Stanbridge University President Yasith Weerasuriya sat down with former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders and talked about overcoming adversity, her career trajectory, and her advice for the future healthcare leaders of America.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders served the country as the U.S. Surgeon General with President Bill Clinton, and she spent her whole professional life working toward being the best in her field. Dr. Elders was the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, she was also a vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the first African American appointed as Surgeon General of the United States. She has been an outspoken advocate of public health her entire career and in 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her Surgeon General. She has spent her entire life fighting for her right to contribute to this world in a meaningful way. In 1987, then-Governor Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Elders as Director of the Arkansas Department of Health, making her the first African American woman in the state to hold this position. Dr. Elders left the Surgeon General office in 1994, and in 1995 she returned to the University of Arkansas as a faculty researcher and professor of pediatric endocrinology at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Her work with nurses and physical therapists made her an excellent expert to speak to Stanbridge graduates as the Keynote Speaker for the 2017 Stanbridge University Commencement on July 22, 2017. In 1996, she wrote her autobiography, Joycelyn Elders, M.D.: From Sharecropper’s Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America.
At the 2017 Stanbridge Commencement, Dr. Elders spoke about the hard work and dedication that is required to rise to the top of her field, and the trials and tribulations that she had to overcome to reach her goals. She inspired the graduates with her own stories of overcoming insurmountable hardships to complete her educational and professional goals, and called upon the graduates to continue pushing forward toward careers in care, courage, dedication, and humility that is so desperately needed in this time, to better our future.
Stanbridge University President Yasith Weerasuriya was able to sit down with Dr. Elders for an in-depth interview about the current status of the healthcare industry, her incredible journey to where she is today, and her hopes and dreams for the future healthcare leaders of America.
Mr. Weerasuriya: You have had a distinguished career in healthcare. You started off training as a physical therapist, went on to medical school and then continued to get additional degrees in health sciences before being appointed by President Clinton to the top office of the State of Arkansas. You were actually the first pediatric endocrinologist in the state. If you were to go back in time and take a look at one singular instance that was the genesis of this whole series of professional accomplishments in healthcare, what would you say motivated you to become a doctor?
Dr. Elders: To pick a single incidence is very difficult. One of the things you have to know is I worked in rural Arkansas before we even had water, electricity, or indoor facilities, so we did not have a radio or TV, and to say that I wanted to be a physician would be incorrect. The first time I saw a doctor was when I started college, and you can’t be what you can’t see.
I did not know that black people could be doctors, and the concept of being a doctor just did not enter my brain. When I was a freshman at the Philander Smith College the first black person to attend the University of Arkansas School of Medicine happened to be a black woman, and she came to our college and talked about the difference between the high roads and the low.
From that moment on, I never wanted to be anything else, but be a doctor to make a difference. One of the reasons why I so much wanted to be a doctor is because my brother Devy had appendicitis and the nearest doctor was 13 miles away. That’s not a long distance, but when you had no transportation except the back of a mule, not even a wagon is a very long way. My dad picks up a gurney, putting my brother on the back of a mule, took him over 13 miles to see the nearest doctor who felt that he had a ruptured appendix. He could not admit him to the local hospital because they didn’t allow black people to be admitted to the hospital.
That was very distressing to me, but he put in a drainage and sent my brother home. My brother got well, and he became a veterinarian. I am very proud of that, but it was the lecture by Dr. Jones that made me realize that I, as a black woman could become a doctor, and could make a difference. But the idea of how I could ever get there really didn’t enter my mind then, and of course, it was only later on when I realized that if I went into the army and that I could use the G.I. Bill to go to medical school.
At that time, I was going to join the army as just a privatend when I went there and I was 18 years old, and they realized that I finished college, they said they would put me in the Women’s Medical Specialist Corp., made up of physical therapists and occupational therapists. They even had a separate nursing corp. and speech therapist. So I said, I would like to become a physical therapist. There were 14 of us who went to Brooklyn Medical School to learn physical therapy, but the army was one of the few places that you would get physical therapy at that time, so it was just wonderful.
Mr. Weerasuriya: One of the enduring traits of top healthcare professionals is the mastery of skill, but another one of importance is kindness and compassion. What would your advice be to tomorrow’s healthcare professionals?
Dr. Elders: I think the important thing to remember in this sick-care system—we do not have a healthcare system, we have a sick-care system—is to always treat every patient with respect and kindness. When you are not feeling well, you as a patient may be aggravated, but you still deserve kindness. The patient might not be feeling the best when they come in, and they may not be proud of their behaviour, but I always try to make sure that I am as kind as I can be to every patient, even when they may not be as kind to me. They simply do not feel well—it is not a personal attack if they are unkind to you.
The sick-care industry is changing. We have some of the best doctors, best nurses, best hospitals in the world. We spend the most money anywhere in the world for this, but we do not have the best health, as a country. It is your responsibility to help design a better system that will give everybody the best possible healthcare, best possible health that they can, regardless of where they are, who they are, or where they live.
Mr. Weerasuriya: Over the course of the past decades, if you look at the lessons that you learned in leadership and wanted to impart some knowledge to those that may be graduating today or waiting to graduate in the coming months, what would it be?
Dr. Elders: First I think about what I call the Five Cs, if you will, of leadership, of a good leader. First it is to have clarity of vision; be clear about your goals if you want to be a leader. So you have to learn to lead. You aren’t born a leader. You have to learn to lead, and the first thing you have to do is to listen to patients so you can learn, then you can lead. The second C is you have to be competent, you can’t be a good leader if you are not competent to do the job. You may have all the desires in the world, but if you are not competent, you can’t get the job done.
You have to be consistent; you got to go in and do it the right way every time, and you have to be committed. If you are not committed, you can’t get the job done, and if you commit to it, you have to give it your time, and your talent. And, of course, you can’t be a true leader unless you have control.
That’s clarity of vision, competency to do the job, consistency in getting it done, commitment to getting the job done right, and you’ve got to have control.
Mr. Yasith Weerasuriya: What do you think about the innovations in educational technology including virtual reality that we have implemented and its impact is on our students’ as future practitioners of healthcare?
Dr. Joycelyn Elders: I think the innovation that you have will make a real difference in the student’s ability to obtain the information and then be able to retain it, record it and know it. So when they go in and begin to see patients, they can really appreciate the fact of where the aorta and where certain veins are and what it means and where they come from. When they complain of backache, they can appreciate what is causing the backache; I was very impressed, there is so much more knowledge out there today, students need to retain a lot more, but I think these new innovative methods help them to obtain and retain so much more information.