Medical trailblazer: African-American Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom

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For many, Black History Month means finding out about famous celebrities, politicians or inventors. 

But some of the people making the biggest difference are the professionals we see every day - including doctors. This week we are profiling three of them who work in an area of American life where big disparities still exist. 

Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom has a unique role at Henry Ford Health System as the chief diversity officer. She developed a passion for people in need very early in life.

"One day I came back to my dorm room from the camp and my clothes were dumped out onto the ground," said Wisdom. "I was appalled. I was incensed. I walked around to see what was going on." She then found out all the people of color had their clothes thrown on the floor.

Then teenaged Kimberlydawn knew that it was injustice, it was wrong. Why would someone think she had drugs hidden away at a YWCA camp just because she was a young black girl?

"I was 14, I'm a good kid," she said. "I come from a very good family, Mystic Connecticut, how dare you?"

So she organized and showed up with a group outside the organization's New York headquarters during a board meeting to protest. And somehow she found herself in front of some powerful women.

FOX 2: "So your leadership started very early?"

"It did," she said. "It was one of those things where at the time I didn't see it as leadership. Here I wanted to protect the vulnerable - and then I was one of the vulnerable."

That began a lifelong commitment to taking care of people in need - from the ER where the difference between life or death could be an emergency room physician much like herself.

"I am going to give you the best care possible," she said. "Everybody in that emergency department was just ... it was exhilarating because I felt like I could just begin to undo some injustices that people experience, and treat them with dignity. Give them hope. Then it would get to the point where people would come to the emergency department and ask for you by name - but then that's a problem."

FOX 2: "There are people who have felt often disenfranchised and not empowered and then seeing a black face, in and of itself, in that position of power, is empowering to them."

"Exactly," she said. 

FOX 2: "But then you may have people who come in and say 'Wait, I have a black female doctor, what's this?' Did you experience that as well?"

"Over and over again," Dr. Wisdom said. "I would say almost on a daily basis someone was questioning, trying to be in a polite way, your credentials, at times your age. When I look back at the pictures I think I would ask some questions myself, like, 'Did you finish medical school?'"

Wisdom completed residency in 1985. That was 21 years after the landmark Civil Rights Act. Years before that, things were changing - but not that quickly. 

"My guidance counselor when I said I wanted to become a doctor, said there was no such thing as a woman physician, there was no such thing as a negro or colored physician. My guidance counselor in high school. This was about 1973. I graduated in 1974 out of Fitch in Groton, Connecticut." 

FOX 2: "What would you tell her now?"

"I would say, 'Guess what.'"

Dr. Wisdom could say guess what, I'm now the senior vice president of Community Health and Equity at Henry Ford Health and was the first ever state-level surgeon general. It is a post she served in under Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

"We really began to put a face on public health which was significant," Wisdom said. "And I felt like being the first in that post, I wanted to be an example, a model for other states."

Wisdom is also Henry Ford Health Systems chief diversity officer.

"When I talk about diversity, I mean racial and ethnic of course," she said. "But also even the LGBTQ community. If you're a person of color and part of the LGBTQ community, you're even challenged even more.

"Diversity is broad. Of course we know that the racial and ethnic part overlays any other diversity category. And intersectionality makes it kind of traumatic if you are represented in more than one of those vulnerable communities."

Research suggests diversifying medicine where only about 4 percent of doctors are African-American - can be helpful in creating more equitable outcomes. In plain terms it means if you get sick with certain ailments and if you're black, you shouldn't be more likely to die. 

FOX 2: "There are clear disparities between minority groups and their white counterparts. What's creating the inequities? What have you been doing to ameliorate them?"

"Certain inequities have been created a long time ago," Wisdom said. "If we truly want the most favorable outcomes for the communities we serve, we need to ensure that we have employees. We need to ensure that we have doctors and board members that represent the community."

If you feel connected to a community, if you feel it's your community - helping the most vulnerable in it - is only natural. 

That is why Wisdom started the women Inspired Neighborhood network - addressing this fact: black babies in Detroit die at twice the rate of other babies in Michigan. The program helps women make it through pregnancy with a healthy child. 

"We have seen phenomenal outcomes," Wisdom said. "We delivered over 500 babies, 0 preventable deaths. We are defying the literature to say this can't be done.

And that's why diversity - racial and ethnic diversity is so key, but also why diversity of thought is so key… you have to think outside the box."