During the month of March, which is Women’s History Month, #DawsonWritesAmerica will be placing a spotlight on WOMEN MAKING HISTORY, a series acknowledging the very best of us.
Dr. Madeline Young Sutton knew from an early age that she wanted to be a doctor. There were several contributing factors that helped her reach that decision, but two that really stood out. One was so random she laughs when recounting the story. Her mother took her to a pediatrician that had the same name as her father. That coincidence made her smile and think that any man with the same name as her dad was a good person to be like.
The other factor served as a blueprint for the kind of help Sutton would give future patients.
She was in the eighth grade and had to be rushed to New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for an emergency appendectomy. While in recovery, a surgical resident doing follow up came to her room holding a plastic cup. In it was her appendix. “That was special to me,” she recalls. “I like the fact that he took the extra time and I decided that if I did become a physician I wanted to make sure that I did those extra little things, taking time with patients and and really make the patient feel good about whatever process they were going through.”
Currently, as a Physician Partner at DeKalb OB/GYN Affiliates, which is a private practice, and as Assistant Professor and OB/GYN at the Morehouse School of Medicine, Dr. Sutton is applying that same attention to detail when caring for her patients and students alike. Choosing OB/GYN as her field of study has allowed the Harlem native to do a little bit of everything, including primary care, taking care of pregnant women as well as non-pregnant women, and also performing surgery.
“Being a physician is about one-on-one relationships,” Dr. Sutton stated. “It’s understanding patients and delivering care and support.” When it comes to obstetrics, she encourages pregnant women to create a bond with their doctor as early as possible. “Many times a woman doesn’t know she’s pregnant until the first trimester has gone by. So I think the most important thing is to identify a doctor early. If they’re going to maintain the pregnancy, find a provider who they feel are a good match, and whose bedside manner they appreciate.”
Dr. Sutton also recently stepped down as a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service branch of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Her main research areas at were in the areas of racial/ethnic disparities in HIV, STIs, mentoring the historically underrepresented, minority scientists, and addressing women’s health issues and adolescent sex health issues. “The CDC is all about public health. Community health,” says Dr. Sutton about the organization. “So I think when you step back and have an understanding of what’s going on at the community level and at the public health level, it makes me a better physician. I’ll be better able to understand if that patient will be able to access some of the things that she needs to stay healthy.”
HOW ARE YOU MAKING HISTORY?
“MY FAVORITE PASTOR USED TO HAVE THIS SAYING… ‘IF YOU ARE FOR AND FROM THE COMMUNITY, THEN AS YOU GO UP, THE WHOLE COMMUNITY GOES UP’. [F]OR ME PERSONALLY IT RESONATED BECAUSE EVERYTHING I DO, WHETHER IT’S SEEING PATIENTS OR WRITING AN ARTICLE OR MENTORING YOUNG SCIENTISTS, I ALWAYS LOOK AT IT AS, ‘HOW AM I ELEVATING THOSE COMING AFTER ME?’ AND WHEN YOU’RE A PERSON OF COLOR, YOU’RE SOMETIMES MAKING HISTORY JUST BY BEING THE ONE IN THE ROOM OR IN THE BUILDING. [S]O I HOPE I’M MAKING HISTORY BY LEAVING A LEGACY OF FUTURE CLINICIANS AND FUTURE SCIENTISTS AND FUTURE RESEARCHERS WHO ARE GOING TO DO THIS WORK AND GET US TO A PLACE WHERE WE DON’T HAVE TO WORRY TOO MUCH ABOUT HEALTH EQUITY BECAUSE EVERYONE WILL HAVE ACCESS TO CARE AND GET CARE THE SAME WAY.”
In November 2015, she led the development and editing of a book by APHA (American Public Health Association) Press entitled “Our Communities, Our Sexual Health.” The book focuses on a better understanding of the social contexts of and suggested solutions for the disproportionate rates of HIV and other STIs in some Black American communities.
In addition to those accomplishments, Dr. Sutton believes being a mentor to the next generation of scientists and doctors was her biggest impact during her career at CDC, serving as a sounding board for more than 100 colleagues over the years. “I am a scientist and a physician, but I think it’s important to help train the next generation so they can step in and take over whenever our time is done. So whether it was young folks who had just gotten their Ph.Ds, or other physicians, or students who were rotating through, it was important for me to work with them either analyzing data, publishing, or just speaking with them about their career trajectories.”
Even with all of those titles, Dr. Sutton is still doing more. She’s still seeing patients, publishing papers, and also doing more consulting for women, making them aware of different government grants that may be available for them. So I train them for grant writing so that they can apply for some of those funds and do so successfully so that they can implement changes that they feel will benefit their communities.” She is also looking into starting a non-profit that will help young women and men in terms of teen sexual health, “letting them know that there are ways to be sexually healthy while embracing the parts of sex that feel good,” also placing them on a path so that when they decide to have children of their own they are in a place where they make great decisions.
When asked how she is making history, Dr. Sutton paused before answering. “My favorite pastor used to have this saying that always stuck with me,” she started. “He said ‘If you are for and from the community, then as you go up, the whole community goes up’. That was profound to me because it not only suggested that the folks in my community, whatever they were doing they were elevated us all, but for me personally it resonated because everything I do, whether it’s seeing patients or writing an article or mentoring young scientists, I always look at it as, ‘how am I elevating those coming after me?’ And when you’re a person of color, you’re sometimes making history just by being the one in the room or in the building. That was the case, unfortunately, in many parts of CDC, being a Black female who was studying a particular subject in a certain way, or being a Black female OB/GYN who was doing certain public health work, so I hope I’m making history by leaving a legacy of future clinicians and future scientists and future researchers who are going to do this work and get us to a place where we don’t have to worry too much about health equity because everyone will have access to care and get care the same way.”