Dr. Christie GoodenIn honor of Black History Month, Vice Chair of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Colin Martin, M.D., FACS, and General Surgery Resident Juliet Okoroh, M.D., sat down with Abdominal Transplant Surgeon Christie Gooden, M.D., MPH, who was the first African American female to graduate from the UAB General Surgery Residency Program in 2009.

Gooden is an adult and pediatric transplant surgeon at Medical City Dallas. She finished an American Society of Transplant Surgeons accredited fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where she was trained in liver, kidney and pancreas transplantation.

Why did you choose UAB for your residency training?

“When I came to medical school at Tulane, my plan was to be a heart surgeon. There, I got to first assist on pediatric heart cases and thought that was what I would end up doing. UAB’s heart program was very strong, and I thought that it was a good fit for me. There were a good number of women in the faculty as well as in the residency.   In my mind, that is a sign that a program is a little bit more progressive than programs that don’t have women.”

What challenges did you encounter as an African American female during your training? 

“You’re going to encounter ‘isms’ everywhere, whether it’s racism, sexism, both. Some of it comes from the patients and some of it from the people who trained me.  That being said, I didn’t realize that I was the first African American female to graduate from that program, until I was actually looking at the pictures of the graduates and realized that there was nobody who looked like me in those pictures. To say that I didn’t know  means that it wasn’t something that was made an issue. I just dealt with the standard things that come with training in the south.”

What are your thoughts on the emerging data that patient outcomes are improved if the care providers­­­ race, ethnicity, gender are more closely mirrored to the community that they serve? 

“I have seen how powerful it is for patients to see a physician that looks like them or have gone through things that are similar. There’s a trust that comes with that, and I know that I have had an impact, just by me being there and talking to patients who are in communities that look like me. Even with women, I have had women tell me that they are afraid to ask personal questions to a male physician, but they find it easier to ask me.

So, I definitely think it makes sense, because any time you’re talking about medicine, there’s a trust that has to be built between patient and physician. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of distrust against the medical community that comes from real atrocities.  As a physician of color, I acknowledge that and automatically work to offset that. 

What are ways that a program can increase the number of underrepresented in medicine, rather than specifically African American females?

 “I mentor a lot of residents and students as they make their surgery journey. I think number one, people have to realize that the pipeline doesn’t just start once they start surgery residency, you have to engage them from medical school, college and high school. You have to identify students who may be interested and really cultivate them. I’m known for bringing students to my OR as soon as they say they might want to consider surgery.

I think also that exposure to other women doing it is key. I have had so many women tell me, ‘Oh I don’t know if I can do surgery because I want to have a family,’ and I look right back at them and I say, ‘well, I’m married, and I have twins, and I’m a transplant surgeon. So, you can’t tell me it’s not possible.’ But until they can talk to somebody who has actually gone through it… I don’t think people realize how many times–in particular young women and young black women–are told ‘no.’ ‘No you can’t be a surgeon, and no you can’t have kids.’ And they hear ‘no’ all the time. They need to hear, ‘Oh, you’re interested? Let me show you.’

I do personal statement work, we go over interview questions, I really focus on the nuts and bolts of how do you make yourself a candidate because there’s a lot of strategy into getting into surgery residency that people don’t understand. So, I think that it has to be a concerted effort. I am happy to say that all of my mentees who have wanted to go into surgery are in surgery. I’m also currently developing people that want to go into transplant in particular, because I love my field.

I reach out and find any African American female that I can and say ‘Hey, I’m here, we exist’–just being that voice and somebody they can talk to, somebody they can be real with and ask real questions to. I have had women reach out to me to talk about their reproductive options, I don’t know that they would do that with a male attending.  How to manage being a wife and mother when you have a very demanding career, they can talk about that with me. So, I think that there has to be a real, true concerted effort and beyond just saying ‘Hello,’–an actual pipeline. Once you get identified, these are the things that will happen, this is how I will help you. It has to be intentional.”

How do you recognize the contributions of African American Women Leadership in Surgery as Clinicians, educators, colleagues and partners? I think up until this year it sort of escaped the history books, but I would be curious about your insight on how to make it a norm.

“I think a simple way to start is to invite them to present at Grand Rounds or to be guest lecturers in other settings. I think the more residents, from any background, see esteemed faculty from different backgrounds and learn from them it helps undo bias.”

As part of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, the UAB Department of Surgery, believes that a diverse community of faculty and learners is essential to fulfilling our mission and vision. Including individuals with diverse perspectives and experience enriches the educational experience for all learners, allows us to more effectively address health care inequities and improves the quality of our scholarship and clinical care.

Learn more about its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives here.