being introduced to Dr. Thomas Starzl, the pioneer of liver transplantation at Pitt.

Dr. Starzl persuaded her to complete another two-year fellowship program in transplant surgery to become a pediatric transplant surgeon. She went on to complete a clinical fellowship at the Pitt’s Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute.

“That opened the door for me to do transplant research. But when I got there Pittsburgh was doing a phenomenal number of transplants because of new drugs,” said Dr. Scantlebury. “One hundred livers a year and 400 kidneys a year. There wasn’t enough room to be in the lab. We were U.S. certified and had a license to practice surgery and we ended up taking care of the patients.”

Through that fellowship she was able to travel across the country performing liver and kidney transplant surgeries. From that point she decided that she wanted to be a transplant surgeon specializing in pediatric surgery.

“General surgeons did transplants but Pediatric surgeons didn’t do transplants so it made me interesting,” Dr. Scantlebury said.

Dr. Scantlebury remained at Pitt as a transplant surgeon from 1988-2002. In 1989, she received her Doctor of Surgery, becoming the first African-American female surgeon, she received the “Gift of Life Award” from the National Kidney Foundation and was appointed an assistant professor at Pitt School of Medicine. In 1996, she was given the Carlow University Woman of Spirit Award for being an inspiration to young women.

At Pitt, she continued to rise through the ranks becoming an associate professor, but even with all her success she still encountered racial obstacles.

“When you think about Pittsburgh, it’s still very rural and midwestern as opposed to eastern,” said Dr. Scantlebury. “Many of the folks there were like, ‘You can’t be my surgeon,’ and that sort of thing. The struggles were real.”

A Top Doctor in America

By 2002, things began to change at Pitt when she noticed her colleagues moving up into higher ranking leadership roles. She began to explore other opportunities, primarily in the South.

She considered taking a leadership role in New Orleans, but was more intrigued by the University of South Alabama (USA) that also had a transplant program. She was recruited by USA to become a surgical professor and director of USA’s Gulf Coast Regional Transplant Centre.

“They had a Black physician leading the program who had been murdered and then a White physician who had moved so the program was in limbo,” said Dr. Scantlebury. “That was an opportunity for me to relaunch that program.”

Dr. Scantlebury would spend the next six years of her career at USA as the only transplant surgeon on their staff. There was a level of harsh and open racism in South Alabama that she faced during that time, according to Dr. Scantlebury.

“People in the South were openly racist and they made no ifs, ands or buts about it from that standpoint,” Dr. Scantlebury said.

But, with support and word of mouth from the local Black community, she was still able to make a difference and save lives.

In 2003, she was named as one of the “Best Doctors in America” and later that year was inducted into the United Negro College Fund’s Achievers Hall of Fame. She also received praise for her work from the Caribbean American Medical and Scientific Association when she was given the Order of Barbados Gold Crown of Merit.

She was listed as one of the “Top Doctors in America” twice more in 2004 and 2006. Later in 2006, she began doing more work that she felt was important, which was educating Black communities about their risks for kidney disease and breaking down the myths about transplants.

She also worked with other transplant surgeons across the country and helped form the Coalition on Donation and the National Minority Organ and Tissue Education Program called Linkages to Life.

“You have to know your history and what your risks are because often times things are perpetuated through a family but not necessarily genetically,” Dr. Scantlebury said. “You have to talk about it and know your numbers, know your cholesterol and understand your risk factors. Understand what put you in that position and what needs to be done about it.”

By 2008, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) changed the rules of having one surgeon being able to remove a kidney from a living donor and put it into the recipient. This meant USA would have to hire another transplant surgeon to assist Dr. Scantlebury to continue their program.

“I was a single surgeon so I couldn’t do both. I had to bring someone from University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital (UAB), which was four hours away from Mobile in Birmingham,” Dr. Scantlebury said.

USA eventually dissolved their transplant program.

Paving the Way for Future Physicians

In 2008, she moved on to Delaware where she became the director of the kidney transplant program at Christiana Care Health System.  She remained there until she ended her career as a transplant surgeon in October 2020.

Now, when she’s not traveling the country giving lectures or helping with a medical mission in her homeland of Barbados, you can find Dr. Scantlebury in Fort Worth working to build the next generation of physicians and Empathetic Scholars at the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine.

Her presence is impactful beyond measure, according to Dr. McBride.

“The fact that our students are being taught by the first African-American female Transplant Surgeon does not go unnoticed by our medical students or Dean Stuart Flynn,” said Dr. McBride. “She is soft-spoken, but is powerful, knowledgeable and most importantly serves as a mentor and role model for our medical students. “  

Dr. Scantlebury doesn’t take the Fort Worth medical school’s mission lightly or her role in helping shape the medical training of future physicians.

“We have a lot of things to be grateful for when it comes to those who have paved the way before us,” Dr. Scantlebury said. “But when I think about the social inequities we have to realize that there are opportunities out there and that we all have potential. We all need to have that potential fostered and developed and recognized and given an opportunity to excel.”